Building Empathy at Work

How often have you talked about feelings at work?

Sounds strange right?

Having a conversation about feelings might be difficult enough with friends and loved ones – add in the complexities of workplace dynamics, the fact you get paid to be at work, and how vast feelings and the language around emotions is – and you’ve got a very intense situation. On top of that, less than half of workers rate their workplaces as empathetic.

And yet, the skill of empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of others – is a highly desired leadership and management skill. Studies indicate that empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance. So how do we navigate the complexities with emotions at work and build empathy?

Recognize Feelings In Yourself

If you can’t be in touch with your own emotions, you’re not going to be able to recognize them in others. Start by identifying your emotions regularly. Before, during, and after conversations, say things like “ I feel [emotion].” Check in with how you’re showing the emotion, both physically in your body and on your face. This will be one way you can connect with the way emotions might show up in other people.

If you’re struggling to even identify emotions in yourself, spend some time with a Feeling Wheel. You can put a quick Google out and click on any of the first ones that show up. The Feeling Wheel is a great place to expand your language around emotions: the center of the wheel contains “easy” emotions like surprised, bad, fearful – and then you follow the wheel out to more complex emotions like startled, anxious, bored, exposed and dismayed. When I first started teaching empathy, this was one of the best resources to develop my language around emotions.

Embrace Assertiveness

Empathy and assertiveness are incredibly connected. One of the tenants of assertive communication is an “I win, you win” mentality – that is, you think about the thoughts and feelings of another person while understanding that your thoughts and feelings are just as valid and worthwhile.

When you are truly assertive, you are assessing the emotions around you. How do you feel and how does the other person feel are questions that are consistently asked before you assert what you want in a situation.

If assertiveness is something you struggle with, remind yourself of the “I win, you win” mentality. In comparison, passiveness is marked with “I lose, you win” while aggressiveness is “I win, you lose” and passive-aggressiveness is “we all lose.” Assertiveness builds empathy for another person!

Ask Questions

Questions over assumptions are a more considerate and empathetic path. If you’re working with someone and you’ve already assessed your feelings, tried to move forward with assertiveness, and can’t figure out the “what next” in the situation, erring on the side of questions for information seeking will allow for understanding. Questions show that you’re interested and curious about the other person.

When you’re thinking of using questions to show empathy and better understand someone, make sure you wait and listen for the answer. Too often people ask questions and just keep talking or get nervous in the silence and yammer on. If you ask a question, stop, pause, and wait for the answer.

Use questions as understanding, not as accusations.

Start the conversation

If you want empathy to be part of your workplace, start talking about how you feel! Pick “easy” moments and situations that you can safely talk through emotions. If something great happens, talk about feeling proud. Be specific about what you’re proud of and how being proud feels. Remember the “I win, you win” of assertiveness – pay attention to how someone else feels, too!



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