Imagine a situation where a colleague has just suffered a significant loss, but no one in the team takes the time to offer condolences or support. This lack of consideration for the other person's feelings is an example of a lack of empathy in the workplace.
Who would like to work in a hostile environment where no one seems to care about what others are going through or their needs?
Empathy is one of the most sought-after soft skills in the workplace because it is an essential factor in human interaction and achieving well-being.
But empathy does not come naturally to many people. And our fast-paced society does not often encourage us to take a moment to connect with others.
Do you find it challenging to identify and understand the emotions of others? Do not worry; empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed over time.
In this article, we look at how empathy can be developed and how it can be applied in the workplace.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand their feelings and emotions in a given situation.
Those who are highly empathetic can synchronise with the other person and make them feel that they deeply understand what they are going through. This is an emotional response.
Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which is feeling compassion for someone and being moved by another person's feelings while maintaining an emotional distance.
For example, if a colleague tells you that they lost a family member, you might say, "I'm sorry for you", as an expression of sympathy. However, if you were empathetic, you might say, "I'm sorry to hear that. You must be feeling really sad and devastated right now. How can I help you?".
Can we develop empathy?
Empathy is a complex phenomenon that researchers are still studying.
Much research has shown that our brain has a specialised group of cells called mirror neurons responsible for empathy. When someone you love is suffering, you can feel it as if it were happening to you.
Sometimes you can even feel the pain of strangers and the world, as most of you have experienced during the recent Covid-19 crisis.
Neuroscientists at Cambridge University have studied the parts of the human brain that are activated when we read a story. They claim that immersing oneself in telling a story activates the mirror neuron system. This explains, for example, why storytelling is a very powerful sales technique. Salespeople who master storytelling can apply their customers' emotions, changing their perspectives to convey complex messages more effectively.
The good news is that empathy can be developed at any age, particularly through experiential learning and exposure to situations that require empathy. There are also personality and cognitive traits that can influence the development of empathy.
For example, people who are open-minded, compassionate and altruistic tend to be more empathetic. Similarly, certain cognitive skills, such as the ability to identify other people's emotions, understand social situations and feel similar emotions, may also influence the development of empathy.
3 tips for developing and applying empathy at work
Practice active listening: take time to listen to the concerns and problems of your colleagues and co-workers. Ask questions to understand their point of view and offer them help if you can. Organise training sessions, role plays and real-life scenarios to help your employees practise empathy skills.
Put yourself in other people's shoes: imagine yourself in your colleagues' shoes and think about how they might feel or perceive a situation. Facial expressions, body movements and tone of voice can provide clues to the emotions of others. Organising activities that encourage employees to share personal experiences and learn from each other also helps to develop empathy.
Avoid hasty judgments: when a conflict arises, try to understand the situation from each person's point of view. Try to avoid judgment and remain open to the opinions and feelings of others, even if they differ from yours.
Managers can use empathy to understand the challenges faced by their employees and provide constructive feedback and encouragement that helps them grow and develop.
In conclusion, empathy can be learned and developed. Let us not forget that empathy is an essential part of our humanity, bringing us closer to others, strengthening our relationships and helping us to live more fulfilling and meaningful lives.