7 Ways to Develop Empathy at Work

"O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand."

~  St. Francis

This is one of my favorite prayers -- a reminder to abandon an "I" perspective for "you."  Although I’ve spent decades successfully seeing the world through the eyes of my clients and team, in my personal life, it's often easier said than done!  With a teenager let's just say I'm repeating the prayer daily.

Empathy is the ability to “feel your pain” -- to understand, be aware and be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts and experiences.  Often without having the benefit of having these fully communicated.  This critical interpersonal skill is an element of Emotional Intelligence (EI) which extensive research has linked to high performance and well-being.  Here are a few ways to be more empathetic and create a happier, more collaborative and productive team:

Check your ego at the door. Stick to facts, not opinions and don’t take issues personally. Really . . . It’s not about you!

Be fully present in the moment. Give interactions your undivided attention for increased awareness of not only words and tone but body language. That means putting the phone down, stopping typing and otherwise clearing your mind of distractions when someone talks to you. Ask for more information and get behind the mere words others speak. "I can’t meet the deadline" may mean "I lack the information I need and have no clue where to get it." Which brings us to the next point . . .

Ask high impact questions. To clarify or for more information about where someone is coming from, ask open-ended questions. Who, What, Where and How questions are perfect for better understanding. Skip “why” as it can make co-workers defensive. Be respectful of differing opinions. You don't have to agree but you Do need to be considerate of opposing views. (We could use a lot more of this in our political conversations, but I digress!).

Know how you feel. Check in with yourself to fully grasp your own state of mind. Being able to assess the strength and control your emotions adequately is key to responding appropriately.

Be a person who genuinely cares to avoid hurt feelings. Caring is a significant building block of trust. You can't successfully work with your team if they don’t expect you have their best interests at heart.

The great news is that empathy is an ability ripe for development.  Assessments are available and offer insight into empathy blind spots -- providing opportunities for growth.  Seeing where you are on the empathy scale is essential to sustainable leadership. Understanding strength and weakness allows us to respond to workplace demands in constructive ways!  Know yourself, be an example for others and start building a culture of empathy in your department or organization.

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