Empathy is about a lot more than simply being kinder or more tolerant. Developing empathy involves fostering a profound understanding of people and why they feel the way they do. In today’s fast-paced and collaborative workplace, cultivating empathy is a must to improve communication, strengthen relationships, and acquire valuable insights into people’s motivations.

Whether you’re in management, a designer, a writer, or a marketer, empathy will help you collaborate and produce far more effectively. Here’s a brief look at how empathy functions, the benefits, and practical strategies for developing empathy in your workplace.

What is Empathy?

At its most basic level, empathy is about being able to understand the emotions of someone else, and to some extent, feel those emotions as though they were your own. There are two primary forms of empathy:

  • Cognitive Empathy: The ability to understand why someone feels the way they do.
  • Emotional Empathy: The ability to respond to the emotions of others by vicariously sharing what they’re feeling.

Scientists believe that many parts of our brain are involved in the experience of what we call empathy. This is sometimes known as ‘The Empathy Circuit’. There’s evidence to suggest that when we see someone else experiencing something, our brains simulate that experience, responding as though it were happening to us.

It’s worth highlighting that there’s a difference between engaging in empathy internally and demonstrating it externally. To be seen as more empathetic in the eyes of other people requires you to use your ‘internalized’ empathy to shape your actions. That’s why ‘being more empathetic’ is often conflated with being more compassionate.

The Importance of Empathy in Today’s Workplace

Recent trends all point to the future belonging to the more empathetic-minded organizations. From ESG to political involvement, the great resignation to equality, inclusiveness and progressiveness all necessitate organizational empathy. Empathy can have a massive impact on a business’s success and efficiency.

It plays a huge role in the functioning of a business itself. At the simplest, most pragmatic level, a product or service’s life cycle requires empathy across a variety of stages:

  • Conceptualization: While identifying a gap in the market may not require empathy (a simple industry survey might do), going deeper – identifying the fears, desires, and problems that consumers have – certainly does.
  • Design: Empathy is key to effective, human-focused design, as it ensures an outcome that genuinely fulfills peoples’ needs.
  • Developing an Ideal Customer Profile (ICP): Empathy allows you to define an audience, understand their needs, and develop campaigns that elicit an emotional response.

Those are examples of how empathy impacts an organization’s external relationships; how it interacts, engages, and sells to its customers.

And of course, empathy is just as important within a business. Cultivating empathy as someone in a position of leadership contributes directly to the well-being of employees. Understanding employees’ needs and feelings enables management to create an environment that empowers people to do their best work.

Businesses that demonstrate empathy enjoy increased employee morale, performance, and retention.

aerial image of close up of three people's hands working on a laptop and a notebook. collaborative workplace

The Benefits of Being an Empathetic Individual

“Empathy is a tool for building people into groups.” – Neil Gaiman

While creating a workplace that prioritizes empathy has collective benefits, there are also plenty of advantages on the individual level. Here are just a few of the benefits you could experience by personally taking a more empathetic approach at work:

  • Effective Communications: ‘Knowing your audience’ is one of the pillars of effective writing. Empathy helps you tailor your messages and feedback to whoever you’re talking to, enabling you to choose language and ideas that will appeal to them.
  • Better Collaborations: If people know you’ll make the effort to understand where they’re coming from, they’ll feel comfortable putting their best ideas forward. You’ll also be in a better position to receive those ideas and build on them.
  • Stronger Working Relationships: Demonstrating empathy will improve your relationships with your colleagues. They’re more likely to trust you and cooperate with you if you make a visible effort to understand them.

Exercises for Developing Empathy

Here are some practical steps you can take that may help you approach various professional situations in a more empathetic way. They range from techniques that challenge your way of thinking to methods that will give you more experience to draw on when it comes to understanding those around you.

1. Verify, Don’t Assume

If you’re having a meeting or important conversation, regularly take time to recap and share what you’ve understood. This will not only show you’ve internalized the conversation but also gives the other person a chance to correct you if you’ve misinterpreted something or made a wrong assumption about how they feel.

More generally, asking questions even if you’re sure you know the answer is a healthy habit to get into. It encourages you to recognize when you’re assuming rather than empathizing. It also means you may pick up on useful information you wouldn’t have otherwise.

2. Delete “Wrong” From Your Mental Dictionary

Saying someone is “wrong” can be giving yourself permission to dismiss what they think. Rather than labeling an answer, idea, or belief as “wrong”, follow it back and work out how someone arrived there. Even if you don’t agree, respecting where they’re coming from will help you avoid counterproductive arguments. This advice holds true even if the answer is a “fact”.

Understanding how and why someone reached a conclusion will enable you to explain their mistake. This is particularly important if you’re managing a team (and essential if you’re looking to identify training opportunities).

3. Become an Active Listener

Active listening involves being attentive and responsive, while not interrupting with your thoughts or advice. If you give someone your full attention and avoid judgments, they feel confident sharing exactly what’s on their mind or how they feel about a situation. Practicing active listening will help you understand how someone is feeling and how they process events.

Developing empathy in the workplace.

4. Avoid an Echo Chamber

If everyone you hear from regularly shares your beliefs and background, it can limit your awareness of other viewpoints. Your social media feed might be full of content interesting to you, but the algorithmic curation of it creates an echo chamber. Following people from different industries, countries, and backgrounds could help you develop a broader understanding of the way people feel and why. If your office is an echo chamber (with siloed teams and lacking diversity) you’re likely missing experiences that could enrich your work. Consider asking people from other teams to join you for a brainstorming session to get a range of perspectives.

5. Fuel Your Imagination

To “walk a mile in someone’s shoes,” you need to be able to imagine what life is like for them. Seeking out experiences that are unusual for you but normal for someone else can give you a valuable change of perspective.

Reading and listening to people’s accounts can help develop cognitive empathy by showing in clear terms how an experience sparks a certain feeling. It also aids emotional cognition by encouraging you to share those emotions. Travel is another great way to do this.

However, these don’t necessarily have to be real first-hand accounts. Fiction can work well too – there’s even some evidence to suggest that fiction readers are more empathetic.

6. Start with You

Dr. Zaki of Stamford University, an expert in empathy, believes you should start with yourself. If you’re struggling, make sure you understand how you’re feeling and why. Then imagine how you’d respond to a friend feeling the same way. Chances are, you’d be more patient and compassionate towards them than you are being to yourself.

Start by examining why you feel as you do and work on accepting those feelings rather than judging yourself. You’ll have more emotional bandwidth to show understanding to everyone else if you’re not repressing your emotions or putting yourself down for them.

Working Towards Developing Empathy

As with other qualities like curiosity, we often view empathy as a character trait that remains constant. However, many psychologists and neuroscientists believe that empathy can be developed. There are many useful online resources that provide advice and techniques you can try to increase your empathetic tendencies. It may also help to work out your current level of empathy, before seeking to increase it. Measuring empathy can be incredibly tricky. As a rough starting point though, you could try this quiz developed by The Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkley or this questionnaire, designed by the University of Toronto.

There is no simple path to developing empathy. Everyone has unique starting points. Prioritizing empathy in your workplace in whichever way works for you will give you a much deeper knowledge of your team, your organization, and your audience.

At the end of the day, empathy will help you to foster a more efficient, collaborative, and effective environment.

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