Recently the local college contracted with me to be an adjunct instructor. I assigned the students in the English class I am teaching to research soft skills, and to choose one to prepare a presentation on. One of the students choose Empathy and after some research decided it was too big of a topic and switched. I wondered what is about the word “empathy” that scares people. The more I researched the more articles discussed how empathy is a learned soft skill. We are all born into the world with a selfish nature. We are born with a selfish focus or meeting our own needs first. Learning to care for others is just that learning. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sad or sorry for someone but Empathy is putting yourself in their shoes and caring about how they feel and then following through with assisting them.
Empathy in the workplace has often been an overlooked soft skill but leaders must develop and practice. Let’s take this a step further and say that everyone regardless of their position can benefit by making empathy a priority.
In the workplace when leaders demonstrate empathy it will drive innovation and retention. Successful leaders must be more ‘’person-focused” and able to work well with everyone. The reason that empathy is vital for the workplace is due to the multiple kinds of stress that everyone is facing. The ability to be compassionate and connected with others is critical in our lives both professionally and personally.
Leadership Author, Angie Morgan says we all need to be compassionate, empathetic, and caring if we are going to build a team of people who feel valued and connected. (Morgan et al, pg 127) When you consider other people’s perspectives from their view, you develop empathy for them. Everyone goes through tough times, we all experience trials, struggles, and burnout. When we are feeling drained it can be challenging to find happiness even at work. Empathy is a powerful antidote and will contribute to positive experiences for individuals and teams. Forbes.com said that research shows that empathy in the workplace positively influences job performance.
Plato said, “The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.”
Ways to Demonstrate Empathy
- Watch for signs of burnout in others.
- Cultivate relationship building.
Show sincere interest in the needs, hopes, and dreams of other people. When workers know their leaders care about them, they will reciprocate with loyalty and dedication.
- Demonstrate a willingness to help an employee with personal problems.
Lines between work and personal life are becoming increasingly blurred. People shoulder personal problems while having to maintain professional responsibilities. This means keeping lines of communication open and fostering a safe place where employees can feel comfortable sharing when it is necessary.
It has been my experience that everyone is magnificent. We all have unique talents and skills. We all deal with life’s challenges differently. Some share their troubles with everyone and others are more private. I fall into the more private category and will share challenges only with trusted friends. In my early days with the chamber industry, I was working full time, in grad school, and going through a separation and divorce. I had an executive director who was compassionate. Although I don’t recall telling him what I was going through he was intuitive enough to be understanding when I needed extra breaks and longer lunches as I dealt with legal issues and juggled picking children up and dropping them off at school. Helping others doesn’t need to be a grand gesture. It is often the little things that mean the most.
- Teach listening skills
Everyone needs to be skilled in active listening techniques to acquire empathy. This means that we all need to train ourselves to give others our full attention. Active listening means that we give the other person our full attention (not looking at our phones). It means eye contact, and waiting until they are finished speaking before asking a follow-up question. We live in a very noisy world, LISTEN and SILENT are both spelled with the same letters. Take more time to be silent and listen to others.
- Little Actions Make a Big Difference
Small demonstrations of empathy go a long way. These could include, smiling at a colleague, offering a cup of coffee to someone, and remembering people’s names.
As I reflect on the skill of empathy, I think of how vital this soft skill is and that it is something that we cultivate. Practicing active listening is key. To sum up, empathy truly is all the little things. It is having a conversation with another person and then when you see them again recalling a tidbit, they shared with you and asking them about it. For example, recently someone shared that they were taking their new puppy to the vet to get spade. I was able to follow up with the person and asked how their four-legged friend was doing. Practicing empathy is loving and caring for others, and putting their needs and feelings ahead of your own. It is Service-based leadership.