Empathy at Work
Developing Skills to Understand Other People
Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. – Simon Baron-Cohen, British clinical psychologist, and professor of developmental psychopathology, University of Cambridge.
Understanding other people's emotions is a key skill in the workplace. It can enable us to resolve conflicts, to build more productive teams, and to improve our relationships with co-workers, clients and customers.
But, while most of us are confident about learning new technical skills, we may feel ill-equipped to develop our interpersonal skills. And many people are self-conscious about discussing their own feelings, never mind anyone else's!
In this article, we explore what it really means to show empathy. We'll look at how a few simple actions can help us to create stronger connections, to build a culture of honesty and openness, and to make a real difference to the emotional well-being, and productivity, of our colleagues.
What Is Empathy?
In its simplest form, empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in others, and to understand other people's perspectives on a situation. At its most developed, empathy enables you to use that insight to improve someone else's mood and to support them through challenging situations.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but they are not the same thing. Sympathy is a feeling of concern for someone, and a sense that they could be happier. Unlike empathy, sympathy doesn't involve shared perspective or emotions.
You can feel sympathy for someone you see in tears in the street, for example, without knowing anything about their situation. Sympathy may develop into empathy, but doesn't necessarily do so.
According to influential psychologist Daniel Goleman, empathy is one of the five key components of emotional intelligence – a vital leadership skill. It develops through three stages: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy. We discuss each stage in turn, below.
Find out how emotionally intelligent you are by taking our emotional intelligence quiz.
And Mind Tools Premium club members and Corporate users can listen to our exclusive interview with Daniel Goleman.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. It need not involve any emotional engagement by the observer.
Managers may find cognitive empathy useful in understanding how their team members are feeling, and therefore what style of leadership would get the best from them today. Similarly, sales executives can use it to gauge the mood of a customer, helping them to choose the most effective tone for a conversation.
Cognitive empathy is a mostly rational, intellectual, and emotionally neutral ability. This means that some people use it for negative purposes. For example, those with a Machiavellian personality trait may use cognitive empathy to manipulate people who are emotionally vulnerable.
Emotional empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person, and so to understand that person on a deeper level. It's sometimes called "affective empathy" because it affects or changes you. It's not just a matter of knowing how someone feels, but of creating genuine rapport with them.
For some of us, this kind of empathy can be overwhelming. People with strong empathic tendencies can become immersed in other people's problems or pain, sometimes damaging their own emotional well-being. This is particularly true if they don't feel able to resolve the situation.
Anyone leading a team will benefit from developing at least some emotional empathy. It helps to build trust between managers and team members, and to develop honesty and openness. But empathy is most valuable when it's combined with action.
Compassionate empathy is the most active form of empathy. It involves not only having concern for another person, and sharing their emotional pain, but also taking practical steps to reduce it.
For example, imagine that one of your team members is upset and angry because he or she delivered an important presentation badly. Acknowledging their hurt is valuable, and affirming their reaction by showing signs of those feelings yourself even more so. But best of all is putting aside some time for them, and offering practical support or guidance on getting through the situation and preparing for next time.
How to Develop Empathy at Work
You may struggle to show empathy initially – you could be nervous about committing yourself emotionally, or feel unable to do so. But this doesn't mean that you're doomed to fail!
To use empathy effectively, you need to put aside your own viewpoint and see things from the other person's perspective. Then, you can recognize behavior that appears at first sight to be over emotional, stubborn, or unreasonable as simply a reaction based on a person's prior knowledge and experiences.
Practice the following techniques frequently so that they start to become second nature.
Give Your Full Attention
Listen carefully to what someone is trying to tell you. Use your ears, eyes and "gut instincts" to understand the entire message that they're communicating.
Start with listening out for the key words and phrases that they use, particularly if they use them repeatedly. Then think about how as well as what they're saying. What's their tone or body language telling you? Are they angry, ashamed or scared, for example?
Take this a stage further by listening empathically. Avoid asking direct questions, arguing with what is being said, or disputing facts at this stage. And be flexible – prepare for the conversation to change direction as the other person's thoughts and feelings also change.
See our article, Mindful Listening, to find out how you can keep your focus on the other person despite the "noise" of your own thoughts and feelings.
Consider Other People's Perspectives
You're likely familiar with the saying, "Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes." Examine your own attitude, and keep an open mind. Placing too much emphasis on your own assumptions and beliefs doesn't leave much space for empathy!
Once you "see" why others believe what they believe, you can acknowledge it. This doesn't mean you have to agree with it, but this is not the time for a debate. Instead, be sure to show respect and to keep listening.
When in doubt, invite the person to describe their position some more, and ask how they think they might resolve the issue. Asking the right questions is probably the simplest and most direct way to understand the other person.
You can explore a powerful five-step approach for seeing other points of view with our article, Perceptual Positions.
There's no one "right way" to demonstrate your compassionate empathy. It will depend on the situation, the individual, and their dominant emotion at the time. Remember, empathy is not about what you want, but what the other person wants and needs, so any action you take or suggest must benefit them.
For example, you might have a team member who's unable to focus on their work because of a problem at home. It may seem the kind thing to do to tell them they can work from home until the situation is resolved, but work may in fact give them a welcome respite from thinking about something painful. So ask them which approach they would prefer.
And remember that empathy is not just for crises! Seeing the world from a variety of perspectives is a great talent – and it's one that you can use all of the time, in any situation. And random acts of kindness brighten anyone's day.
For example, you likely smile and take the trouble to remember people's names: that's empathy in action. Giving people your full attention in meetings, being curious about their lives and interests, and offering constructive feedback are all empathic behaviors, too.
Practice these skills often. When you take an interest in what others think, feel and experience, you'll develop a reputation for being caring, trustworthy and approachable - and be a great asset to your team and your organization.
Empathy is the ability to recognize emotions and to share perspectives with other people. It's one of the five key components of emotional intelligence, and it helps to build trust and strengthen relationships.
There are three stages of empathy:
- Cognitive empathy is being aware of the emotional state of another person.
- Emotional empathy is engaging with and sharing those emotions.
- Compassionate empathy involves taking action to support other people.
To use empathy effectively, give your co-worker your full attention, looking out for verbal and nonverbal clues to help you fully understand their situation. Set aside your own assumptions, acknowledge your colleague's feelings, allow an emotional connection, then take positive action that will improve their well-being.
This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!