Empathy is an integral part of the Search Inside Yourself and Reminding Programs I facilitate. Just like mindfulness, empathy is becoming somewhat of a buzzword. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley cites many studies reporting many benefits of empathy from improving marriage to reducing bullying and happier employees. A 2015 Harvard Business Review article reports a direct link between empathy and commercial success. So now that we know empathy is important, how does one practice empathy at work? (If you are in a hurry you can jump to the pointers below)
How To Be Authentically Empathetic?
One of my Reminding Leadership clients asked me in an executive coaching session, how can she be authentically empathetic at work. She asked good questions related to leaders practicing empathy, especially when they are doing it because it is now proven to be beneficial for the organization. And how can one be empathetic without compromising on authenticity. For example, in a meeting for an important project, your client starts talking about his dog who recently passed away. You have a busy day in front of you and the last thing you want to do is listen to your client rant about his dead dog. But you read in the last business bestseller that it is important to be empathetic, so that’s what you need to do. Except most books and articles on the subject don’t say how to be empathetic. My client was concerned that it is an inborn trait, you either have it or not. Either you feel for the owner of the dead dog or you don’t. And what about the lesser mortals who don’t feel for the dead dog, are they doomed to fake empathy or hire someone who can be the empathetic face for the organization?
Humans Hardwired For Empathy
There is good news for all. Science suggests that we are naturally wired to be empathetic. The mirror neurons in our brains indicate that we are hardwired for empathy. Yet, we know from personal experience we don’t feel equally empathetic, if at all, towards all people at all times. There are many reasons for that including the fact that we feel empathy for those we consider similar to us or in scenarios we can imagine ourselves in. The famous Good Samaritans study points out that when we are hurried, which most of us are most of the time, we are unlikely to display helpful behaviors. However, there is growing evidence that we can overcome the blocks to empathy and develop or reconnect with our empathetic faculties.
3 Steps To Be Empathetic
The Search Inside Yourself program and The Reminding Programs involve the development of empathy, but here are some pointers for you to get started with experiencing your natural ability to feel empathy and express it in ways that genuinely reflect you.
When you encounter a situation that evokes empathy, remind yourself of these points:
Stop, breathe, and give full attention to the person sharing her experience with you. Very often we don’t feel empathy because we are not listening and our mind is racing to the next task. Remind yourself to stop rushing and come back to the person before you. Give them the gift of your full presence.
Bring awareness to how what they are saying is making you feel. Pay attention to your breath and body sensations. Notice if the breath is flowing easily or if there are places in your body where there may be tightness. As you soften all that is rigid within you, notice the emotions surfacing within you. This may require you to connect with all that is raw and vulnerable within you, which is why you may avoid going there. Resist the temptation to distract yourself or give a superficial response to avoid truly feeling what you are feeling.
You may be asking why should you go through discomfort when a polite response will suffice? That is certainly a valid question and you may ask yourself that in that situation if the person before you is worth the discomfort you would go through for them. Or it may be an ongoing inquiry for you to explore what it means to be fully alive. Can we be fully happy without knowing what it means to be fully sad? If we safeguard ourselves from discomfort, are we building a fort that also keeps us away from deep contentment? Maybe discomfort is not a bad thing and if attended to with awareness helps us to grow in places we are stuck.
3. Trust Your Innate Wisdom
Based on emotions you may be feeling, find an authentic way to articulate them. Avoid giving a generic sympathetic response (See Brene Brown’s video below on the difference between sympathy and empathy). Instead, trust your innate wisdom and ability to find the right words to express how you feel at the time and that, which is kind and skillful. Sometimes, listening in silence without judgment and letting the person know that they are heard maybe the best way to express empathy.
So basically, there is no right way to be empathetic. Being in touch with yourself allows you to authentically connect with the other person. In that moment you know what it means to be human and from that place of shared humanity, let empathy take whatever form it chooses to express itself through you. In that moment you will know and the other person will know that you are human together.
What is your experience with empathy at work?
What are some of your challenges of being empathetic at work?