Empathy is a tough skill to develop and maintain, particularly in a busy, sometimes stressful workplace setting. But it's a crucial attribute for ensuring colleagues work well together. Below are three development areas that can help employees to boost their interpersonal skills.
Developing skills that are uniquely ‘human’ – such as active listening, caring and nurturing – are key for the world of the future. These attributes cannot be outsourced or automated and are still going to be important in whatever job you have.
Empathy is essential for enhancing our interpersonal relationships, overall life satisfaction and improving our ability to respond well to challenges.
Without actively cultivating empathy you will never have strong listening skills or the ability to truly respect others and value your relationships. Everything you do now is visible to more people, mostly because of the amount people interact online, including how you communicate and relate to others.
Empathy is therefore probably the most important tool you have when it comes to interpersonal skills both on and offline.
But what is empathy exactly?
Empathy is the ability to understand, be aware of and co-experience the feelings and thoughts of other people. It can be very challenging in practice because you have to step out of your own little bubble to use it as a skill. This requires putting your own ‘stuff’ aside and choosing to see the situation through the other person’s eyes.
Empathy is being non-judgmental – Judgement of another person's situation discounts their experience.
Empathy is understanding another person’s feelings – You have to be in touch with your own feelings in order to understand someone else's.
Empathy is communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings – Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or (to quote an example from Brene Brown) "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it” or simply “I don't know what to say, but I am really glad you told me."
There are many facets to empathy and in this article I’m going to focus on just three areas that can help us.
1. Listening skills
The gift of attention – we humans have a strong need to be validated, to be listened to. Generally, we do not think, see or perceive the world as other people do but we do spend a lot of our time operating within our own way of thinking, seeing or perceiving the world and expecting everyone else to be operating from the same paradigm.
Practising empathy consistently across a variety of interpersonal situations in the course of our day requires work and a conscious degree of attention, as well as real effort. A key aspect of empathy is truly and actively listening, something we find very difficult to do.
It is much more challenging to tap into empathy when you feel distracted or overwhelmed.
The first step towards truly listening and giving the gift of attention is to be 100% present and in the moment and to put your ego aside. One way you can do that is to use mindfulness to bring yourself more into the moment.
2. The role of mindfulness
Perhaps it would be better to talk about mindlessness. Mindlessness involves how we operate most of the time – in automatic, habitual thought.
Your brain treats information as though it is context-free and true, regardless of circumstances. Mindlessness is most common when people are distracted, hurried, multi-tasking or overloaded. Since people are hurrying, multi-tasking and feeling overloaded most of the time, we need to attack our default pattern of mindlessness.
If empathy is about understanding others and showing understanding and compassion then this has to start with being able to do this to yourself.
It is much more challenging to tap into empathy when you feel distracted or overwhelmed. Mindfulness helps you to be immediately more present and focused – both of these are key for great listening.
It also encourages a more reflective way of interacting and responding with others and research shows that when you practise mindfulness it actually fires up the same neurons in your brain that are already hard-wired for empathy.
3. The role of self-care
Empathy has to start with yourself – if empathy is about understanding others and showing understanding and compassion then this has to start with being able to do this to yourself.
It’s a bit like when they tell you on a plane to put your oxygen mask on BEFORE you help your child with theirs. Unless we are able to look after ourselves we will not have the energy, resources or effort that is needed when it comes to others. Looking after yourself first also increases your own self-awareness – crucial for using empathy with people you may find annoying or difficult.
The first step of self-care is to pay attention to yourself and whether you are getting what you need physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – just on a day-to-day level.
Quite simply you could start with a list – things that contribute to you feeling bad and things that help you to feel great and grounded.
This is also important, not least because our levels of empathy aren’t necessarily fixed for all situations and right across our lives. Your ability to empathise is compromised when you are under stress, tired or just not looking after yourself.
Practise empathy in small ways
Empathy is definitely a skill and a kind of ‘muscle' we all need to exercise – it isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally even though we are actually hard-wired to be empathetic. It takes effort and you’ll know this if you are actively listening – you may feel quite tired!
When you are learning and developing your behavioural skills it’s all about practising them in 'low stake’ situations so that they come naturally to you in 'higher stake' ones.
So try active listening in small ways, for example put your phone away in the next conversation you have. Try mindfulness in small ways such as being present on your daily commute. Try self-care in small ways by looking after yourself.
If you practise consistently you’ll be ready when that crucial conversation needs to happen or when being fully present makes the difference at your next meeting.
About Emma Sue Prince
Emma Sue is author of The Advantage – the 7 key soft skills you need to get ahead published by Pearson Business. She has designed an experiential learning workshop based on these skills: adaptability, empathy, integrity, optimism, being proactive, critical thinking and resilience and is currently licensing trainers to deliver these.
Emma Sue provides consultancy in emerging economies and travels regularly to India, Bangladesh and Tanzania advising on a range of large funded projects. She runs a free membership site – Unimenta – for practitioners working in soft skills. When not working Emma Sue runs a local gospel choir in her home town of Godalming, Surrey and is an avid baker.