What is empathy? Simply put, it’s the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of other people. Empathy in the workplace is just an application of general empathy. Some people are naturally good at this and can’t imagine any other way to be than empathetic.
Other employees aren’t as keyed into the feelings of other people. It’s not a morality issue, so don’t worry if you don’t naturally perceive the emotions of those around you. But empathy is also taught, as evidenced by the fact that college students today are 40% less empathetic than college students 30 years ago. So, obviously, something has changed in society.
Empathy in the Workplace
A 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study by Businessolver found that the state of empathy being displayed in the workplace has stalled. The study found that leaders were not doing enough to display empathy. It found that "68% of employees say their organization is empathetic; 48% say organizations overall are empathetic"—both figures represent the lowest rates of the past four years. On the other hand, 76% thought that an empathetic organization inspires more employee motivation.
Finally, 82% of CEOs agreed that an empathetic workplace has a positive impact on business performance, motivating workers, and increasing productivity.
Thus, using empathy in the workplace can make life better for everyone. First, here are four ways to develop empathy in yourself.
4 Ways to Build Empathy in Yourself to Improve Your Workplace
Psychologist Marcia Reynolds provides four ways to build empathy:
- Be quiet, inside and out.
- Fully watch as well as listen.
- Ask yourself what you are feeling.
- Test your instinct.
You can also apply these four ways in your workplace. Here’s how to apply each one in your workplace.
Be Quiet, Inside and Out
If your brain is constantly going, going, going, it’s hard to stop and see and feel what is going on around you in the workplace. Often, when things get busy, and you get stressed, you can forget your own feelings, let alone the feelings of others. Most people will agree with the old adage that “no one says on their death bed that they wished they’d spent more time at work.”
But, agreeing with the adage doesn’t stop people from working way too many hours. Why is that? Because being busy and having a “loud” brain can drown out your true feelings—that your families and friends and life outside of work are more important than your job.
So every day, stop and breathe, or take a walk at lunch, just to clear your head. A bit of quiet helps you figure out what you are really thinking and feeling. (See step three.)
Fully Watch as Well as Listen
Listening isn’t just hearing words but seeking to understand. Watching is also critical to building your ability to empathize with other people. Body language can often tell you more about what people think and feel than their words can.
To build empathy in the workplace, you need to see your coworkers, bosses, and direct reports to help you understand their feelings. When you all work in the same place, that is easy. You can tell that Jane is going through a rough time because she’s walking around hunched over and keeping to herself, whereas she normally walks straight and says hi to everyone she passes. You can tell that Steve is on cloud nine because he’s practically skipping down the hall.
But how do you build empathy in the workplace if you’re all working from home, or your team is spread out across several sites? This often happens in Human Resources. You may have one HR person per physical location, but you are each other’s coworkers and support system. You not only need empathy towards the people at your site but towards your fellow HR people.
Using video conferencing instead of just teleconferencing can help you watch and listen to your colleagues. Some people resist the idea of video conferencing because they don’t feel comfortable on camera. That’s understandable, but that discomfort can help everyone understand each other better.
Your tone of voice is also critical and speaking with one another instead of communicating almost exclusively by email, text, Slack, or other messaging services can help you build empathy. This is because you understand what your coworker thinks and feels. Or at least you understand their feelings a bit better.
Ask Yourself What You Are Feeling
Wait, wasn’t this about building empathy towards others? Yes, but you need to understand your feelings if you want to understand the feelings of others. Dr. Reynolds recommends using an emotional inventory several times a day to analyze how you are feeling.
When you stop and think, “How am I feeling right after I got a new, huge assignment?” and the answer is, “excited and overwhelmed,” then you can apply that to others around you. “Jane just got the new project that will take up every waking moment for the next six months. She must be feeling overwhelmed with all the work, and she might be feeling excited if she thinks this will help her towards a promotion.”
When you know that you’ll feel overwhelmed by a new challenge; you can make a good guess that another person is feeling overwhelmed at the same thing. If you have a hard time evaluating your own feelings, using this emotional inventory can help increase your skill in this area. As you become more adept at understanding your own feelings, you’ll get better at understanding the feelings of the people around you.
Not everyone experiences the same feelings at the same issues as you do, though, so act carefully, which leads to step four.
Test Your Instinct to Become Empathetic
There’s a reason this is step four and not step one. You don’t want to just walk up to people and say, “Hey, I bet you’re angry at your low raise.” That remark will not go over well.
You need to take care by testing your instinct—but do start. Think back to the earlier example of Jane receiving a new, labor-intensive project. You’ve examined your feelings after getting a similar assignment, and you felt overwhelmed and excited about it. You want to test if Jane is feeling the same way. Consider the following:
- Why do you need to know how he or she is feeling? If it’s just nosiness, forget it. But, if you work near Jane or have insights into her project or are already good friends with her, checking with her will help you support her.
- What will you do with this knowledge? If it’s just a fist pump of “hey, I am totally nailing this empathy thing,” it’s silly. But if you want to do the right thing by Jane, knowing is important. If you’re wrong, finding out early can help you support her. After all, you may see this project as a stepping stone, but Jane may see it as a burden that is keeping her from accomplishing her real goals.
With these two things in mind, you can approach Jane, “Wow, Jane, I just heard you got the new Acme project. That’s huge. I would feel overwhelmed by that but also excited about the growth opportunities. How are you feeling?”
Note that you are not saying, “Wow. You must be simultaneously excited and overwhelmed!” You are telling her your feelings and waiting for her to tell you hers. She may or may not feel like sharing. She may or may not know exactly how she is feeling.
Regardless of her answer, you are there to support your coworker. If she responds that she is excited and overwhelmed, congratulate her on her next step up the career ladder. Offer her any help that you can give. If she says, “Nah, I did a project almost exactly like this at my last job. This will be a piece of cake,” then say, “Wow, awesome. No wonder they gave it to you. You’ll be able to do it with your eyes closed.”
If she bursts into tears and says this is the wrong direction for her career. It will take too much time away from her family. If she actually sees it as a punishment for her bad sales figures last quarter, you have to exhibit empathy and stick around to talk with her. You can’t push people to open up about their feelings and run when they do. That behavior makes for a less pleasant, empathetic workplace.
The Bottom Line
Overall, when you use empathy in the workplace, you can understand your coworkers better. This means that you can function more as a team. And that’s great for any business.
Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notes publications including "Forbes," "CBS," "Business Insider," and "Yahoo."