HRA Blog

Empathy in the Workplace?

Written by Cyndi Branciforte on .

I recently completed the book, “The EQ Edge, Emotional Intelligence and Your Success,” written by Steven J. Stein, PH.D. and Howard E. Book, M.D. to support my knowledge and understanding of EQ and personal development.  Empathy, one of the 15 scales (skills) assessed in the emotional intelligence EQ-I 2.0 model originally created by Reuven Bar-On, is identified as a surprisingly valuable tool that successful leaders use with ease and regularity.

Since reading the book, I’ve been thinking a lot about  “empathy” and have even experimented with the concept.

As defined in “The EQ Edge,” empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others.  It is “tuning in” to what, how and why people feel and think the way they do.  Being empathetic means being able to “emotionally read” others.  In fact, being empathetic can change an adversarial relationship into a collaborative relationship.

I have always believed that better self-awareness (management of ourselves) and a fuller understanding of others are two keys to leadership success in the workplace that deserve attention.   The book advocates that taking time to reflect on how you respond to others and how others respond to you in stressful situations, and strengthening your listening and emphatic skills during those situations, gives you valuable insight for improvement and enhanced leadership performance.

The proper use of empathy allows leaders to establish and maintain critical workplace relationships, engage employees, and effectively and efficiently work through high stress/emotional deadlines and circumstances. Leaders who effectively use empathy and have good listening and interpersonal skills find those who work for them feel they are contributing to the company’s goals, are a “part of the team,” and that they are appreciated and valued.

So, why don’t we hear more about empathy?

The book maintains that many people have misconceptions about empathy  (that it’s “just about being nice”) and/or don’t really understand how to use it.  Empathy also comes quite naturally for some, but others find it harder to use – they have to spend the time to work and develop the skill.  Time is at a premium so this perceived “soft skill” gets pushed to the back of the line.

Empathy is also often confused with sympathy.  Empathetic statements do not begin with “I” or “my” – these reflect a speaker’s perspective and are sympathetic.   Generally, empathetic phrases begin with “you” – to reflect the receiver’s perspective.  “You must be feeling…” and “I can see you are upset…” are examples of empathetic statements.  If you respond to others by recognizing and acknowledging their challenges they will invariably provide you with more support.  This, in turn, should naturally improve your relationships.

Still a skeptic?  Initially, I found the suggestion of using empathy in the workplace to help work with others to be a bit simplistic.   So, I decided to test it.  I was pleasantly surprised by my results.  For one week, I made a special effort to use empathetic responses to emotional situations throughout the day.  Rather than ignore distressful objections to my request, I paused (slightly) to acknowledge the receiver’s position.   At first I found it difficult.  My first response was to overlook emotions and/or offer suggestions for immediate or obvious improvement.    But after a couple days, it became easier.  The results were shocking!  What would normally have ended in lengthy, on-going “crisis” type discussions and/or directives from me actually ended with shorter, happier dialogues where end goals were achieved more quickly and more cohesively.  It created a more engaged team-oriented environment.

Don’t think that just because you acknowledge an employee’s distress and empathize with them, that you have to approve of their cause.  Empathy means that you are “tuning-in” to what others are experiencing (you admit to it’s existence) and not passing judgment – – that’s all.  Relationships with employees are improved when they believe they have been heard.

The concept of using empathy in the workplace might seem a bit unnatural.  However, assessing how effective you are at using empathy and then improving empathetic skills has been shown to change the way employees respond to leadership and engage in the workplace.

While I highly recommend you pick up and read the book, enlisting the help of an Executive Coach can also help you identify and improve leadership skills such as exercising empathy.  In our ever changing, multi-generational diverse world, being open to growth and personal change is essential!  To facilitate better self-understanding, self-awareness and self-management consider embracing the idea of using various tools (such as the MBTI, EQ-i 2.0 (Emotional Intelligence), 360- degree feedback tools, etc.) to help gain valuable self-knowledge.

Give my experiment a try.  I believe you’ll get the same amazing results that I did.  I also suspect you’ll be so intrigued that the idea of working with a coach just might be what you need to take the next step to personal and professional growth!