Until recently empathy was not particularly valued in the workplaces that focused on competition, hard work and efficiency. Now empathy is finally being valued as a great catalyst to workplace relationships, creativity and many aspects of a healthy bottom line.
How Does Empathy Benefit the Workplace?
Human beings want three basic things: respect, love, and empathy. Respect in the workplace means being listened to and not disregarded. Love in the workplace doesn’t mean romantic love, but caring, as in reaching out when others are in need, remembering a birthday, or lending a hand when the person needs help.
Empathy means that you can imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and relate with what they might feel or experience. Rather than resist differences of opinion, even argue or actively defend our position, we welcome others’ viewpoints and encourage resolution of differences.
With empathy we can show respect and caring for co-workers, not just for rules and regulations. Dr. Judith Orloff, an expert on empathy, explains that an empathic leadership style can make everyone feel like members of a team, which increases productivity, morale, and loyalty. When a boss says to employees, “I respect how you’re feeling. Let’s try to work it out,” this statement alone lets employees know they are heard, which makes it easier to reach a compromise.
When we’re in empathy with others, we enhance our own capacity for gut feelings and intuition. This means we bring more wisdom and creativity to the table. The same goes for our workplace colleagues. When members of a discussion feel listened to and appreciated, instead of written off, their creativity blossoms. This leads naturally to better brainstorming sessions.
An Example of Empathy in Action
At a nonprofit where I was president, one board member was an irritating “devil’s advocate” on every issue. When I was not empathetic, I tried to dismiss what he had to say. I’d avoid calling on him at board meetings, and I frequently was irritated. When I operated from an empathetic place, I remembered what mattered to him and honored the value of his viewpoint, even when we disagreed. And sometimes I had to admit that he had a good point, one I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
That led to a powerful understanding: when people feel heard, they don’t interrupt or upset the flow of business; rather, they add to it. They speak less and contribute more.
Empathy Requires Good Boundaries, Not Allowing Others to Dump On You
Sensitive people tend to be what Dr. Orloff calls “emotional sponges.” In Emotional Freedom, she says that to protect ourselves, setting limits and boundaries is essential.
For instance, when a co-worker calls and complains endlessly in a “poor me” mode, not being open to solutions, it’s helpful to say in a kind but firm tone, “I understand the stress you’re under. I can only talk for 5 minutes now, but I’d be happy to discuss solutions when you are ready.”
When you’re under stress, a simple 3-minute meditation can give you a mini-tune up that brings you back to your open-hearted, self-caring center. Turn off the phones and shut the door. Focus on your breath and a very positive image that makes you happy, such as a sunset, a child’s face, a flower.
Then remind yourself that you need healthy boundaries so you can be more comfortable in yourself and better able to be truly caring to yourself and others.
This might include closing the door or not answering the phone when we are under a deadline, not over-committing to projects that we realistically can’t deliver, being clear how much time we have if someone asks our help, etc.
What works for you in setting healthy boundaries?
How can we cultivate empathy if it doesn’t seem to come naturally?
Empathy comes from the heart, not the head. So it is important to mindfully cultivate this sense of unconditional respect from the heart and proceed from there.
Take a few minutes to intuit the other person’s perspective, not just from your head, but from your heart. Ask yourself, “How might the other person feel?”
Imagine seeing the world from their point of view, even if you disagree. I find it helpful to ask “Why?” in a friendly (not interrogating) tone, when someone expresses a view I might not agree with, or ask myself that question if I know the person and have an understanding of their values and priorities.
Each time you practice, you just might find it easier.
Kimberly Weichel is a social pioneer, educator, author and specialist in global communications, leadership and peacebuilding. She is co-author of “Healing the Heart of the World” and director of the Institute for Peacebuilding. www.kimweichel.org.