How to Have Empathy at Work and Why It’s a Skill Worth Fostering

To have empathy for someone means you’re able to see things from their perspective and feel their feelings as if they were your own. Empathy is a vital skill to cultivate in and out of the workplace since not understanding where people are coming from can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and discrimination.

How can you hope to effectively communicate with someone if you haven’t considered their point of view? How can you motivate your employees if you don’t know what inspires them? How can you market your products and services to your customers if you don’t understand their needs and pain points?

While it’s true that some people are more naturally empathetic than others, empathy is a soft skill you can build. In this post, we’ll discuss the importance of empathy in the workplace as well as how you can encourage and foster empathy at work.

The Importance of Expressing Empathy in the Workplace

Even the most withdrawn and mysterious among us want to be understood. Showing empathy to your team members, managers, customers, community members, and stakeholders makes them feel seen and heard. Instead of chewing out an employee in front of everyone because they’re late, a manager with high empathy might choose to speak with the employee privately and ask them how they’re feeling. Do they have too much on their plate right now between their professional and personal life? Is there anything you can do to help?

Responding empathetically like this means the employee has no need to become defensive or feel resentful toward you. Your job as a manager is to facilitate a welcoming, trusting environment in which your team feels comfortable expressing themselves and working in the ways they know will bring them the most success. You’re there to help them do their best work, not to punish and ridicule them.

Expressing Empathy at Work BSS

A study by Catalyst found that “empathy is an important driver of employee outcomes such as innovation, engagement, and inclusion—especially in times of crisis. In short, empathy is a must-have in today’s workplace.”

Feeling understood is incredibly important to someone’s wellbeing. In fact, some believe feeling understood is even more important than feeling loved. When someone understands you, it means you’re not alone. Empathy connects people together, and, as we all know, a team that’s disconnected from one another is no team at all. If team members don’t know where each other is coming from, they’ll become suspicious of each other’s motives. Does my teammate really want to help? Or are they trying to steal my job?

A lack of empathy at work breeds disconnection, discontentment, and disengagement. It makes people feel ‘other’ and separate from the team and organization, so instead of a cohesive team, you have a group of mistrustful individuals unwilling to openly communicate and collaborate with each other.

Don’t let this happen to your team! Empathy can take many forms, and demonstrating empathy at work isn’t as complicated as one might think. Keep reading for some simple tips on how to express empathy at work and how to continue building this soft skill.


How to Have Empathy at Work

Asking Questions

1. Ask Engaging Questions

Don’t just ask your coworkers how they’re enjoying the weather, get to know them on a deeper level by asking engaging questions. Yes, making conversation can sometimes be intimidating, but never fear—there’s an even easier thing for people to talk about than the weather. Themselves!

People love talking about themselves. Talking about ourselves stimulates the same regions of our brain as sex and cocaine. We are our own favorite topic. If you want to build a connection with someone and demonstrate empathy, begin by asking them interesting questions and seeking their opinion.

By asking questions, you learn more about the people you work with, and this helps you see things from their perspective. If you know your colleague’s children and dog were sprayed by a skunk last night, you have a pretty good idea of why they didn’t complete the work they said they would get to. How would being sprayed by a skunk make you feel? Would you feel motivated to complete your work after spending hours frantically washing your children and dog in tomato juice?

Ask your team members about their lives and their interests. Do you share any of those interests? Do you have a similar home life? Do you like the same sports or even root for the same team?

The first step to building empathy at work is getting to know your coworkers, and you’ll never find out if you have anything in common if you don’t ask.

At the same time, a key part of being empathetic also means knowing when to give people space, and knowing which questions are appropriate for the workplace. (Be careful of microaggressions at work!)

📚 Curious about how to spark conversations with coworkers? Read our Guide to Water Cooler Talk.

Listen Actively

2. Listen Actively

Make sure that after you ask a question, you actively listen to the response—don’t just wait for your turn to speak. Asking your coworker a question and then zoning out when they respond is even worse than never asking a question at all.

Do people ever check their watch or respond to a text message while you’re speaking to them? Do you feel like you’re being heard when someone displays this type of body language? Or do these actions make you feel small, unimportant, and uninteresting?

That’s passive listening; it’s listening without really hearing or focusing on what the other person is trying to say.

Active listening is listening with intention. It requires you to focus your full attention on the present moment. You can’t multitask while practicing active listening. You must maintain eye contact and let the person know you’re hearing them by smiling, nodding, and repeating what they say back to them for clarification if you don’t understand. In other words, active listening takes effort.

By actively listening to someone, you’re demonstrating that you value their opinion and care about what they have to say. Their words matter to you; the coworker you’re speaking with is your single biggest priority right now, and everything and everyone else can wait.

Want to make your team members feel heard? Actively listen to what they have to say.

📚 Learn more in our guide to Active vs. Passive Listening and Other Effective Ways to Listen.

Drop Your Assumptions

3. Drop Your Assumptions

People put a lot of stock into first impressions. We believe we can tell a lot about someone based on meeting them for the first time, but this isn’t exactly true. It’s only natural to draw quick conclusions about people; it’s part of our evolutionary instinct. Is this person trustworthy, or are they a predator?

As soon as we’ve laid our eyes on someone, we’ve formed an opinion. It takes less than 1/10th of a second to assess someone’s face. We assume we know things about them based on their appearance, how they carry themselves, what they’re wearing, and so on. But the truth is, these snap judgments are surface-level observations that really tell us nothing about who the person is on the inside.

Don’t assume you understand where a person’s coming from based on one meeting or hearsay. First impressions can be very misleading, so don’t rely on them alone. Challenge your assumptions. Ask questions. Give people time to come out of their shells.

Even if you’ve known someone for a long time, give them space to grow and change. Don’t assume they will always be the same. This assumption will actually make it more difficult for people to make positive changes in their lives.

Don’t assume; ask.

Empathetic Communication

4. Prioritize Empathy in Communication

Not everyone communicates in the same way. While a direct, blunt communication style may be your go-to, this could intimidate someone who prefers to start a work conversation with a little bit of small talk. Some people love to talk on the phone, whereas the idea of speaking on the phone can terrify others.

Learning how your coworkers and clients prefer to communicate is key to effectively engaging with them. The coworker who can barely manage a hello when you meet them in the hallway may love to crack jokes and converse over Slack.

Do what you can to meet people halfway. If you’re extremely outgoing and extroverted, how can you alter your communication style so that you don’t intimidate your shy and quiet coworkers? If you’re naturally quiet and shy, what can you do to make your extroverted team members less uncomfortable? Remember our previous tip about asking engaging questions; if you can’t think of anything interesting to say about yourself, ask your extroverted coworker if there are any movies, shows, or books they would recommend. Why did they like it?

Developing empathy at work benefits everyone. Make time for team building sessions so that your team can get to know each other and build a friendly rapport. Consider investing in workplace personality assessments like the Enneagram or DiSC to help team members better understand themselves and the people they work with.

Personality assessments aren’t a perfect science, but they do help to clarify and define the communication preferences, work habits, and idiosyncrasies of the people you work with. When you’re able to authentically empathize with your teammates and understand where they’re coming from, you can communicate and collaborate much more effectively.


More From Blue Summit Supplies

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Jordan's passion for travel led her to design a career as a remote content marketer. Nearing 1000 published articles, she's spent the past decade using her interdisciplinary education to research and write content for a wide variety of industries. Working remotely, Jordan spends half of the year exploring different corners of the world. At home, she's content exploring fictional lands—Spark an immediate and detailed conversation by mentioning Game of Thrones, Red Rising, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings.

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