Empathy in the workplace is not only an important element of emotional intelligence, but also a skill that needs to be developed and practiced to enhance personal and professional leadership.
You may be familiar with one definition of empathy as “feeling someone else’s pain”. It is the idea that if someone is suffering, you are able to feel that person’s pain vicariously.
Empathy is also the ability to understand and share another person’s experiences, emotions and feelings, and not limited to sadness, pain or suffering. It is any and all feelings, even positive ones — to feel — in union with another person, regardless of whether they reflect your own situation or similar ones.
Developing the skill of empathy in the workplace is to work towards intentionally feeling the emotions of another as your own, and to express understanding and support. It is also about giving the gift of the moment by placing your own experiences, beliefs, feelings, emotions and relative situation on pause in order to honor the other person’s moment.
The fact that you may be feeling empathic towards another person does not necessarily mean that person is feeling your empathy. Empathy needs to be expressed in order to be felt by the person who is experiencing the situation originally.
Empathy in the workplace is being recognized as a team building and leadership skill that improves team productivity, increases morale in the work force and even translates into more satisfied clients and customers.
Five tips to practice empathy in the workplace
Here are five simple tips you can develop, practice and enhance to improve your own process of honoring others with the gift of empathy.
1) Empathy is about the other person, and not about you.
Because empathy is a gift, in order to give it, you need to agree to put yourself and your own experiences on pause for a moment and let it be about the other person, and not about you.
If a colleague shares good news like: “I’m so happy about my second year-end review, it went really well and I also received a generous gift card for dinner at M’s Steakhouse!”
Your reaction needs to remain focused on the topic at hand. A non-empathetic response might sound like, “Oh, I just got a huge promotion, a pay increase and a trip to Hawaii for my twenty years of service”.
In this situation, you are missing an opportunity to give the gift of empathy by switching the focus to your own promotion. Your friend now feels compelled to honor your news, considered a longer achievement. Your friend’s joy will likely be diminished comparatively.
An empathetic response might be, “Congratulations! You are such an asset to the company, I’m glad they recognized your contributions. Enjoying dinner at the best steakhouse in town isn’t too shabby either”.
2) Timing and context are critical when giving the gift of empathy.
A colleague may share news with you that have no connection to another situation of which you are aware. To give the gift of empathy, be mindful of your audience, timing and context.
If you are aware of something unfortunate that happened to someone you know, be aware of the right moment to share it with another person. Sharing at the wrong time could prevent you from being in the moment for someone else.
Let’s say someone you know is going through a challenging divorce. Then someone at the office happily shares her engagement news with you: “Guess what? Mark just proposed to me last night! We’ll be getting married next August!”
To feel and express empathy for your recently engaged colleague, you have to be able to compartmentalized the two situations by not bringing up the situation of the other person’s pending divorce.
A non-empathetic response would be, “Engaged? Good for you! I’m sad to say Jessica in Finance isn’t so lucky, her divorce is a mess!”
This completely changes the dynamic of the conversation. Your newly engaged colleague may now feel bad that something good has happened for her.
3) Empathy is sharing someone else’s feelings, all feelings, negative and positive.
Remember empathy in the workplace is to understand and share any and all feelings, even positive ones like happiness, joy, success, hope and optimism.
If an intern shared with you: “I’m so happy we get to do a lot of fun games and activities during the summer with the other interns.”
A non-empathetic reaction might be, “That’s because you’re an intern, wait until you are a full-time employee. You’ll see, it won’t be all about playing games, you’ll have to work very hard and it won’t be as fun.”
In this example, the senior employee is not able to understand and share the feelings of the junior associate. The intern is happy and expressing something that gives him or her joy.
An empathetic response could be, “How fun! What kind of activities do you guys do? What is your favorite? It’s so nice that they make sure you have team bonding activities and that it’s fun for you!” In this case, the senior employee is joining in on the intern’s feelings of happiness.
4) Empathy is letting the person own his or her experience.
It’s not uncommon for some people to want to help someone who is going through an experience by providing a different context to prevent that person from owning their experience.
However, it can be empowering for people to go through their own experiences, which over time can be self-healing.
For example, if a colleague shared with you: “I’m so sad, my cat Gracie recently died. She was with me for 15 years!” And you react with, “It’s okay; don’t feel sad, cats only live about 15 years, so it was to be expected. Don’t worry; feel fortunate that you had her for so long. I can help you find another cat. Come on, we can go get a new cat this afternoon if you want?”
In this case, even though your intentions are good, they may prevent your colleague from going through her own grief and loss, which is important for her to process in her own way.
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5) To express empathy you need to be intentional about it.
Be intentional about manifesting the empathy that you are feeling for a person who is sharing his or her situation. Perhaps responses like, “I’m so sorry, there seem to be no words I can say to help you feel better,” or “Is there anything I can do to bring you any comfort right now?”
No matter how hard the situation, there may be something you can say or do to make the person feel a little better, and that is to give the gift of empathy.
It is the gift of joining in the feeling, any feeling, and honoring the person’s situation by listening and believing, by staying focused on the person’s situation and by giving your gift of time, understanding, friendship, love and support.
I hope these five tips help you as you go on your quest for building your leadership skills to be there for colleagues, employees, clients, even relatives, friends, and strangers with the beautiful gift of empathy, which is a gift from the heart.