Empathy at Work

Developing Skills to Understand Other People

Empathy at Work

Learn how to really "connect" with someone.

© iStockphoto/kavram

Tom is a great accountant, but his "people" skills hold him back. I can't see how he'll ever be promoted unless he does something about it.

Many of us know people who have reached a certain point in their careers because of excellent technical abilities – but they somehow don't get along with team members, because they're less accomplished in their people skills. 

This might be due to the insensitive manner in which they ask co-workers for things, the way they never seem to listen to what others say, or their intolerance for other methods of working.

Do you have colleagues like Tom? Perhaps you are a bit like Tom, yourself?

Workers with poor people skills can often find themselves in the middle of unnecessary conflict. This can be exhausting and stressful for all concerned, and it can destroy even the best laid work plans.

Many people are confident that they can develop new technical skills and knowledge through training and experience. However, there's a common belief that "you are how you are" when it comes to "soft" skills (interacting with other people) – and that there's little or nothing you can do about it.

Fortunately, this is far from true. And a great place to start improving your soft skills is by developing the ability to empathize with others.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is simply recognizing emotions in others, and being able to "put yourself in another person's shoes" – understanding the other person's perspective and reality.

To be empathic, you have to think beyond yourself and your own concerns. Once you see beyond your own world, you'll realize that there's so much to discover and appreciate!

People who are accused of being egotistical and selfish, or lacking perspective, have often missed the big picture: that they are only one person in a world with billions of other people (although, yes, this can be overwhelming if you think about it too long!)

If you've been called any of these things, then remind yourself that the world is full of other people, and you can't escape their influence on your life. It's far better to accept this, and to decide to build relationships and understanding, rather than try to stand alone all of the time.

Using Empathy Effectively

To start using empathy more effectively, consider the following:

  1. Put aside your viewpoint, and try to see things from the other person's point of view.

    When you do this, you'll realize that other people most likely aren't being evil, unkind, stubborn, or unreasonable – they're probably just reacting to the situation with the knowledge they have.

  2. Validate the other person's perspective.

    Once you "see" why others believe what they believe, acknowledge it. Remember: acknowledgement does not always equal agreement. You can accept that people have different opinions from your own, and that they may have good reason to hold those opinions.

  3. Examine your attitude.

    Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning, or being right? Or, is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind and attitude, you probably won't have enough room for empathy.

  4. Listen.

    Listen   to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate.

    • Listen with your ears – what is being said, and what tone is being used?
    • Listen with your eyes – what is the person doing with his or her body while speaking?
    • Listen with your instincts – do you sense that the person is not communicating something important?
    • Listen with your heart – what do you think the other person feels?
  5. Ask what the other person would do.

    When in doubt, ask   the person to explain his or her position. This is probably the simplest, and most direct, way to understand the other person. However, it's probably the least used way to develop empathy.

    It's fine if you ask what the other person wants: you don't earn any "bonus points" for figuring it out on your own.

    For example, the boss who gives her young team members turkey vouchers for the holidays, when most of them don't even cook, is using her idea of a practical gift – not theirs.

Practice these skills when you interact with people. You'll likely appear much more caring and approachable – simply because you increase your interest in what others think, feel, and experience. It's a great gift to be willing and able to see the world from a variety of perspectives – and it's a gift that you can use all of the time, in any situation.

Here are some more tips for an empathic conversation:

  • Pay attention, physically and mentally, to what's happening.
  • Listen carefully, and note the key words and phrases that people use.
  • Respond encouragingly to the central message.
  • Be flexible – prepare to change direction as the other person's thoughts and feelings also change.
  • Look for cues that you're on target.

Key Points

Developing an empathic approach is perhaps the most significant effort you can make toward improving your people skills. When you understand others, they'll probably want to understand you – and this is how you can start to build cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork.

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Comments (7)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi life,

    Make sure to download your copy of the People Skills Workbook http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=2311

    There is a ton of great information on empathy and other key "people" skills that will help you develop great relationships and enhance your leadership abilities.

    Take care!

    Dianna
  • life85 wrote Over a month ago
    hie all

    thanks guys i have learnt a lot from your replies, and i need to change coz i have been suggesting to the person some solutions, at least now i have learnt i do not have to, all i will do is listen and say little unless if asked for an opinion, yes i definitely agree its her choice to free herself or accept the way things are. thanks a lot now will have to practise more and more of this empathy subject,

    life85
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Yes Midgie & Brynn, I agree and with that being said - although it helped me to understand their behaviour better....
    I have often had Idea "lightbulb" moments where I understood someone's behaviour perfectly once I came to understand what motivated them or what they were thinking at the time.

    .....it did not at all mean that I necessarily agreed with what they did or condoned it.

    It isn't always easy to remind someone that they have a choice, but I believe its worse to leave them and allow them to develop a severe case of "victimitis". However, that some people have really difficult circumstances and to assure them of one's understanding and support (within limits), might make it easier for them to get out of those circumstances.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé:
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi agree with Brynn that empathy does not mean agreement.

    Sometimes I see people in situations / relationships where I am amazed what is happening is happening. And then I have to remind myself (and others) that although something may not be right for me personally, it' may be alright for someone else. Like the individual life85 referred to ... perhaps it's not what you would do or how you would live your life, however, it's this person's choice to be in that situation.

    Saying that, if I continually hear someone moan about their situation, I would say initially very gently that it's up to them to change, then I might progress to eventually saying 'we all have choices, it's whether we accept the consequences of those choices.'

    Indeed, as Yolande said, understand what motivated them or what they were thinking at the time to help you understand them better.

    Midgie
  • ladyb wrote Over a month ago
    Hi life85,

    Empathy and agreement are totally different things. You can empathize with a person's situation and not agree or condone it. When you show empathy the other person feels understood and that gives them comfort. With this lady you could empathize with the feelings of frustration and feeling powerless. Depending on your relationship you may make suggestions to change things but that's not necessary to being empathic.

    Empathy is a hard one, I agree. Just remember you don't have to give advice or "fix" the situation to show empathy.

    Brynn
  • life85 wrote Over a month ago
    i find it hard to be empathic to people whom i know their life is being controlled by somebody else, so when they tell me their problem at work i always go straight to the point and say 'you are alone can set yourself free. its about a colleague who lives with a husband and inlaws they tell her what to do budget her salary for her. go on holidays together everything , they tell her they are a coopeative together maybe its different cultures but this all wrong
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Having read this article, it brought to my mind once again Stephen Covey's book "Seven Habits of Highly Successful People" wherein he speaks of "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Isn't that the perfect summary of having empathy? I have often had "lightbulb" moments where I understood someone's behaviour perfectly once I came to understand what motivated them or what they were thinking at the time.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé

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