Empathy is the ability to understand things from another’s perspective. It is also the ability to recognize, value, and share someone else’s feelings and emotions and to understand why they are having those feelings. Empathy can be a powerful antidote to workplace stress, negativity, and feelings of burnout, and is a catalyst to stronger innovation, creativity, and engagement. Just as empathy is a portal to connection, communication is the key that facilitates empathy.
The wonderful thing about empathy is that like other skills, it can be developed with practice. By seeking to understand, we can increase empathy, and thereby improve our social and work environments. Several practices can help us do this. Developing listening skills, validating the feelings of others, and asking powerful questions will deepen our own ability to empathize, and create a stronger sense of connection and community with others.
Firstly, to take on another person’s perspective, we can focus on improving our listening skills. By setting aside distractions such as cell phones and tablets, and setting the intention to listen to another with the purpose of understanding, we can enhance empathy in the conversation. Try focusing on the other person’s words (and not on what your response will be). Use their words to reflect on what is being said and not being said, verbalizing the other person’s feelings or experience in your own words. One way you can do this is to say, “Let me see if I got this right, …” and then paraphrase their statements or feelings.
Another important tool in understanding another’s feelings is to practice validation. This doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the other person, but you can acknowledge their feelings and verbalize that back to them. This might look like, “It sounds like you feel frustrated by the lack of resources to complete your project, is that right?” Or you might say, “While I feel differently about this situation, I am conscious that you are having a different experience. Can you walk me through …”
Powerful questions can support an empathetic conversation. As empathetic listeners, we want to ensure we are not making assumptions about another’s perspective, feelings, or experience. We want to avoid asking closed-ended questions, such as those that can be answered with a yes, no, or another one-word answer. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, allow us to go deeper in our understanding. Instead of asking, “Do you like the new scheduling software?” You might ask, “How do you feel about the new scheduling software?” Or, “What features of the new scheduling software impact your work?” Asking powerful questions can help to serve two purposes. It can help bring clarity to a situation, and it can serve to provide a sense of safety for the other person through the invitation to expand and deepen your understanding of their experience. Try using questions that begin with, “what,” or “how,” to keep the dialogue open and flowing.
As we each seek to expand our abilities to empathize, remember the goal is to build connections through deepening our understanding of others. As Albert Einstein said, “Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding.”