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Why does empathy matter to working relationships?

Last time, I said that working relationships will be smoother if you stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting.  Easier said than done.  Have you ever wanted to react angrily at work to something someone said or did?  Have you given in to that temptation? How did it work out if you did?

What happens without empathy?

​My natural reaction can be a little hot headed in some situations.  I remember losing my temper with an employee when I was chair of trustees for a small charity.  She provoked me, but that’s not really a legitimate reason.  It was in front of other staff too, which made it an even worse mistake. If I’d tried harder to see things from her perspective – loss of funding meant the future of the charity, and with it her job, were at risk, she’d worked there for about 20 years, who was I to come in and start telling her what to do, what did I know? – maybe we wouldn’t have been in a position where she continually provoked me.  And maybe, even if she had, I’d have found it easier to remain calm.

Going back even further, I had a manager who bullied me for a long time.  I used to fantasise about standing in the doorway of her office gunning her down with a machine gun.  Someone said that was too fast an end to her, but for me it captured the explosive nature of my anger. And I’m not a violent person. This work situation took away my confidence for a long time, and I harboured ill feelings towards her for a long time too.  But as I’ve grown, learned more about what makes us happy, what makes us confident and powerful, I eventually started to see things from her point of view.  She was a manager of an office of 50 staff, responsible for reaching financial targets for law enforcement.  She was probably under pressure herself from senior management to achieve those targets. Who knows what stress she was feeling, but I never considered this back then.

A rebellious team leader, arguing with her over changes, backing the team against her, she reacted inappropriately by using intimidating tactics to get me to fall into line.  They didn’t work, resulting in a breakdown of our working relationship.  If I’d stopped to consider what she needed to achieve in running the office, shown some empathy for the pressures she was under, perhaps we’d have been an awesome team.  I think she had some things to learn about managing people, but I can’t escape responsibility for this situation.

Why does empathy matter?

I first came across empathy as an important skill in the workplace in Daniel Goleman’s article for the Harvard Business Review.  Originally published in 1996, it features in their 10 must reads published in 2011.[1]  Goleman’s article is aimed at leaders, but I believe we can all benefit from nurturing this critical life skill.

Back when he first wrote this, Goleman pointed out that empathy wasn’t seen as businesslike.  Now however, we see articles in Inc - Why Empathy Is the Most Important Skill You'll Ever Need to Succeed and Forbes - Why Empathy Matters In The Workplace We get whole books devoted to helping us improve our emotional intelligence (EQ).[2]

How do you know if you are empathetic?

 

One way is to use a test, such as that in Bradberry and Greaves’ book, reference below.  Another is to ask people you trust to be honest with you.  If your working relationships are such that you cannot ask this question of anyone at work, or you believe that your team won’t feel safe enough to tell you, then you have a significant amount of learning to do.  But even if you do have trusted advisers, be prepared for surprises.  It can be difficult to know how we’re perceived by others unless we make the effort to find out, and it can be difficult to hear the answers.

And a third option – look inside yourself.  Do you feel you have empathy?  Do you feel you could improve?  On the whole, people would describe me as empathetic, but there are some situations where I don’t put myself effectively in the other person’s shoes.  I described a couple above, but they are ancient history now.  Last week at the improv course, I was acting as a mother pleading with her child to come home.  I missed a couple of things, and if that had been a real conversation, could have had serious implications. (I know it’s only pretend, but empathy and listening skills are central to good improv, as I said here.) I’m also pretty sure my husband would say I don’t see things from his point of view often enough.  

So it’s situational.  But good self awareness (one of the other components of EQ) will ensure that you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you want to improve.

 

How can I learn empathy?

 

Like all of the components of emotional intelligence, we can learn empathy, but it takes commitment and reflective practice.  Goleman himself says the process is not easy. The rewards, however, are worth the effort.  Not just better working relationships, but less stress and better personal relationships too. So what can you do? Practice, is the short answer.

​Develop your listening skills

The pretend situation I mentioned above, where I was pleading with a child to come home – humour me while I use that as an example. The situation was that my daughter (played by a thirty-ish guy from Barbados) had run away from home because Daddy didn’t love her because he wanted her to be a boy. I’m not sure what age she was meant to be, but in my head, around five years old.  I totally missed the point about Daddy wanting her to be a boy, and didn’t address this in my responses. How tragic would this be if a parent missed such a comment from their daughter, whatever age she was?  While we were playing this for laughs I’m sure this will have happened in reality, and was a stark reminder to me about picking up on things, even if they’re said in passing.  Often people reveal their true feelings subtly, or inadvertently. (I’m not suggesting my improv colleague was on that occasion though ? )

Reflective practice

Take some time out to consider an interaction that didn’t go how you wanted it to go.  Think about what that felt like for the other person.  Do you think they felt heard? Years ago, when I was in the civil service, and much was done in a bureaucratic way, I often said the managers I respected were those who let me put my point of view.  They didn’t have to accept it – if they acknowledged my point, but said they wanted something done differently regardless of my points, I would accept that – they were the boss, and I was happy to accept that sometimes they would make a decision I didn’t agree with.  And this was before I understood, or had even heard of, emotional intelligence.  The managers I rebelled against were the ones I felt didn’t listen. It’s important to acknowledge another viewpoint, even if you have reasons for not changing your stance.  If you can explain those reasons, so much the better.  For empathy to be effective, the other party has to feel your empathy.  It’s no good if you didn’t communicate it effectively.

Watch for hidden cues

Sometimes people say one thing, but don’t really feel it.  Learn to watch for incongruence, saying yes and shaking the head no, for example. It may not be in the gestures or facial expressions, it may be in the tone of voice.  Agreeing to something in a tone of voice that’s not very convincing, shows no enthusiasm. Pick up on these – ask what’s holding them back, what misgivings do they have?  Be prepared though, for people still not to give you the full information.  Sometimes they might not be fully aware themselves what the problem is, and sometimes they may not be ready to share it, or want to share it with you.  It’s all a work in progress though, as you develop your skill in communicating your empathy, others will grow to trust you more and be more ready to be honest with you.

Get a tailored report from Talent Smart 

If you buy the Bradberry and Greaves book, it includes a code for an online assessment, which gives you resources and advice for the skills you need to improve. (I have no affiliation to Talent Smart, just think it's a useful book.)

Get a coach 

Whilst you can ask a trusted friend or colleague to mentor you or give you honest feedback, and possibly even help you by picking up on times you could do better, there is no subsititute for coaching.

​So what will you do next?

​Let me know in the comments below - stating it gives it substance, and we can hold you accountable.

 

[1] Daniel Goleman. ‘What makes a leader?’ The Essentials, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston Massachusetts 2011

[2] Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Talent Smart, San Diego 2009

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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