Empathy is one of the linchpins of cultures built on connection and trust.”
–Brené Brown

Many leaders want to form a flourishing work environment for their employees, but that desire will never be fulfilled without empathy. Empathy skills are vital when attempting to treat employees and co-workers as unique individuals while at the same time establishing a sense of togetherness. Empathy skills pull us to treat others like the complex human beings they are rather than turning a cold shoulder to the needs of others simply because we’re at work.

Here are a few reasons we believe empathy is crucial to a healthy work environment and what you need to build the skill.

Before we dive into what empathy is, let’s talk about what empathy isn’t

Empathy is not sympathy

Sympathy is a poor descriptor for what people need when they’re suffering. Sympathy involves understanding another’s pain from your perspective. “I feel bad for you.” Empathy is understanding another’s pain from their perspective. “This is tough. I know you were really hoping for a different outcome.”

According to Finding the Lost Art of Empathy by Tracy Wilde, sympathy comes from the Greek origin sun, meaning with, plus pathos meaning feeling. So sympathy means with feeling. Like, here is a Hallmark card, with feeling.

Empathy is em, meaning in, plus pathos meaning feeling. In feeling. Meaning you are in the situation. You enter into the emotion with the other person. Sympathy skims the surface. Sympathy can be shown without full understanding while empathy is a brave move to sit still and grasp an understanding of what the other person is experiencing in order to connect.

According to Brené Brown, sympathy often drives disconnection while empathy fuels connection. “Bless your heart, I feel sorry for you” is not a response we naturally lean into. In fact, many of us attempt to comfort the sympathizer with responses like, “It’s okay. I’ll be fine. It’s not that bad.”

However, an empathetic response such as, “This is so hard. I feel sad with you, and I’ve been there. You are not alone,” pulls us closer. We lean in. We talk more and open up. An empathetic response invites the other person to feel their feelings in a non-judgmental, safe space.

Empathy is not giving a lecture

This minimizes the other person’s pain and assumes there is a quick fix for what they’re experiencing. Advice-giving feels like lecturing and usually just makes us (the advice-giver) feel less awkward. We fill the void with our voice and our experience, but it shuts down the person who is struggling.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” –Winston Churchill

Empathy is not “It could be worse”

This is called comparative suffering and it’s not helpful.

“It could be worse. I mean one time I…”

One upping each other is not connection, it’s one-upping and it poisons connection leaving a depressing gap between people.

Here is something important to remember on that point…

Empathy is not connecting to an experience but connecting to the emotions attached to the experience.

Empathy is not judgment disguised as concern

Empathy is not “oh honey bless your heart.” That response isn’t comforting, it’s condescending. People also use concern to disguise gossip and overstepping. Don’t do it!

So now that we understand what empathy isn’t, let’s talk about what empathy is…

Empathy is truth ownership

Empathy is letting people own their truth even if it isn’t yours. Most of us can’t switch to a different perspective in a ten minute conversation and we don’t have to. We can respect another’s perspective even if it’s different from our own. In conversation, when someone has a perspective different from yours and you can feel the heat of conflict rise up in your neck, empathy means taking a deep breath, leaning in and saying, “I don’t know much about that. Tell me more.”

I love what Brené Brown says about this. “To practice empathy we can’t be knowers. We have to be learners.”

Empathy is active listening

A few tips on active listening…

-You can’t effectively listen to someone if you are thinking of your next response. Neutralize your own thoughts and emotions so that the other person can truly feel heard. Listen to understand; not to plan your next move.
-Make eye contact and put away the cell phone. Let’s relearn how to engage with one another by listening, talking, and connecting to others in spite of this growing trend toward disengagement.

Empathy is the ability to be nonjudgmental

Brown emphasizes in her book, Dare to Lead that we tend to judge in areas where we have the most shame. We judge people who are doing worse in those areas to provide a bit of relief for ourselves; to feel superior for a second. (Yikes!) Judgmentalism blocks empathy and connection. Staying out of judgment means developing enough self-awareness to know where we stand with our shame so that it doesn’t meddle with how we see others.

Empathy is understanding and communicating that understanding

This requires beefing up your emotional literacy. You can find feelings lists all over the internet. Print one out and begin using it to process your own feelings. Our emotions are much more complex and nuanced than sad, glad and mad. The better you understand your own feelings in any given situation the better you will understand others’.

Empathy is feel, felt, found

Showing empathy can still include offering solutions. The point is to feel FIRST. We like the training guide Apple uses for employees:

“I see how you feel.”
“I would have felt the same way.”
“I think I have found a solution.”

Empathy is paying attention

There is no solid step-by-step plan with empathy. Empathy is about connecting with the other person and the only way to do that is to let connection guide you. Let go of the fear of saying the wrong thing and pay attention to body language; to the emotions surfacing in you and the person across from you. This can be vulnerable but it’s how you discover connection and avoid minimizing or exaggerating emotions.

Empathy is self-compassion

I love what writer Geneen Roth says, she’s an expert on food addiction and eating disorders, and she insists, It doesn’t matter how enlightened you are, how many degrees you have, or what position you hold in your company, how you eat, tells all.

Here’s her point: people who are self-compassionate want to nourish their bodies and take care of themselves.

Emotionally healthy people believe they are worthy of care.

So the first, and most important step you can take right now to become a more empathetic person is to show yourself empathy. Try showing yourself some compassion when you mess up or when you’re plagued with regret. This is the only way to build the skill of empathy on a secure foundation. If you don’t, your empathy goals might include cracks of codependency, control, manipulation or disappointment.

This is why Maya Angelou said, “I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”

Empathy is so much more than a set of skills – it’s a new lens through which we see the world. It isn’t just about treating others well – it’s about noticing with awe and gratitude our similarities rather than fixating with bitterness on our differences. When we cloak ourselves with empathy we’re kinder, lighter, and more at peace. Try a little empathy today and watch it change you. Watch it change everything…

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving good advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

–Henri J. M. Nouwen

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