Empathy is an important element in growing and nurturing strong connections, in both our personal and professional lives. When someone takes the time to understand another person’s perspectives or emotions, it can cause a deeper relationship to bloom between the two. In a job setting, empathy can foster productive conversations and help resolve conflicts. A workplace that encourages empathy helps employees feel valued and appreciated, which can contribute to stronger engagement, loyalty, and productivity. It begins with understanding what empathy is.
Sympathy and empathy can both be important factors in helping promote that human connection in your organization, but they are not the same thing. Sympathy involves feeling concern for someone, such as “feeling bad” about another person’s misfortune or pain, but without really knowing what it is like to be in their specific situation. Your emotions about the matter come from your own perspective. Empathy takes it a step further; empathy accentuates the giver’s compassion by trying to understand what a person is going through based on that person’s unique experiences or views.
For example, sympathy means you feel sorry for your colleague Tom whose family member is dealing with a difficult illness. A sympathetic response can look like expressing your support to Tom, sending him a card, or making a donation to a charity that funds research for the illness — all of which are great things to do. Empathy, however, helps you dive deeper into what Tom is feeling and why. You may see how Tom’s close relationship with his family member makes the illness hard on him, that Tom feels stressed over large medical bills and the ability to pay them, and other issues unique to Tom’s situation. Empathy gives you a more well-rounded idea of what another person is going through.
And empathy is not only for problems or difficulties; it also helps drive understanding when teams are discussing ideas, developing plans, and trying to come to an agreement about how to move forward with projects and strategies. When people feel that their ideas and views are given true consideration and that their managers and co-workers are interested in understanding the reasons behind those views, then collaboration and compromise often come much easier.
Empathetic leadership can have a trickle-down effect that impacts everyone in the organization. When employees know that management genuinely prioritizes understanding and relating to personnel, it inspires them to do the same for their colleagues. In addition to discussing the importance of an empathetic workplace to your staff, show empathy in tangible ways by asking questions, considering different points of view, and offering to help with problems or conflicts.
Institute an open-door policy for your team, and make sure they know you are available and willing to discuss any issues they may be dealing with, without judgment. Emphasize this idea by having regular meetings, in person or virtual, with your staff, and encourage open, respectful dialogue.
Knowing the communication styles of your employees is helpful when conducting these meetings. You can use a personality or behavioral assessment to show you who on your staff is expressive, outgoing, and prefers to talk through their ideas or problems and who are more reserved and need time to flesh out their thoughts internally before conveying them to others. Some people, especially in the reserved group, may prefer putting their ideas in writing more than verbalizing them in front of the group. Recognizing these differences and allowing employees to voice their perspectives or ideas in their own style can help facilitate richer discussions and stronger understanding within the team.
Employees might not be comfortable bringing certain topics up to management or in a public meeting, which is why having an empathetic peer group on the job is crucial. Leadership should encourage colleagues to set aside time to talk and share with each other in a low-stress way.
Empathy involves a genuine desire to understand someone else, and you cannot accomplish that if you do most of the talking yourself. Whether you are a manager interacting with your staff or working peer to peer, listen attentively to what the person is saying rather than thinking of how you should respond.
Pay attention to their non-verbal cues, like tone, facial expressions, and gestures, which can be easily missed if you are not focused on the other person. Additionally, make sure your own body language conveys that you are fully present and not distracted. Only after taking in all of what the other person has said should you consider how to respond.
Start out by repeating what the other person has said but in your own words to be sure you are not misunderstanding anything. Try starting with the phrase, “What I’m hearing you say is…” and rephrase the main points of the conversation. This gives the other person a chance to correct or clarify what they are trying to convey.
It can be tempting to say, “I know exactly how you feel. I had the same experience when…” but resist this impulse. You may intend to use this to build a connection, showing how you understand what the person is going through, but doing so can make it feel like you are making the conversation about yourself. When trying to show an empathetic response, recognize that the person’s experience is unique to them; you are trying to understand them and their perspectives, not merely trying to draw parallels to your own life.
Remember, empathy isn’t about fixing someone’s problems; it’s about building a connection through understanding. It’s fine to offer your thoughts or ideas if the person asks for them, but sometimes being there to listen without judgment can provide exactly what the person needs while growing a sense of trust and appreciation.
Omnia has helped organizations recognize and understand their employees’ unique attributes, strengths, and motivators for nearly 40 years. Our dedicated Client Success Managers act as trusted advisors for our clients, helping them learn how to take this valuable knowledge and use it to enhance their workforce. Let us partner with you to put the power of insight to work in your business.
People get my name wrong a lot. I’ve often remarked to friends that it’s like being part of a social experiment every day of my life. Admittedly, Keather is a unique name. I’ve never met another Keather, and I’ve never met anyone who has. I know there are other Keathers in the world because I’m human and I’ve googled it to find out. And while I understand that Keather is a unique name, it’s still amazing to me how many times my name is spelled and pronounced incorrectly. So when I set out to write a blog about listening I thought it would be fun to go back and look at the photos I have in an album of spelling mis-haps. To me these examples exemplify what a constant challenge it is for our brains to take in and fully process what we are hearing before we take action.
Here are some examples of misinterpretations I’ve experienced over the years:
There are many things that get in the way of us fully listening to people. There are external barriers we face daily that are due to our physical environment. Most of the spelling mishaps I’ve experienced are either in coffee shops, airports or hotels. Often the person is frantically trying to take down my name while fighting the loud hums and whistles of the espresso machines, or the screeching of blenders and other baristas. Hotel operators or airline desk attendants are distracted by long queues, irritated travelers, or computer delays.
