Empathy isn't only a skill that can help improve our personal relationships—it can also be an asset for business success: 82 percent of CEOs believe empathy can be linked to a company's financial performance, and 76 percent of employees think working for an empathetic organization helps boost motivation, research reveals.
Here’s how practicing empathy can foster healthy communication and become an effective tool at the workplace.
What we know about empathy
Emotion researchers and psychologists define empathy as the ability to share someone else’s feelings and see things from their perspective. Unlike sympathy, where you feel sadness or pity for someone in distress, empathy is based on a shared emotional experience; it's the difference between “feeling for” and “feeling with.” Most humans have at least some empathetic ability, but it may come more naturally to some than others. Fortunately, empathy can be cultivated through awareness, practice, and repetition.
Why empathy is important in the workplace
Developing greater empathy can not only help build strong personal connections, but it can also forge better professional relationships by elevating your level of emotional intelligence. Say you have a coworker who has fallen behind on a big project. Instead of calling them out in a meeting about their performance, a more empathetic approach might be to emphasize the project’s difficulty and offer your emotional and tactical support.
Empathy can also be an invaluable tool for successful leadership. A recent study found that 74 percent of employees would work longer hours for an empathetic employer. If you've ever had an empathetic manager or co-worker, you know first-hand what a positive impact that person can have on workplace culture. They probably put their team’s well-being front and center and create a healthy environment that fosters effective communication and builds trust. That can result in more efficient ways of working and greater team morale.
3 ways you can build empathy
1. Become an active listener
Active listening means giving your full attention to the person speaking and showing that you are fully engaged in the conversation, which isn't always easy in a work setting. Active listening also encourages collaborative solutions, allowing you both to gain perspective and share new ideas. Here are a few active listening techniques to practice:
- Give verbal and non-verbal signs that show you're listening (think: nods, facial reactions, and “mmm-hmms”).
- Maintain eye contact as much as possible.
- Ask open-ended questions for clarification and to encourage them to keep talking.
- Paraphrase what they’ve said to show that you understand them and their perspective.
- Avoid interrupting the flow or filling any silences with stories about yourself.
2. Recognize your own bias
Another important part of practicing empathy is identifying your personal limitations. Your unique perspective of the world and past experiences can contribute to how you accept—and identify with—others’ opinions and experiences.
One way to train your own perspective and response to others is by creating “shared identity.” For example, think of someone you know who is different from you—maybe they come from a different ethnic background, country, or there's a wide age gap. Make a list of everything you both have in common. Your answers can be as broad as “we’re both human,” but try to be thorough and include potential shared experiences, such as losing a loved one.
This exercise encourages you to seek out commonalities, remain nonjudgemental, and can be especially helpful when you’re trying to make a connection with someone at work.
3. Practice compassion daily
Compassion isn’t just a feeling—it’s an attitude or shift in mindset. It sets aside your feelings to focus on others. There are many opportunities to show compassion to those you work with. Here are a few examples:
- Ask about their communication preferences and follow them: Some may prefer a phone call, rather than going back and forth over email, while others may like using a messaging app.
- Send encouraging virtual cards or friendly notes to check in.
- If you're a manager, set up meeting times where teams can connect and discuss things other than work.
- Encourage taking mental health days when needed.
Want more tips on creating a mentally healthy workplace? Read how to recognize and combat workplace burnout and build resilience at work and home.