How to show empathy in the workplace (and why it’s essential)

Although kindness, sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, the latter is in a class of its own.

Kindness is defined as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate,” while sympathy refers to the “feeling of pity or sense of compassion… when you feel bad for someone else who’s going through something hard.”

On the other hand, the Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation,” while the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

In other words, kindness, sympathy and empathy are all terms that are closely related, but they aren’t the same. While kindness and sympathy are about exercising compassion towards others, empathy is about stepping outside of your own perspective to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Why is this important? When we operate with empathy, we’re better positioned to understand someone else’s feelings, see a situation from multiple perspectives, and make decisions based on the interests of others—not just our own.

We’ve all heard the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. Empathy is the key ingredient that makes this possible. When you have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you have the power to connect authentically and impact their lives in a positive way.

Empathy should be part of all our daily interactions, whether personal or professional. However, operating with empathy is essential for the business world for multiple reasons—it can improve morale and boost motivation, increase revenues, drive sales, and so much more. 

The 2023 Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) Empathy in Business Survey found that 86% of employees “believe empathetic leadership boosts morale,” while 87% of employees said that empathy was “essential to fostering an inclusive environment” at work. It’s more important than ever that business leaders put their people first, and taking an empathetic approach is a key element of this.

Without further ado, here are five ways to practise empathy in the workplace: 

1. Put yourself in others’ shoes

Put simply, being empathetic is about stepping outside of your own beliefs, values and biases to see life through someone else’s eyes (or, to walk a mile in their shoes—choose your metaphor). Of course, no two people on this earth have lived exactly the same experiences, and we won’t always be able to understand what someone is going through, or has experienced in the past. That said, it’s still important that we try to understand the emotions of others so we can gain a better understanding of their beliefs, behaviours and actions, and also show them that we care about how they feel and want to help.

2. Practise empathic listening

In any interaction, whether it’s with clients, colleagues, or friends, listening closely is more than just the polite thing to do—it can be a way of demonstrating empathy. Use techniques like active or empathic listening to ensure you’re paying attention not only to the words the person is saying, but also to their body language, tone of voice and other important cues such as what they’re not saying or doing. With empathic listening, you’re encouraged to listen to the other person’s perspective without judging or interjecting, while actively trying to imagine what it would be like to be in their position. This way, you’ll be giving the other person the time, space and freedom to share their story, and showing them that you genuinely care about them and how they feel.

3. Be mindful of signs of stress or burnout in your colleagues

Burnout has become the new “silent epidemic” in the workplace. According to a July 2023 report from Trade Unions Congress (TUC), 55% of workers felt that “work is getting more intense and demanding,” while 61% of workers said they “feel exhausted at the end of most working days.”

We’ve all likely experienced the symptoms of burnout during our career, so recognising it in others should be relatively simple, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. It’s common to get wrapped up in our own lives and forget to check in on our colleagues, but that’s where empathy comes in: if you were going through a tough time, wouldn’t you want a trusted work colleague to notice and check in on you? Keep an eye on your colleagues for common signs of burnout like exhaustion, procrastination, cynicism, self-doubt, or overwhelm. 

4. Show interest in your colleagues’ personal and professional lives

Another way to show empathy towards your colleagues is to take an interest in their lives and remember that they’re full-fledged human beings outside of work. While it’s still important to maintain appropriate boundaries at work, there’s nothing wrong with getting to know more about your colleagues’ personal lives if they choose to share. Not only can getting to know your colleagues on a more personal level help you bond with them and build team morale, but it can also help you perform more effectively as a team. Try asking more open-ended questions about upcoming vacations, weekend plans, pets, or hobbies, and likewise, feel free to share details about your own personal life so you can find common ground with co-workers.

5. Invite colleagues to share their viewpoints and encourage psychological safety

A workplace that feels “psychologically safe” means it’s an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their honest thoughts, opinions and perspectives without feeling afraid of repercussions or embarrassment. Whether you’re the CEO or an intern, you should always feel safe enough to express your honest opinions, share creative ideas and ask questions within the office environment, and this kind of culture comes from the top down. For leaders especially, it’s important to invite colleagues to share their thoughts during meetings, and encourage them to join the dialogue. Not only will this create a culture of sharing and empathy, but it will also foster more innovation, creativity and better ideas because people won’t be afraid to speak up and contribute.
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