External barriers to listening are physical barriers that interfere with hearing more than listening, but they can certainly cause enough distraction to get in the way of someone being able to listen fully with concentration. In an office setting, these include things like the quality of sound on your phone, your computer speakers, the speaker’s settings and the all too famous issue of someone being on mute when they’re talking on a Zoom call. These are all things that a listener and a speaker can typically control. If not, the conversation should always be rescheduled.
Internal barriers to listening are more complex and difficult to work through. This is when the messenger is heard, but there are internal barriers that prevent the listener from fully understanding and comprehending the message. These internal barriers to listening can keep the message receiver from understanding the intent and feeling behind what’s being communicated and can result in taking incorrect action or giving an inappropriate response.
I’m certain we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve known that someone can hear us, but they aren’t fully listening. That experience leaves us frustrated and can lead to serious consequences of disengagement, work errors, and productivity loss to name a few. Being ready to fully listen means you’re committed to picking up all the sound in the message, and the meaning behind it. There are many things that can get in the way.
Here are 3 to consider and work on overcoming.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, our brains process about 70,000 facts a day. In addition to the information overload we’re experiencing, there are always competing distractions coming our way whenever we’re in a conversation. Rarely is our mobile phone out of our sight. Texts, IMs, and other interruptions are occurring constantly while we’re in conversations with others. To be a good listener we must manage these distractions to the best of our ability. Turn off notifications and sound alerts. Put your phone face down and keep it down throughout the conversation. Easier said than done, right? Just remember, multi-tasking is not doing multiple things at once – it’s screwing up multiple things at once, and the last thing we want to do is have a key employee feel discounted and unheard. So be all in.
Each of us have a unique style and preference of communication. Some people prefer to paint the entire picture for you with every detail, and others prefer to only hit the highlights. Depending on your preference it can be difficult to be all in and fully listen to the person who’s got the opposite approach. Some would prefer to write or receive an email ahead of a conversation or even in place of a conversation. The Omnia behavioral assessment helps leaders and individuals understand their unique communication qualities and preferred approach. When you’re the listener, it’s important to honor the messenger’s style while keeping your own in check. Especially in difficult conversations when you know the individual is having a challenging time discussing a sensitive topic. Allow them to do it in their way and adapt your style.
Have you ever just wanted to vent to someone about a challenging situation and they jump in immediately telling you how to fix it? You weren’t looking for advice, but all of a sudden you’re getting told what to do. This is a common barrier and occurrence, unfortunately. Most of us want to be helpful and can’t help but jump into problem-solving mode. We can overcome this barrier by clarifying expectations at the beginning of a conversation and adapting our listening Ask what the individual wants from you during the conversation. As one of my favorite leaders used to clarify in meetings - are we information sharing or information processing? Are they looking to just provide a brief status update with no judgement or input from you? Are they coming to you for advice and discernment to help them get unstuck with something and to consider alternative approaches? Or do they merely want a supportive confidant or cheerleader to share a challenge or victory. Knowing what the individual expects from you as the listener right up front can set the conversation up for success.
Keeping these barriers in mind, here are some things you can do during conversations to fully listen and not just hear.
Focus on being effective in the conversation, not efficient. Steven Covey, author of my all-time favorite book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said “you simply can’t think efficiency with people. You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.” Once you’ve clarified up front what the person wants from the conversation be sure you have enough time to get through the content. We’re all pressed for time and usually jammed with back to back meetings. Make sure before you dig into a conversation that there’s enough time to get to the expected result.
This is hard! But keep yourself in check and let the individual complete their sentences. Be sure that full thoughts have been expressed and that the person is finished before you jump in with any response or questions. A good practice is to count to 5 before you step in. This may seem like a lifetime, but you’ll be surprised at how often the person has more to say and they will if you give them that time and space.
Writing down what you’re hearing is a great way to stay focused and capture details you will want to clarify later in the conversation. It also gives those of us with a propensity to interrupt something to do. If you’re taking notes on your computer or phone be sure to let the other person know you’re doing so. They may incorrectly assume you’re responding to emails or texting a friend.
After you’re certain the speaker has finished their thoughts and is ready for a response begin with asking questions. Asking questions assures there is clarity before action. It also shows your intent to fully understand what the other person is saying and experiencing, and shows you are interested; committed. Clarify what you heard and ask for supporting details, or feelings behind the message. Repeat back an important fact they shared or a specific detail to confirm you have a complete understanding of what was said and what they meant. Using phrases like – Do you mean? Are you saying? Would it be important for you?... go a long way in not only helping expand the conversation to get more clarity but also being sure the messenger feels heard.
Circle back to the beginning of the conversation and what the expected outcome was. Did the individual get what they wanted out of the conversation? Did you leave them feeling heard? Did you mirror the emotion expressed? Agree on next steps, specific actions, and the timing for follow-up. And remember - listening isn’t just a one-time event. Effective communication between a manager and their employees is fundamental to the operation of any business and it’s a continual process. Make a commitment to follow these steps in team meetings and 1x1’s and you’ll go a long way in demonstrating you are not only hearing your colleagues, but you’re listening intently.
We are here to help! One of the most powerful management tools is simple self and team awareness. Knowing your natural communication style along with the styles of your team members is a great way to start. These insights help you effectively recognize the differences within your team and manage to those dynamics. When you commit to authentic communication, it’s easier to build employee trust and lay the foundation for sustained employee engagement and productivity.