What’s on your mind these days?
War and peace, sickness and health, and all points in between — there’s a lot going on. With so many stressors in our lives, it can be difficult to be productive, to focus on work, or even to focus on anything at all. But work is work, right? Everyone should just park their personal problems at the door and knuckle down to meet the company’s goals, right?
As rough as that sounds, many organizations do take this approach. Employees are expected to show up, to perform, and to compartmentalize. If that’s your organization’s approach, it might be time to reconsider: What’s so tough about peace, love, and understanding?
What is empathy, really?
Empathy may be defined as “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character.”
Often, empathy is confused with sympathy, but the difference between these two concepts is highlighted in the word “share” in this definition. A typical expression of sympathy might be “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. That’s so sad!” An empathetic statement, though, is from someone who says “I know exactly how you feel” — and really does.
Mental health matters
An amazing trend over the past years is the increasing awareness of mental health. Like physical health, mental health is something we need to pay attention to, take care of, and strengthen.
We understand that there should be no stigma attached to experiencing depression, just as there’s no stigma attached to a broken leg. We can feel sympathy for someone’s suffering, no matter the form, and we do what we can to understand and to support them.
From awareness-raising to policies and practices, an improved awareness of mental health has led many leaders to hone their emotional intelligence. This isn’t just a job for HR: Anyone in a leadership position has a responsibility to step up. Employees are real, whole people — not just robots brought in to do a job. Balancing IQ and EQ is critical for both employers and employees, and practicing empathy can lead to a much healthier work environment all around.
Speaking of work environment, how much space do you have between your work and your “real life”? While advanced devices and enhanced networks have steadily increased our connectivity over the past decades (the right to disconnect, right?), the past few years have significantly challenged our understanding of “work-life balance”.
When your workplace is the same place you live “real life”, it’s harder than ever to compartmentalize. While remote work is awesome in many ways, the sudden shift from in-office to at-home forced many workers into unhealthy or unsustainable situations.
Over time, many of us have returned to “work” or to hybrid models, or have set more rules like “When I’m in this room, I’m at work; when I leave this room, I’m not.” Still, work-life balance continues to be a slippery slope.
What’s the big fuss?
Let’s acknowledge that many people feel “caring” doesn’t belong at work. A discussion about empathy might seem too “mushy” or “touchy feely”. With sympathy for the discomfort felt, it’s time to push past that outdated stereotype. Employees are people, not robots (robots would never repeat the same point so many times!).
If you value employee engagement, empathy is important. If you don’t value employee engagement… yikes. But let’s assume that you do, or you wouldn’t have read this far. Let’s assume that you’re looking for reasons to bring the rest of your team on board with this idea.
Skeptical colleagues? Ask them if they value employee retention. Just hoping that your top talent sticks around isn’t a very effective approach. An employee engagement strategy is far more likely to benefit your retention rates.
If none of the rest of that matters, bring it down to the bottom line: ROI. When you can’t keep your employees engaged, you end up with reduced productivity and employee churn. You might even end up with negative feedback on employer review sites. You’ll have to recruit new people, hire and onboard them, and wait until they’re ready to start contributing… all of which takes time and money.
Whatever argument you need to have or thought process you need to get through, do it. Empathy at work works.
How to practice empathy at work
Ready to strengthen your workplace culture by practicing empathy? Here are a few tips that might help you to get started.
Remember: Even if you mean well, start small and start slowly. Whether you’re concerned about someone or just practicing, a good exercise is to think about a colleague and gather in your mind everything you know about this person and their circumstances. In many cases we already know a lot about those we work with, and it can be helpful to pause and reflect. Both good news and bad news can impact someone’s behavior, of course, so keep an open mind. Are they stressed about finishing a graduate degree or excited about completing it? Is someone they love unwell but getting better? Are they grateful that a family member has escaped from a dangerous situation? Without going too far into any examples, there are any number of things that can impact us on a daily basis, and the same is true of our colleagues.
1. It’s often better to listen than to speak
If you have the feeling that someone is — gasp! — having feelings, decide whether you are personally in a good frame of mind to connect with them. A few open-ended questions can let you know if they’re interested in or willing to connect with you. “How are you?” might feel like a really lame question to ask, but if someone is ready to tell you, it’s a totally fine opener.
