Empathy in the Workplace. How to be Human And Not be Called a Wimp.

First of all, sympathy and empathy are similar but different. As Dictionary.com explains ” You feel empathy when you’ve “been there”, and sympathy when you haven’t.” So if your cat just died and I’ve never had a cat, I have sympathy for you. If you are disappointed because you didn’t get the raise you wanted, I can empathize, because I’ve “been there”. Empathy, from my point of view, is one rung up the emotional intelligence ladder from sympathy. It’s the ability to stand in your fellow co-worker’s shoes and “feel” how they feel. Empathy in the Workplace

For most Baby Boomer managers reading this, the “F” word or feelings, is their kryptonite. We associate good management with the tough minded, angry, direct communication style of Mary Tyler Moore Shows’ Lou Grant or 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy. The F word means shedding tears over budget shortfalls or kumbaya moments around the water cooler. Actually my association (being a Boomer manager and all) is with the 70’s radio hit by Morris Albert called “Feelings”. Listen to it at your peril, as it is a sure fire earworm. Whoa, whoa, whoa…feelings. Feelings = weakness. It’s not true. The single best way to lead others, have more productive employees and bring more money to the bottom line is through empathic leadership.

So here are some ways to bring empathy skills into your wheelhouse:

1. Learn. The first thing to know is that it is possible to learn to be more empathetic. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “fortunately, empathy is not a fixed trait. It can be learned.” (Shapiro, 2002) This is great news. So just because you aren’t sure how to be more empathic, you can take baby steps toward the goal. Read some books, google it or take a class. The key is to start learning.

2. Listen. There has been a lot written about active listening. We spend way too much time listening with the intent to respond, or argue, or repute. Try listening with the intent to change your mind. Wow, what a concept. Try to dispel some of your long held beliefs. This is truly listening; listening to agree with another point of view. Conservatives and Liberals alike are looking to find more information that backs up their point of view while ignoring anything that might refute it. If you want to stand in another person’s shoes, listen with the intent to change your mind.

3. Observe. Observe the feelings of those you are listening to. As written by Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, “First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like.” I think of this as what Jane Goodall, the anthropologist must be doing when observing primates in the jungle. It needs to be devoid of judgment and focus only on the facts. It’s so easy to be wrapped up in our own “stuff”. Be the anthropologist and just observe.

4. Label. Most models including Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) state it’s important to label the feelings that you have observed. My shorthand for this over the years has been “I hear that you are frustrated”. Mostly because most people are frustrated and it’s not as triggered as “angry” or “upset”. I find that when I coach folks and I try to label or clarify the feeling they are having, that, even if I am wrong, they will help to redirect me to what they are feeling. They know I am listening. So Joe might say, “No, I’m not frustrated, I’m disappointed.” OK, so we are clear on how Joe is feeling. Try and label the feelings of the person you are talking to.

5. Needs. Acknowledge that we all have needs and they are either being met or not. In NVC, the process includes stating yours or your coworkers unmet needs without blame or judgment. This is a tall order. So much of our language includes blame or judgment. “You’re selfish…lazy…self-centered.” All judgments. “I’m feeling disappointed because I am not confident that I’m going to meet the deadline.” In this statement, I am not blaming or judging but owning my unmet needs…that of being on time. State your needs without judgment.

6. Shoes. I recently learned a process through ORSC called “The Third Entity Exercise” on how to understand someone else’s point of view. In this case, I was coached through understanding mine and my son’s point of view. The coach had me stand in my point of view and speak to my son (hypothetically). I was upset that he would take so long to get ready. The coach then had me physically stand in the opposite space (as if I was my son) and then speak from his point of view. Light bulb moment. Suddenly I could see how demanding I was being. I understood the dynamic of our relationship. He was reacting to my bluntness. I was lacking empathy. As the coach said, ” your 18 year old son went to Key West with you?” Wow. Cut him some slack. If you get a chance, physically stand in someone else’s shoes. It’s incredibly enlightening.

Maybe the real end result is compassion. Everyone wants to be acknowledged and understood. Regardless, it creates a healthier more productive workplace. Folks want to show up and do their best work when the people around have an empathetic compassionate heart and they feel understood and appreciated.

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