Developing Empathy at Work

Why Empathy Matters and How to Improve Your Empathy?

TEXT | Thu Vo

Few weeks ago, I passed by a poll created by The Female Lead, a non-profit organisation that gains over two million followers on LinkedIn. The poll asked for people’s opinion on the most important quality of a good leader, which eventually received more than 34 000 votes. It was interesting that empathy was a dominant choice with 61% of votes, followed by the strategic and critical thinking (24%) and the ability to make hard decisions (12%). According to Daniel Goleman, an influential psychologist, empathy is one of the five main components of emotional intelligence that is considered an essential leadership skill.

Poll results as a bar diagram: Ability to make hard decisions 12 %. Empathy 61 %. Strategic & Critical Thinking 24 %. Ohther (comment below) 3 %.
Source: The Female Lead LinkedIn

Empathy is an ability to understand people’s perspectives on situations. This also includes understanding and being compassionate with others’ emotions, thoughts and experiences. Empathy helps us know why people act or behave in a certain way and connect better with our surrounded individuals. It can be performed naturally as a personal attribute, or learned and developed as a skill.

The term is usually mixed up with sympathy that entails a feeling of pity for another person without a thorough understanding about their situations or experiences. Empathy develops in three following stages:

  • Cognitive empathy: this is an ability to understand what other people think and feel without developing an emotional engagement. Cognitive empathy is usually rational, logical and emotionally neutral.
  • Emotional empathy: it refers to a deeper level of empathy which involves the sharing of feelings with the other people. On one hand, the emotional empathy helps us to build a genuine and meaningful relationship with another person. On the other hand, it can make us immerse easily in someone’s pain and unintentionally damage our emotional well-being.
  • Compassionate empathy: it is the most active form of empathy as it enforces us to make practical actions to solve an issue.

Practicing empathy at work starts with putting aside your opinions and judgments and seeing the issue from the perspectives of others. The empathy is developed once you shift the focus from yourself – what you want and need, to others – what your colleagues want and need. The practice is not as easy as it sounds, however the more you exercise it, the higher possibility you develop a common understanding and respect with surrounded people. The following actions can help you develop your empathy in the professional settings.

Attentive communication

You can start paying a full attention to your colleagues regardless of their positions when they are trying to share an opinion or a story with you. Listen attentively to what the colleagues are attempting to say and put aside your personal viewpoints, presumptions and judgements. The message sometimes is not revealed only through words, but also through the repetition of mentioning the issues, tone of voice and body language.

You should avoid interrupting others, using confronting and judgemental questions and comments, or starting an argument as well as giving advice. In some certain cases, advices may not show that you are empathetically listening to the opposite person. Additionally, if you tend to immerse easily in someone else’s pains, you should learn to create your boundaries to effectively protect your mental wellness.   

Careful consideration of others’ perspectives

Practicing listening is not enough if the goal of listening is only to respond. To develop empathy means to understand the issues from others’ perspectives. Acknowledge how you usually respond to your colleagues and monitor them if necessary. If the consideration alone is rather abstract and difficult for you, some questions can be planned and used, for instance “Can you describe better the situation then?”, “Why did you think in such way?” or “How do you feel now when the problem was solved?”.

Keep an open mind and a widely welcome heart to learn different perspectives from other individuals. You should always remind yourself of the goal of listening which is for understanding the others’ perspectives and not for winning an argument. There is no need to agree with them on everything, but you can always respectfully validate their emotions and take into account their experience and viewpoints.

Showing compassion

There is no one-size-fits-all way to show compassion at work. The approach is selected based on the situation and the individual you encounter in that context. However, the ultimate goal is to walk in their shoes. Monica Worline, a research scientist at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education suggests that you can practice being as generous as possible in how you interpret your colleagues’ behaviours. This helps you offer the help that actually benefits them and their issues.

For example, you have been informed that your teammate is going through a hard time at home, but still show up at work. You might think that it would be better for her to work from home, but in fact working probably helps her manage better the emotions and balance more efficiently the personal issues and professional responsibilities. Therefore, showing compassion in this case means to ask your co-worker which way she prefers.  

Have you forgotten yourself?

To some people, developing the empathy towards other individuals seems much easier than nurturing the empathy towards themselves. The self-empathy perhaps is one of the most challenging form of empathy, especially when you are driven towards the perfection or high standards of any action and performance. Developing the self-empathy starts with the validation of your emotions, feelings, thoughts and experiences without judgements. This can be done by practicing to acknowledge and observe your feelings and thoughts in daily days instead of rating them good or bad. Figure out what are the reasons and simultaneously accept these feelings and thoughts as they are.

You can also consider talking and treating yourself as you talk and treat others. For instance, you have just failed a simple task at work and you are about to criticise yourself. Recall instantly on how you would tell to your colleague who encounters the similar challenge and apply those sayings instead. It is additionally important to learn to accept that everyone can make mistakes and what is more important is to make amends. 

  • Arruda, W. 2020. 4 Ways To Practice Empathy At Work—And Why It’s Crucial To Your Career.

  • Brandt, A. 2018. 4 Ways to Be Kinder to Yourself and Build Self-Empathy.

  • Center for Creative Leadership. The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace.

  • Miller, C. C. How to Be More Empathetic.

  • MindTools. Empathy at Work.

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