Empathy at Work

Everyone wants to be seen, heard and appreciated. But not that many people—especially in workplaces—know how to communicate so others feel seen, heard and appreciated. Most of us are too focused on conveying our own messages.

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection—or compassionate action.” ~ Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007)

Empathy isn’t defined as having warm feelings for all of humanity as we strive for peace on Earth. It’s not about “warm and fuzzy” feelings for someone else (although that may well happen).  Empathy involves understanding others’ thoughts and feelings—gaining true awareness by asking questions and actively listening.

Relationships are built on empathy. Unfortunately, many people erroneously assume they’re empathic. Poorly expressed or absent empathy leads to misunderstandings, lack of trust and uncooperative friends/family/colleagues.

Superficial connections with colleagues are often accepted as the norm. We let superficiality slip into our relationships with friends and family, as well, sometimes using humour as a handy substitute for getting to know and understand each other.

But a lack of empathy has wide-reaching consequences. No one intends to keep others at a distance, but that’s what happens when we pay insufficient attention to others’ emotions. Perhaps we’re afraid of coming across as overly touchy-feely, so we go to the other extreme: relying on logic and common sense, ignoring all feelings. Neither extreme benefits our relationships or communication efforts.

Communication is never a one-way street. While people want to hear what you have to say, they’re more interested in knowing that you care about them. Theodore Roosevelt said it well: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Empathy lubricates authentic connections, allowing us to build trust and influence. It requires more than just seeing and feeling.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Many of us confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling for a person. Empathy is feeling with a person—an important distinction.

When we’re empathic, we put ourselves in others’ shoes and imagine the world from their perspective. Humans have an innate ability to do this. The mirror neurons in our brains pick up other people’s conscious and unconscious cues. This triggers our own feelings and thoughts, allowing us to align with others. Our brain waves actually sync.

Empathy is critical if you’re interested in persuading others, reaching mutually beneficial solutions, or building connection and influence. Members of high-performing teams consistently show high levels of empathy for one another. They care enough to ask:

  • What makes you who you are?
  • What do you really care about?

Mastering Everyday Empathy

Coaches Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, cofounders of The Ariel Group, offer three key guidelines for everyday empathy in Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire (Gotham Books, 2004):

  1. Learn what makes a person tick.
    Make it a goal to find out more about people: what they like, dislike and are passionate about. The mere act of asking a question or two soothes the way for future conversations and collaboration. It doesn’t take much time, doesn’t annoy anyone (unless done inappropriately) and can be fun. Of course, it’s easier with people you like and more difficult with someone you dislike or mistrust. Try it with a wide range of people to see how asking questions improves communication.

  2. Link others’ feelings to your own.
    Most of us share similar memories. We’ve taken part in parallel events and experienced universal emotions, allowing us to relate to one another. Find such commonalities when engaged in conversation. Of course, details and specifics will vary, so don’t assume you know exactly how someone else feels. Each of us processes experiences and emotions differently. Start by asking yourself: “If I had the same background as this person and found myself in the same situation, how would I feel?”

    Many of us were brought up to believe we should leave our feelings at the door when we come to work. Brain research and economic studies have disproved this old chestnut. In reality, we need to experience feelings to make good decisions. Your challenge is to unlock your feelings at work in an appropriate fashion—one that ideally yields results.

  3. Practice expressing empathy, even with those you dislike.
    Feelings can be a complex jumble, and conflicts among them can get in the way of experiencing and expressing empathy. If someone is angry and blames you for a given problem, your first response usually isn’t empathy.

    It’s impossible to connect and understand someone’s perspective at the height of conflict. You’re probably thinking, “I’m right, he’s wrong, and I have to prove I’m right.” But if you can take a deep breath and step back long enough to see the world through his eyes, you’ll have a greater chance of gaining ground.

    Strong emotions like anger, fear and guilt block our efforts to empathize unless we accept these feelings as part of our fundamental emotional makeup. Be compassionate with, and learn to forgive, yourself. Only then can you extend the gifts of compassion and forgiveness to others.

    We can always find something to appreciate about a person we think we dislike. When we have the courage to find and express our appreciation, we are often surprised at the results.

Empathy requires us to find the humanity in someone else. When we are  willing to accept others’ weaknesses and imperfections, (not to mention our own!), it can pave the way to authentic and potentially rewarding relationships.

Content provided by Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D