Empathy is a crucial skill to have and to hone, both for private use as well as at work. In this rapidly changing world where so much communication happens digitally, empathy is more important than ever. So let's dive in, shall we?
What is empathy?
Let's start with a simple definition of what empathy actually is: empathy is the ability or the skill to understand another person's personal situation and their feelings. And by seeing someone else’s perspective, it becomes easier to understand why they react the way they do, make certain decisions, or even live their lives in the way that they do.
By being more empathetic, you can build stronger relationships with other people, which can help you in working better together.
Why practice empathy in the workplace?
Now, some people think practicing empathy is for private relationships such as family or friends, but it’s actually a very useful skill to have in the workplace, with over 90% of employees, HR professionals and CEOs agreeing. The reason being that it makes employees feel more valued, more productive, and less likely to leave their jobs for a similar role elsewhere¹.
So, it’s safe to say that empathy really matters in the workplace!
Organisational empathy and interpersonal empathy
There’s two ways to be more empathetic at work: one is on an organisational level and the other is on a more individual level. The organisational level covers items like sufficient time off, flexible work hours or workspaces, coaching, etc. Most of the time, those are things that you cannot easily influence, as it will be decided by your HR department.
But on an interpersonal level, you can have a huge impact on your work environment by being more empathetic. Why? Well, your co-workers and your management are, first and foremost, people too. Your boss might act tough, but he or she also has personal issues that are difficult to deal with sometimes. Your teammate may be very reliable with deadlines, until a sudden loss in the family makes him or her lose all sense of time for a few days.
You never know what is going on in someone else’s life unless you practice a bit of empathy and try to get to know your colleagues on a more personal level. In doing so, you can enrich both of your lives by having a solid working relationship that’s founded on mutual respect & understanding.
How to practice empathy in the workplace?
Some people are natural empaths, picking up on personal energies and little changes in a person’s demeanour… they almost have an unfair advantage! But two thirds of HR professionals are in agreement: being more empathetic is something you can learn². So don't worry if you're not a natural! And with these suggestions, you will be well on your way:
1. Ask & you shall receive
Asking how someone is doing is literally the most basic level of empathy there is. But because it’s such an easy question to start off with, people rarely take it seriously and know that it’s often a level of “small talk” before the actual work request comes in, right?
Try phrasing your question differently, to ensure that your recipient understands that you genuinely care. “How is life treating you these days?” or “I know it’s been a busy few days, so how are you now?” could help you end up with a more meaningful conversation than the standard response of “I'm fine, thanks”.
2. Mix positive with negative feedback
Offering feedback to someone is a crucial part of working together. Hopefully, you have lots of positive feedback to offer your teammate, but perhaps you also ran into some difficulties you want to address.
While no one enjoys criticism, it’s still something that must be done. But that doesn’t mean it should happen without any form of tact. Mix in sufficient positive elements with the items you would want your co-worker to work on, so they can leave feeling energised and ready to tackle the issues you talked about.
3. Offer help, even when it’s not asked for
Maybe it’s not in your job description, maybe it’s not even work-related, but offering to help can make a world of difference. Sure, it’s not your project, but helping your co-worker meet their deadline will grant you a lot of goodwill and management is sure to appreciate “a good (wo)man in a storm”. And, the next time you need help with something, you may not have to ask either. 😉
4. Become lunch buddies
Do you have a regular lunch team? Or do you usually eat alone? Make plans to have lunch with one of your teammates that you don’t often sit with and definitely refrain from talking about work! It’s an easy-going way to get to know a colleague a bit better and enjoy each other’s company. Who knows, you may even find out that you have a lot in common!
5. Leave your phone at home
Well, probably best not to leave it at home if you need it for work, but do your best to leave it to the side while you’re having a conversation with someone else. Your smartphone is interesting, we agree, but your attention is literally divided in two when you are scrolling through messages and listening to someone in front of you at the same time. And it often makes people feel like you’re ignoring them, so put the phone down and pay attention³.
Or if the messages on your phone can’t wait, explain that this is urgent right now and you will catch up with your colleague later. It’s the respectful thing to do.
6. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes
It’s that old adage that’s still true today: you never know what is going on in someone else’s life until you walk a mile in their shoes. While this is perhaps a bit more difficult to do, try to imagine what life is like for your colleague with 4 kids as a single parent? Or how your teammate might be coping with the loss of his or her partner recently?
Your co-workers are people too and it’s important to be mindful of their personal situations, so you can be more sympathetic when they may have a particularly difficult day. Your presence and empathy may be just the cure for them to feel seen, heard and therefore more valued! And colleagues who feel valued simply perform better. 💪🏼
7. Respect personal boundaries
Last, but not least, it’s also important to know “how far” you can go with someone. Certain people enjoy sharing details about all aspects of their lives, whereas others prefer to keep their personal lives entirely separate from their working ones. By not overly prying into their personal life, you are also practicing empathy and respecting their personal boundaries!
Ready to try it?
You have several tips to practice more empathy at work, so I invite you to try at least one of these suggestions for one week. Start small if you're finding it difficult, and continue with others as your confidence with empathy grows. Your colleagues will be sure to notice a significant change!
Wondering about your skill in empathy?
The DigiSkills Passport™ can give you a good idea of how empathetic you are, on top of 26 other skills that are important to have in your toolbox in this digital day and age.Want to create your free myUQskills profile? Send us a request for free access to the UQ platform! Fill out all sections, including the DigiSkills Passport™ survey and discover which skills you have honed and which you may want to develop further. Good luck!