September was a month. Anyone I speak to – friends, clients, colleagues and business owners all agree that September was a whirlwind and many of us are feeling depleted, burnt out and a bit anxious with what the future months hold.

September marked a beginning in ways, a beginning in the return to “normal” or at least to a way things used to be with kids going back to school and many offices returning to the workplace in some hybrid type model. Thing is, many of us didn’t think about how we wanted to show up to this return or what we needed emotionally from others in this return. 

More than ever there is a need for empathy in the workplace – so what is empathy? The word empathy is generally used to describe a wide variety of experiences, but generally, we use it to describe the ability to sense other people’s emotions and the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Research usually refers to two types of empathy: 

  • “Affective Empathy” – refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.
  • “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.

Now, having empathy doesn’t mean that we will automatically want to help someone but it is a necessary step in order to take compassionate action and that is something we could all benefit from right now. The ability to be compassionate and empathetic strongly correlates with strong leadership and high performance in the workplace as they improve human interactions in general and can lead to more effective communication and positive outcomes. It is also important to differentiate between sympathy and empathy as sympathy is rooted in feelings of pity for another without feelings of understanding and can even come across as judgement at times, while empathy is imagining what it would be like to be in someone else’s place without judgement. Simply put, it’s harder to do but leads to stronger and often more authentic connections. So how do we show empathy in the workplace right now? 

These are my three strategies so you can effectively show empathy in the workplace.

First, let’s establish where many of us are individually right now. As I said earlier, many people feel like they are under extreme stress and when you’re feeling that way it’s not always easy to be patient and understanding with your coworkers. Thing is, judging your coworkers doesn’t help either and only creates a greater divide and even further feelings of isolation and resentment for yourself. So just be clear that things aren’t easy for many right now including yourself and practice self-compassion. It’s hard to show compassion and empathy for others if you can’t show it to yourself. 

So how do you find and show empathy for others when you don’t feel empathized with or you feel like you’re at your wit’s end? First, accept that we’re all coping and getting by differently. This last year and a half has been a rollercoaster of emotions and has pushed many of us to our limits. What your limits and your coworker’s limits look like are going to be different as you both have your own uniquely lived experience. Showing compassion and empathy for someone doesn’t mean you need the same life experience or should need it all explained to you, it does require you to accept their experience and believe it is valid – even if it’s not your own. 

Second, be generous in your interpretations of others. I can speak from experience that my life has a lot less stress and more ease with this practice. Don’t assume your coworker had negative intentions just because they sent what you judged as an abrupt email or you thought looked moody on a zoom call. Ask yourself, ‘Could they just be having a bad day?’ or ‘Maybe they quickly wrote that email because they’re picking their kid up from school and trying to figure out what dinner is. Of course, if a pattern persists, communicate with your coworker but do so from a place of compassion and concern, not judgement.

This takes us to number three. You can avoid miscommunication and hurt feelings by being clear with what you’re feeling, whether that’s sadness or feelings of overwhelm. Remember your coworkers are likely suffering in ways that you don’t see or necessarily understand or that they choose not to share and that’s okay. Empathy doesn’t require you to know everything but to believe someone’s feelings as valid when they tell you. Don’t try to compare suffering or offer solutions when someone just needs to be seen and heard. 

A phrase I often go back to is ‘Often the most powerful words a person can hear are ones they said themselves, this means when you’re listening to someone, actually, listen. And one way to show this is to repeat back to them what they said like ‘I want to make sure I am understanding, I heard XYZ, am I understanding that right?’ Often we feel like people aren’t actually hearing us, actively listening in this way and forcing us to pay attention so we can repeat back what someone said slows our own processing down and ensures that we are listening to understand, not just listening to reply. 

Empathy is a superpower, and we could all use it right now. Not only to be on the receiving end of it but also to experience the connections fostered by it after a year and a half of isolation. It will take work at the beginning but I like to think of it as a muscle we all have and like any muscle it may feel strained at first or tired when you begin to use it but soon enough it becomes second nature, and when empathy is second nature in the workplace we all win. 


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