Empathy In The Workplace, How To Practice It & Why It's So Important During COVID-19

Certified professional leadership coach By Amelia Kruse
Certified professional leadership coach
Amelia Kruse is a certified professional leadership coach with clients such as Droga5, Google, Spotify, Anomaly, Domino, and Weber Shandwick.
Woman Working Remotely At Her Living Room Coffee Table

Our ability to empathize with other people is key to our success as working professionals and human beings. Empathy helps us forge bonds, find collaborative solutions, and improve the world around us. 

But in the age of the coronavirus, when most of us are locked up in quarantine and hidden behind face masks, empathizing with each other has become more difficult. It's especially true in the workplace, where Zoom calls have become the norm, and meeting face-to-face and gathering for social meals and after-hour get-togethers has become a rarity.

How do we empathize in this environment, when we're exhausted, remote, and surrounded by a world that is undergoing social and political reckoning and where many are suffering?

Here are some tips.

Empathy starts with respect.

At its core, empathy is about showing respect for another person. We might not agree with that person, but empathy allows us to strive to hear them and see them for who they are and honor what they might be feeling or experiencing.

It should come as no surprise that showing respect is one of the most important things you can do in a work environment. It doesn't matter whether you're interacting with someone above, below, or on par with you in the professional hierarchy, when respect is present, everyone benefits. 

And when it's absent, everyone suffers. The quality of work goes down. It sows division throughout the workplace. People are less loyal. In failing to respect those around us, we hurt ourselves just as much as we hurt them—even if we're not actively aware of it.

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Become an active listener.

It's easy for me to say "respect your co-workers!" But what does that actually mean? 

For starters, it means you have to focus on becoming truly engaged as an active listener. When others are sharing how they feel with you, whether through words or body language, focus on what information is being shared with you and ask yourself, "How can I put aside my own feelings for a second and understand what they are experiencing?"

Ask follow-up questions. Or just be quiet and listen, and listen some more. It's easy to forget, especially as leaders whose voices carry weight, just how often people go unheard in this world. Their feelings, their experiences, their brilliance, and their basic value as human beings is overlooked.

This is as true in society at large as it is in the workplace. And often the biggest step to rectifying the problem is simply listening without prejudgment.

Embrace vulnerability.

The tricky part about active listening is that, in opening ourselves up to other people's voices, we may not like what we see or feel. Their feelings might hurt our feelings. We might strongly disagree or be confused. This requires an immense amount of vulnerability.

To be empathetic, you have to be vulnerable. And in the midst of a pandemic and worldwide race protests, it's understandable why you might not want to be any more vulnerable than you already are.

To help with this, take a few minutes to think about the cultures you live in and that have shaped who you are. We move in and out of many cultures through our lifetime—that of our family, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, home environments, and social circles—and they all create biases within us.

The more we understand the context within which we live and how they have shaped us, the easier it will be for us to be vulnerable with other people and to actively listen to what they have to say.

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Turn emotional reactions into thoughtful responses.

We've all experienced the email we wish we could take back. If only we had waited another day to let our thoughts collect and our emotions cool, no doubt we would have responded more thoughtfully and constructively.

So it goes with becoming more empathetic at work. Part of practicing empathy is keeping emotional reactions in check and replacing them with thoughtful responses, be it in email, Zoom calls, or in-person interactions.

I find it helpful to just take a breath. Listen for a beat. Collect yourself and remember that embracing other perspectives, though challenging at times, is vital for doing good work. When we see our colleagues for who they are and honor what they might be feeling or experiencing, it changes how we see the world. It helps shift our perspective. 

That's why empathy so often goes hand-in-hand with creativity and innovation. The broader our perspective, the more ideas that flow, and the easier it is to exercise our imagination and come up with solutions that are outside the box.

So take a breath. Check yourself. And respond thoughtfully and collaboratively.

Make empathy a habit.

Like anything in life, some of us are born naturally more empathetic than others, and some of us have to try a little harder to be empathetic. But, like all aspects of emotional intelligence, empathy is a learnable skill; we just have to practice it and work to make it a habit. 

Like any habit, we need to first be clear with ourselves on what habit we want to get rid of and what habit we want to replace it with. Once we know that we want to get into the habit of being empathetic, it requires self-awareness and observation and repetition. It may take a while to get the hang of it; what matters is we don't give up and that we keep practicing until we realize we don't have to try anymore and it has become a natural way of being.  

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