Empathy in the Workplace
I’ve spent the morning training eleven volunteers in emotional intelligence and how to use fictional stories to help children talk about emotional issues. We used some amazing books that are great for eliciting different perspectives.
I reflected on the difficulty some people have when considering alternative perspectives to their own. In an ideal world, children are taught this skill at school and by their families. However, reality can be different. Schools are under enormous pressure to cover a wide scope of knowledge and skills. Parents may not have the know-how themselves. So where does that leave those individuals who become adults in the workplace without the ability to empathise?
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
The skill of being able see something from another person’s viewpoint is crucial when communicating effectively. Understanding how others feel, their perspective and experience, their motives, and their vision for a desirable outcome are key ingredients to a meaningful interaction. Yet the ability to do this reduces significantly when people are stressed. An open-minded searchlight view of the world narrows down to a spotlight that is stuck on their own interpretation of events.
So picture this, an office with individuals attributing their own meaning, their own values, their own priority to tasks, without consideration of their colleagues’ differences. And throw into the mix clients with whom the team needs to negotiate without being able to see the bigger picture. Doesn’t sound very conducive to great outcomes. But it might sound familiar. If people get past the school phase and haven’t picked up the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the emotional world of people, how are they supposed to become adults competent in communication? Great qualifications don’t mean very much if the individual is unable to build and sustain good relationships in the workplace.
Here’s the question…
How able are your colleagues to consider others’ views, needs, challenges? And how good is your team leader at this? We wouldn’t miss out the key ingredients of a cake when baking; that would be ridiculous! But we often fail to ensure that managers and their teams have the vital skills they need; to be able to recognise that behaviour initially considered stubborn or unreasonable is simply a reaction based on that person’s prior knowledge and experiences.
So how do you put aside your own viewpoint and see things from another person’s perspective?
Here are a few techniques to practice:
- Take an active interest in what other people think, feel and experience. Be aware of your assumptions.
- Give your full attention. Listen for what people say as well as how they say it. Only 7% of communication is via the words we use so pay attention to non-verbal cues, for example body language and tone of voice. Avoid challenging at this stage.
- Put yourself in their shoes to try to understand how they see things. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them but be respectful of their view. Remember empathy is about what the other person wants and needs so ask for their ideas about how to move forward with the issue.
- Continue to check in with the other person as views change. Perspectives shift as more information comes to light and understanding of a situation develops. Our emotions aren’t static.
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