I Feel Your Pain: An Empathetic How-To For Today’s Professionals

Workplace harmony depends upon some specific EQ tenets, not the least of which is the ability of colleagues to Empathize with one another. Such Empathy is the root of inclusion and is essential for creating trust— without which there is low productivity and substandard office functionality. In my recent article The Crux of Connection: Why Empathy Is All You Need, I introduced the concept of Empathy by relating family-life scenarios that most of us should recognize, and I laid out the distinguishing factors between Empathy and Sympathy— two very different notions that often get taken as synonyms.

Since Empathy is not intuitive, it is each professional’s responsibility to make a special effort to be empathetic. That means not only putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but also getting creative and tailoring your Empathy to suit the specific needs and desires of the folks you encounter. And since you now hopefully understand what Empathy is and why it’s necessary, let’s look at the how of Empathy as it applies to your career using three important steps.

Acknowledge And Respect Another’s Perspective As Their Truth

Your colleagues believe their own situations to be their realities. In the past, I’ve shared the analogy that we’re all movie stars. That’s right! You play the lead role in the movie called your life. And as you navigate through your life, you interpret events through your own camera lens. Consider this scenario: Stacey and Ben both report to the same manager. Stacey found Ben to be upset one afternoon, after which he shared with Stacey that their manager kept finding fault with his work. Ben felt the manager was harassing him and being otherwise unreasonable. To show empathy for Ben, Stacey must accept that this is Ben’s reality. He genuinely feels like a victim of harassment and disagreeing with him cannot magically change his feelings.

Accepting another’s reality is challenging for a few reasons, most notably because we each have a unique lens through which we view reality. Where Ben “finds fault” with his manager’s words and actions, Stacey sees “the giving and receiving of feedback”. Stacey is grateful to her manager for perpetually challenging her with different perspectives and methods to do better work. She feels her manager is supporting her development and is fully on-board with it. The way we interpret the world affects our reality.

Listen Without Judgment

Stacey can begin to empathize with Ben when she understands or “stands under” Ben’s reality, albeit easier said than done. Since by design we are predisposed to judging others, we are constantly jumping to conclusions during our workdays (it’s one of the functions of the prefrontal cortex). Complicating this action is that we don’t even know we’re engaging in it! This relates back into living in our own movie. Stacey can easily judge Ben based on her outlook on receiving feedback. However, to stand under Ben’s reality would require Stacey to remain curious and successfully reassess the situation using Ben’s movie camera.

Recognize And Feel The Emotion

Stacey can ask some questions of Ben to help her effectively stand under Ben’s reality. By hearing Ben’s truth, Stacey can connect to Ben’s feeling threatened by their manager. In this manner she can choose to ask questions to accurately understand Ben’s scenario, help Ben ‘reframe’ his view, or simply be there with him. It sounds abstract on the surface, but it all relates to feeling connected. The sentiment to be communicated should resemble, “I know what it’s like to feel judged/attacked/faulted/not good enough”.

Practicing Empathy is difficult because we all indeed experience separate realities. As such, empathy is a need to have, not a nice to have, for a sustainable workplace where inclusion is built into the culture. Look for a follow-up article soon that takes a closer look at how to get there.