When you ask a question, though, listen to the answer. Simply sharing an experience aloud can be hugely cathartic. Carrying an emotional weight can be physically draining, and the expression “get something off my chest” speaks to the lightening effect of expressing a problem.
2. Check your body language
Are you actually listening? Does your body language agree?
Be open. We’ve all seen those “what not to do” videos where a listener sits with their arms and legs crossed, as if to shut out the person speaking. Be attentive and show that you are actively listening, however feels right. Some people nod, some people pat a shoulder, and some people watch the speaker’s face. Keep in mind that this colleague may feel uncomfortable in sharing some things with you, and they may need to look away or avert their gaze just to get through. Don’t stare them down or force them into an awkward position. Be calm, be open, be responsive.
3. You don’t need to know everything
Even though empathy benefits from understanding, it’s not a great idea to pry into details someone doesn’t want to share.
Keeping in mind the advice to listen more than you speak, it’s sometimes better to just let the person get out what they want or need to say. There will be undoubtedly be aspects that you don’t fully understand, but that’s okay. Interrupting the speaker with clarifying questions may be appropriate in a court of law or a press briefing, but here it’s counter-productive. The more you interrupt, the more they’ll get the impression that you’re not actually listening, and the less they’ll ultimately share. Plus, unfortunately, drawing attention to details may give the impression that you’re preparing a full gossip report on the topic for some other audience. Not a good look.
4. You don’t need to provide a solution for every problem
There’s a pretty good chance you don’t have a perfect answer for the problem or challenges this person is facing. If it was so simple, don’t you think they would have been able to do something about it themselves? Even the suggestion that there’s a pat, obvious answer can feel insulting to the person you’re speaking with. IQ still matters, but use EQ as your primary filter.
While it would be reassuring to have someone around who could solve your problems, we’re also fairly likely to be pretty reassured by someone who simply listens and shows they care.
5. Don’t make it about you
We have a human need to relate, but let this person share without inserting “the same thing happened to me!” anecdotes. Even if the literal same thing actually happened to you, let this person share with you rather than overriding their experience.
Unfortunately, sometimes the eagerness to connect can overwhelm and overshadow the story someone is sharing with you. When you devalue the story, you devalue the person. This is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish here.
6. Recognize the limitations of your own understanding
“I know how you feel” is a common expression used to convey sympathy, but true empathy requires that exact knowledge — having gone through that exact same experience in the exact same set of circumstances.
Because of the complexity of our lives as humans, it’s incredibly rare for us to have the exact same experiences. Even if you and I are side by side in the same room when the lights go out, we’ll experience the situation differently. I call to mind my own past experiences, I experience different sensations in the same moment, and I anticipate different expected outcomes than you do. The more complex the situation is, the more challenging it is to truly relate to every variable involved.
Person 1: “You know how it is when you’re … and you have to … but you forgot … while someone else is … but can’t get to … so you have to … before the … even though … and you’re running out of …?”
Person 2: “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
7. Respect privacy
This is not your story, not your gossip. Respect your colleague’s right to privacy. You might ask them how or if they’d like you to help or to share with others. You can be their ally and their champion, but you cannot simply do your own thing here. Someone who opens their heart to you, even just a little, deserves your respect. They’ve given you their trust, and you need to earn it.
Caveat: If you are truly concerned for someone’s safety and need to get professional help, do it.
While true empathy may be hard to come by, we have plenty of opportunities to practice. Unfortunately, those around us continue to experience challenges, both personal and professional, and we continue to encounter circumstances that call upon what Abraham Lincoln identified as “the better angels of our nature”.
Cultivating a culture of empathy — at work, at home, or anywhere — requires a dedication to the best practices noted above and continuous effort to ensure others feel comfortable both expressing challenges and showing support.
When we understand each others’ values and priorities, we’re more likely to be able to meet them where they are, to sit quietly with them, to stand strong with them — or all of the above.
Hard times come to us all, but knowing that we stand together can bring light to even the darkest of days. 🙏
What’s most important to you these days, personally or professionally? What’s important to your team, and how are they feeling about your work culture? Find out! Building a better employee experience for you and your team starts with listening. Learn how we can help.