Empathy at Work

By Lori Lang

Per Dr. Brené Brown, “Empathy is a skill that can bring people together, that fuels connection.”, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.”

I’ve researched the meaning of empathy and have come across a few different definitions, examples, and explanations. They all have two things in common: connection and emotion.

Connection between two people, whether family, friends, co-workers, bosses, or strangers, is critical to the human experience. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, social connection can lower anxiety and depression. It can help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy and improve our immune systems.

Dr. Emma Sappala from Stanford University has written that strong social connection, while alleviating loneliness, also strengthens our immune system while decreasing inflammation; it helps us recover from injury and disease faster; and may even lengthen our lives. She suggests that as our self-esteem and empathy for others increases, we become more trusting and cooperative which results in others becoming the same, thus generating “a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being”.

While human existence is becoming more and more focused on the use of technology for work, entertainment and communication, Forbes points out that a great deal of research is being conducted to find ways to use technology “to create a truly connected and fulfilling online experience for humans”. So, it is evident that social connection is critical to a physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy life and that emotion plays a significant role in the existence of that connection.

Emotion in the workplace is not new, but it has yet to become an acceptable or essential attribute of employees or leaders. I have worked in several engaging roles, from long distance operator to telephone installer, clerk to analyst, and instructor to project manager. My first corporate job involved a room full of women performing the same function with no interaction, no discussion, no sharing of experiences and no need or opportunity to connect.

More recently I worked within teams and with clients and vendors where interaction was required, and business relationships were necessary for success. However, emotion was frowned upon. I recall a few instances during my annual reviews where I received lower performance ratings for having expressed emotion, as it was interpreted as being sensitive and weak. I was subsequently sent to courses on professional communication. There was no mention or apparent understanding of emotional intelligence at that time.

Empathy seems to come naturally to some, while others appear to have no clue what it is nor how to use it. I must admit I’m somewhere in the middle, but before I get into that, here’s a bit more of what I’ve found from my research.

When we recognize another person’s feelings such as devastation, fear, or confusion, we can intentionally recall or reflect on those feelings from our own experiences. By so doing, we risk experiencing those feelings again which makes us vulnerable. The benefit of doing so outweighs the risk as we can then share the perspective with the other person to validate their feelings and let them know they are not alone. It is at this moment that we create a connection.

Empathy expressed in the workplace, while not new, often garners the feedback that the women who practice it are too emotional. But many, including Erin Thorp, consider it a leadership superpower. Leaders who respect and acknowledge their team members recognize the importance of building trusting and honest relationships with them. Establishing connection is the greatest means to this end, and the sincere use of empathy will support the creation of that connection.

Four steps to showing empathy, per Brené Brown, are:

1. Perspective Taking or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – recognizing their perspective as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgement and listening.

3. Recognizing emotion in another person that you may have felt before… and then

4. Communicating that you can recognize that emotion.

For many, a natural result of empathizing involves taking on the other person’s emotions. This is unnecessary and is something I am still in the process of learning and applying.

Empathy also does not require that we provide advice or solutions to fix everything for the other person. I have a tendency to look for and share ‘silver linings’ by saying, “At least…”. While I’m trying desperately to make them feel better, I’ve come to realize that I’m trying to make myself feel better by shining a light on something that is potentially a positive in the midst of a difficult situation. This also is something I am continuously working on.

Even though our response does not necessarily make the other person’s situation or circumstance better, it does form a connection between us. They may appreciate finding someone who has been through a similar challenge before and knowing they are not alone. When I attended Al-Anon, I found the greatest comfort in being welcomed and hearing others share their experiences which were my experiences too. When they listened to my story and talked about “their alcoholic”, I knew I was no longer alone. We shared a connection and through it were able to support each other through our similar and dissimilar experiences.

Like me, people who are experiencing challenges may not be seeking empathy or connection, but when someone sincerely empathizes, their feelings are validated, and a connection is created. As Erin Thorpe has written, for leaders and their teams, these types of connections allow each to see the whole person before them and honour their entire being, beyond their job performance and assumptions that have been made. Using their connection as a foundation, leaders can build trust, cooperation and collaboration that will result in strong relationships within their teams. And these will drive their work towards common goals where each team member wants their peers, leadership, and organization to succeed.

To learn more about Leading with Empathy tune in to our WomenIN webinar with Erin Thorp, Wednesday October 14th, 2020 from NOON to 1pm.

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