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Empathy in the Workplace: Engage with Intention

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, what better way to show your colleagues you care than by refreshing your empathic skills? At Careerstone Group, we’ve noticed a strong uptick in the number of requests for training and facilitation focusing on Emotional Intelligence, in which empathy plays a sizeable role. As we enter our third year of remote work, demonstrating empathy is an invaluable skill that can help teams regain and bolster trust, work more innovatively, and increase engagement.

Empathy is the learned ability to understand and recognize the feelings, emotions, and viewpoints of those around you. The operative word in this definition is learned: empathy is an acquired skill which requires continuous development. Being empathic allows you to understand someone else’s perspective, strengthens your ability to connect with others, and helps you develop a broader view of the world. Importantly, empathy requires you to understand that your actions impact other people and calls on you to develop a range of skills for communicating and collaborating with others effectively. In the workplace, empathy creates opportunities for employees to cultivate genuine connections with colleagues that foster relationships and improve performance.

Of the myriad ways developing and demonstrating empathy in the workplace are apparent, perhaps the most profound is job performance: managers who practice empathetic leadership are viewed as better performers by their own bosses. When you demonstrate empathy in the workplace, you enjoy more productive and authentic conversations with colleagues, bosses, and direct reports; you’re more likely to identify signs of burnout in others; and your team reaps the benefits of increased creative, inclusive decision-making.

Enhance your empathy skills in these 4 ways:

1. Examine assumptions.

When you find yourself questioning an interaction or a decision at work, ask yourself what assumptions are you making about the individual or the organization. Receive a terse email reply from your boss? Rather than write them off as “grumpy” or “too busy for me, I guess!” or even, “oh no! I’m sure they are upset with me,” consider what else might be going on. Pull up your team’s shared schedule to determine if it’s a busy or deadline-heavy day for them.

When you lead your team’s weekly meeting and the brainstorm session is lackluster, consider the personalities on your team. Is there a better way to glean ideas from the group? Are you part of a team that values “think time”? Have you overplayed your “who-doesn’t-love-a-good-brainstorm-sesh” hand? Take a moment to examine your own assumptions about your team, the “best” way to communicate, and yourself. Perhaps you’re stuck in a reflexive loop on the Ladder of Inference, and it’s time to examine your pool of available data. When we are prepared to challenge our assumptions and consider a variety of perspectives, we position ourselves to lead with empathy.

2.  Ask questions.

Questions are an essential tool in helping examine assumptions. Take the example of lackluster brainstorming. Before you throw your “Brainstorming is Best” t-shirt in the donation pile, or jump to conclusions that your team is full of a bunch of people who don’t really care, get curious and make time for questions! Open-ended questions are a great way to open a team meeting, or to use in breakout rooms at meetings, or to ask your boss at your next 1:1 check-in.

A few Careerstone Group favorites:

  • How do you prefer to communicate?
  • Do you consider yourself someone who “thinks to speak” or “speaks to think”?
  • How do you prefer to receive feedback?
  • What are your goals?
  • What can I do more of, less of, or differently to work better with you?

Asking thoughtful questions demonstrates that you care. Authentic curiosity builds trust and enhances relationships. Asking questions can be contagious! This curiosity about one another leads to curiosity about the work itself, which encourages creativity and innovation in tasks, projects, processes, and systems.

3. Listen.

Active listening is a skill that layers examining our own assumptions and asking open-ended questions to promote a culture of transparency and feedback. Listening is not a passive activity! Active listening requires us to focus completely on the speaker, understand their message, and respond thoughtfully. When done correctly, active listening can be a little exhausting, as it helps us do the heavy lifting of creating a more empathetic workplace.

Examine some of the listening blocks you may be using (and the assumptions behind them!), and select strategies that can help you avoid using these blocks in the future. Do you rush in to solve others’ problems? Do you cut people off while they are speaking to demonstrate your connection to what they are saying? Ironically, these blocks shut down the conversation and signal to the speaker that you’re not really hearing them, despite your positive intention.

Consider using non-verbal cues to affirm the speaker, jotting notes to capture what you’re hearing, and getting comfortable with silence. Listen with a framework in mind: What are the facts the speaker is sharing? What might their feelings or values about this issue be? Active listening helps to avoid conflict, bring clarity, and allow the speaker to feel heard and respected as it both demonstrates and builds empathy.

4. Connect with intention.

Gone (for now) are the days of popping into someone’s office for a quick chat or question, or holding an informal debrief session down the hallway after the meeting in the conference room. One reality of remote work is the loss of these organic “casual collisions” that built rapport, trust, and camaraderie in a rather seamless way. Now, we schedule meetings to ask the question or hold the debrief, or we opt out of these connections altogether. It can feel daunting to send a calendar invitation when everyone is in 55% more meetings than our pre-pandemic work life. And yet, cultivating empathy in the workplace requires us to connect with intention.

As you learn about colleagues’ communication and collaboration preferences, you’ll need to set aside time for responses that have real depth and time for clarification. Asking someone about their work style preferences is nice, but actually changing your behavior as a result of what you hear creates a culture of empathy for your team. This doesn’t mean – as in the previous example – that you never get to brainstorm again, or that you suppress your own preferences to give everyone else what they need. It means that you’re creating a culture of transparency and feedback, where everyone can state their preferences without paralyzing processes.

Creating intentional time to cultivate relationships creates opportunities for being truly inclusive. It’s not enough to know your boss prefers a text before a phone call – you must take the time to implement those practices. If you’re concerned about the time it takes to connect, consider the potential gains for you, your team, and your organization if you invest that time: higher performance, lower turnover, and decreased absences. Set a goal to connect with others during the work week and set aside 15 to 30 minutes for intentional connections.

If you’re thinking of how to embrace empathy in the workplace, consider scheduling a team meeting or check-in on Valentine’s Day and kick things off with open-ended icebreaker questions to learn more about each other, deepen connection, and begin building a culture of empathy.

Interested to learn more? Schedule a call with Careerstone Group to engage with your team to enhance team empathy and emotional intelligence.

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