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Building Empathy at Work

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

A woman in a white shirt gently placing her hand on another woman's shoulder as they discuss something difficult

Empathy is one of the most important soft skills that leaders can cultivate at work. By having empathy, you can build off of its foundation to grow a number of other emotional intelligence skills to create an effective and healthy workplace.

Many have different definitions of what empathy truly is. Most think it’s being able to see a situation from another’s perspective and put yourself in their shoes. Empathy is defined by the Institute for Social and Emotional Intelligence as “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.”

It is only a true expression of empathy if a greater connection exists. When we’re ready to be present to someone’s pain, we are making a commitment of our attention and expressing a desire to create a connection.

“Empathy is a tool of compassion. We can respond empathetically only if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain. If we’re not willing to do that, it’s not real empathy.” ~ Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart

That connection can’t exist if we are unable to remove our own story from the equation. Keeping space for the connection to be created requires that safety is established. Within a safe place, a person can fully express how they are feeling.

To be safe, this space must also be judgment free. The person listening must believe what is being shared, even if it doesn’t align with their own experiences. All our life experiences impact how we see the situation a colleague is working through.

To begin to understand another’s pain, we must acknowledge that listening is the key to empathy. You must quiet your mind, still any inner voice and thoughts, and listen deeply for more than just the other person’s words.

What are you listening for?

You are seeking cues that will help you to identify how they feel, both from their words spoken and unspoken. Removing all distractions and focusing solely on the other person, can you name how they are feeling?

What are they telling you? What does their body language say? What words are they using?

Use the downloadable guide below to see if you can identify what you have heard. Once we can name the feeling or emotion another is experiencing, we will be more effective in our efforts to truly empathize.

What are we listening for
Download PDF • 170KB

After understanding what you’re listening for and having familiarized yourself with possible cues, you are ready to practice empathy.

Who do we practice empathy with?

We naturally know when empathy is needed with those that we are closest to like family and friends. It's also where we are probably more willing to practice empathy. We have more shared experiences that can provide a space where connection is more easily created and where we typically struggle less with judgment of another’s situation based on our own experiences and background. There may be judgment we must recognize and prevent, but not judgment that is rooted deeply and attached to different experiences.

It’s less natural to effectively practice empathy based on connection with our direct reports, peers and clients. As mentioned before, it's hard to practice empathy when we have less shared experiences together and will require us to be more intentional in our efforts to refrain from judgement. It also requires more effort in forging a connection and understanding.

At work, people are in general less open and potentially unwilling to be vulnerable and courageous in the sharing of their pain. If you are in a leadership role, you can help provide that safe environment. Communicating that the information shared will not negatively impact their career prospects or aspirations is very important for creating a place of safety and confidentiality.

When do we need to be empathetic?

We need to practice empathy anytime a situation occurs that is out of the norm. Many times it’s also a situation that is out of the control of another. In these types of situations, emotions are running high. A safe place is required so that a person can process their emotions.

As I reflect on my personal journey, I’ve identified some areas where I know I needed to be empathetic and when I also needed to be more conscious of my own experiences and the limits those experiences may have had on my ability to truly empathize.

As a female in a senior leadership role without children, I did not personally know the challenge of a sick child that prevented a person from working or a situation that required a person to leave work early to take care of their child.

As a leader, my experiences in my path to that role were different than those with other backgrounds or life experiences. My peers were primarily male and the members of my team were diverse in culture, ethnicity, and had worked in many different organizations prior to their current role.

With both my peers and direct reports, if I had relied on my own experiences to determine if what was shared was real, I would have been unable understand or create the level of connection needed to appropriately empathize.

When you look around your office, what differences do you see or are aware of that could possibly impact your ability to properly empathize?

Acknowledging what those differences are and becoming more conscious of them can help you in your efforts to practice empathy at work. A step toward creating a greater connection is to become curious and asking questions for deeper understanding of another’s situation, then listen up after you have created the safety required.

Now more than ever, we do need to recognize our differences and acknowledge when another may be in pain. In our place of work, we must be more conscious of how our own personal experiences may negatively impact our ability to create connection and provide the safe and judgment free zone required to effectively practice empathy.

What are your thoughts about practicing empathy? What were the conditions that allowed you to be willing to share and be vulnerable as you were in pain? What’s needed in your workplace to create the safe environment required for all team members to receive and practice empathy?

We welcome your comments below!

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