The workplace can be a community of practice for reclaiming the lost art of empathy
By Schuyler Brown
Many of us are aware of the mindfulness revolution currently happening in corporate America, but perhaps less of us know about the interest in empathy that’s coming on its heels. Over the past few years, I’ve received requests to teach empathy at a social media giant, a large healthcare company, and a worldwide leader in hospitality. These companies have been early to the practice because their business models rely on interpersonal skills—building and keeping healthy, happy relationships.
Empathy is commonly defined as the ability to understand and experience the feelings and thoughts of another without having them communicated explicitly. It’s fundamental to the human experience; a big part of what makes us social creatures. In our personal lives, we tend to practice empathy naturally—we care about how our friends are doing, feel the pain of a loved one, or experience visceral concern for suffering in the world. But it has been underdeveloped in the workplace where emotions can be suppressed and viewed as counterproductive. What’s exciting to me about focusing on empathy in the workplace is that it’s a powerful relational skill, a human technology capable of bringing us closer together by building bridges and erasing differences.
Like all soft skills in an environment obsessed with hard data, empathy can be a tough sell. I frequently run into executives who maintain the belief that soft skills are innate and cannot be taught. You have to hire for them, they say. Empathy is something you’re either born with or not. I completely disagree with this attitude, having experienced tremendous advancement in my own capacities for empathy through effort and practice and also having seen the development in people with whom I’ve worked. While it’s true that some people are born with a higher level of sensitivity and greater emotional intelligence, it’s also true that anyone—with the right regimen, attitude, and training—can become more empathic.
Empathy in the workplace requires the following:
Self-awareness. You cannot know what another is feeling if you’re not aware of your own feelings. Empathy requires impeccable internal and emotional hygiene, as well as discernment.
Space. Empathy doesn’t take a lot of time, but it does require us to slow down in our communication. Speed makes it hard to know what’s really happening in a situation. If we can slow down, we can tune in and become aware of more subtle dynamics.
Presence. Empathy requires the ability to hold an inner and outer awareness concurrently. This means full attention on the here and now. You cannot read the person standing in front of you if your mind is in memory mode or future planning mode.
Vulnerability. We cannot be afraid of the intimacy involved with empathy. We have to open ourselves up without fear and stand firm in the face of reactions. It’s vulnerable to allow yourself to be seen. But it’s also liberating because others can usually sense your emotions anyway.
Psychological safety. Agreements within the culture of a company can help make empathy safer as a practice. If I know my leadership supports personal sharing and the exploration of tricky emotions at work, I can feel safe to be vulnerable.
Having the right vocabulary. Having good communication skills and agreements in place for bringing hidden feelings to light is essential when empathy is in play. If I sense that you are afraid, I must also have a skillful way of bringing that to light for you and me. I must think to ask your permission. Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and other tools can help.
Like all soft skills, understanding the concept is one thing and putting it into practice on a daily basis is another. Here are some simple suggestions:
Check-ins and check-outs. At the start of significant meetings, it’s helpful to institute a brief check-in during which each person spends a minute sharing with the group how they are feeling and what they are carrying with them emotionally. So often we bring our tough morning commute or argument with a spouse into the meeting. We try to pretend everything is fine, even as we seethe or mourn below the surface. Others can sense this. Sometimes our scowls or distraction can be misunderstood as a lack of interest or enthusiasm for the project at hand. The check-in allows for deeper understanding and presence from everyone in the room. The check-out can be as simple as going around the room to close the meeting with a very brief temperature check from everyone. We take less unfinished business out of the room this way.
Risk rewards. One client of mine has a particularly fastidious nature and an obsession with perfectionism and, as a result, psychological safety is a challenge for their organization. Employees don’t feel safe taking risks or expressing themselves freely, even behind closed doors. We took a page from Google’s playbook and instituted weekly “risk celebrations” where employees at all levels are encouraged to share a risk they took that week—either in their personal life or professional role—with the group. The group then applauds and appreciates that risk. This has begun to build a strong foundation of trust for the company where before employees were walking on eggshells. It’s also unleashing a lot of creativity.
Deep listening and transparent communication. This is really the core of empathy practice. We have to slow down, pay attention, and bring our full awareness to the person or people we’re wanting to connect with. People often assume this requires more time, but it doesn’t. It actually saves time in the end because it reduces misunderstandings and increases memory of conversations. There are many practices involved with better fundamental listening and sharing such as “full body listening,” where the listener notices cues for meaning beyond the mere words spoken. This is listening as a healing practice. When a person is listened to deeply, sometimes nothing more needs to be said. The problem solves itself.
Embodied decision-making. There is so much wisdom in the body in the form of gut feelings, intuitions, and so on. Years of needing “proof” to support our choices at work has caused us to lose connection to these finer perceptions. We can practice listening to the body in playful scenarios so that when it matters—such as in hiring or making game-time decisions—the body speaks loudly and we have no choice but to listen. We can also read the body language of others better when negotiating or practicing the art of customer service.
Beyond these day-to-day applications, when true empathy is well-practiced it can heal longstanding personal and collective wounds, clear lingering resentments, and unearth underlying dynamics within groups that often cause stagnation, resentment, and apathy. Surfacing and attending to the subtle, uncomfortable feelings in individuals and the collective requires empathy plus great communication skills.
At a time when so many of us are feeling isolated in our lives and work, empathy can allow us to connect with others. Empathy is a practice of seeing another person deeply—even the things they didn’t intend to show you—and being there in a state of solidarity and acceptance.
When we build more empathic organizations, we build communities of trust with nothing to hide. This is a radically new way of being for most people in their lives, let alone at work. And while empathy can help us offer better customer service, negotiate more effectively, and create more efficient and happier teams, the real benefits have to do with creating organizations of integrity. As much as empathy is about understanding someone else’s experience, it’s also about owning your own experience. When empathy is prioritized, there is nowhere to hide. If that idea thrills you rather than terrifies you, then you and your organization may be ready to embrace empathy.
Schuyler Brown is a futurist, facilitator, and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founder of Sightful, a consultancy for conscious companies.
To receive more resources such as this article, please sign up for our Transformational Leadership Update by clicking here.