7 Tips to create workplace empathy

EQ in Action by Avril Kidd, Empathy in the Work Place
Written by: Avril Kidd
Empathy is an important part of our human condition, at home and at work. The more you understand another person's emotions, the better you can respond to them.

I would like to dedicate this article to a friend, a colleague and the person who introduced me to the concept of Emotional Intelligence many years ago, Keith Cunningham, who sadly passed away this month leaving behind his wife Liz (one of my mentors) and his daughter Jade. Keith was a dynamic man who I first met in the 90s.

Keith developed the Driving Change EQ program which I shared in a previous article. If you have attended any of my workshops, you may recall me referring to the ‘slob nag’ example or ‘holding the gap’. These were 2 of the learnings that I took from Keith and Liz’s EQ sessions that were life changing for me. RIP Keith, knowing that you left a strong and powerful legacy, which I know your family, myself and many of the people who’s lives you touched will continue.  Forever grateful for having known you.

Understanding empathy

As we go through tough times, experience loss, struggle with stress, burnout, or battle to find happiness, especially in the workplace, the anecdote that we need could be Empathy. Empathy is an important part of our human condition, at home and at work. The more you understand another person’s emotions, the better you can respond to them. Empathy is a powerful EQ Leadership competency.

Empathy in the workplace

Empathy is a non-judgmental openness to others where we connect and understand our employees so that they feel understood, safe and respected. It is appreciating a person’s point of view and engaging in a healthy debate that builds to reaching a better solution. It is considering other people’s perspectives and taking ownership for the impact you have on them – as per one of my favorite quotes “people may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

People sometimes feel that they don’t have ‘time’ for empathy in the workplace, and yet Empathy in the workplace has some significant constructive outcomes. These are some the positive impacts as documented in the Catalyst Study:

  • Greater innovation
  • Higher engagement
  • Increased staff retention
  • More inclusivity
  • Improved work-life balance
  • Greater cooperation

Leaders don’t have to be experts in mental health to demonstrate they care and are paying attention. They can check in, ask questions and take cues from employees about how much they want to share. Leaders can also be educated about the available resources and support for mental health so they can provide information for additional help.

 

7 Tips to become empathetic in the workplace

1. Perspective Taking.

You can approach challenges from a different perspective by imagining the problem or situation from your team member’s perspective. Ask yourself, ‘If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking?’ This is Cognitive Empathy. This way you will be able to understand their suggestion/objection and point of view. Even if you reach a different conclusion from them, you will still have a better understanding of their thought process, which will be beneficial for future discussions.

2. Seek to understand.

Ask questions to understand which experiences have led to a particular conclusion. Consider the potential underlying factors that caused the person to feel the way they feel. If you don’t understand the situation, keep asking questions until you do. Empathy comes with a deeper understanding of what has happened. Using emotional empathy ask yourself, ‘If I were in their position, what would that make me  feel?’

3. Validate how the other person is feeling.

In your interactions, repeat the concerns of the person you’re dealing with so they know you understand.  Acknowledge their feelings and let them know that this is an understandable way to feel: “I can understand why you are so angry …” Remember the VET process, which we have covered often in previous editions?

4. Determine their goal.

Taking the time to understand someone’s desired goal is a great way to show empathy. Ask questions and practice active listening when someone is trying to communicate a challenge they’re facing or what they really want. Don’t make assumptions.

This can also be useful in customer service. For example, you can ask the customer if they might prefer a new product or a refund. You may empathize more successfully when you can see the individual’s goal and understand what they’re working toward.

5. Develop your listening skills.

Asking questions and practicing non-verbal encouragement, such as eye contact and positive body language, can be helpful in letting people know you’re listening. When a coworker discusses a difficult or unfamiliar experience, ask them how it made them feel. To listen you need to be quiet which is why we have 1 mouth and 2 ears, and listen to understand, not to just answer!

6. Offer to help

Ask colleagues if they need help with projects and offer assistance when possible. This can help team members feel like you support them and empathize with their challenges at work. It may sometimes be challenging to determine when a coworker is struggling, so part of empathy is observing your environment and taking the initiative to offer help before someone asks or to create a safe environment where it is okay to ask for help.

7. Challenge your biases

While it’s natural to gravitate toward people who are most like you, you may learn more when you begin conversations with coworkers outside your inner circle. Talking to colleagues with whom you don’t normally interact can help you learn different perspectives. You may also discover new approaches to problem-solving or discover a useful new way of thinking. We can learn more from people who have differing opinions and view points to us as it broadens our perspective, even though it feels more comfortable to be with like minded people.

Empathy is concerned with the human being, not just their output. [SIMON SINEK}

Importance of empathy in the workplace

Empathy is a desirable skill that many employers look for among potential team members because it:

  • Creates connections: Empathy can help you connect with employees and coworkers by focusing on the issues that are affecting them. The higher up the hierarchy you move the more difficult this may be come. Don’t lose touch with the people on the ground as you may miss critical insight. 
  • Improves social skills: Maintaining positive working relationships with coworkers and clients can improve your social skills, which is an essential key to success in every industry. 
  • Makes you a great team player: Empathy can help you function well as a member of a team. By placing value on other people’s points of view, your team can quickly problem-solve any challenges and might even improve upon existing processes to become more productive.

Being an empathetic leader does not mean having low boundaries, in fact it is critical that people with high emotional empathy set clear boundaries and also exercise their optimism so that they don’t become overwhelmed by other’s feelings.

 

Challenge

My challenge to you is to be curious, open and non-judgmental as you observe and interact with your teams. Take time to engage in conversations with the juniors in the team or team members that you know the least, even that person who you normally avoid as you find them difficult. You may be surprised at what you learn and how it changes the dynamic of the relationship. Empathy requires you to be vulnerable and is the perfect antidote to egotism!