When we think about empathy, we often think about “putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes.”
But here’s the thing: We can’t fully put ourselves in another person’s shoes. Our feet might not be the same size. However, we can do our best to think critically about all that it entails to wear those shoes. How comfortable are they? What experiences have they walked through to get to where they are today?
Asking yourself questions like these is a type of cognitive empathy, a practice of trying to understand what a person might be thinking. There is also a genuine, emotional empathy that can elicit compassion and a willingness to help others.
Unfortunately, both cognitive and heartfelt empathy are seemingly in short supply these days. I believe that stems in part from the stress of the past two years. As much as we’d like to deny it, we are not the same people we were before March of 2020. Our mental and emotional well-being have taken a beating.
But I also believe that there’s no better time than now to increase our empathy and grace for one another. Here are two powerful ways that you and your coworkers can benefit from the practice of empathy.
When we practice empathy, we’re taking the time to consider how other people might feel, while noting how our words and actions might impact others. In essence, we’re acknowledging that we share space with others.
This awareness fosters a culture of not just inclusion but true belonging, which is one of the essential benefits of empathy. Many of us want to feel seen and heard. You might recall a time when you felt dismissed or misunderstood. It most likely didn’t feel good. Perhaps you started to shut down and became more guarded toward that person. Now recall when someone truly tried to understand you. It probably made you feel more connected and freer to be yourself.
Empathy awards us the freedom to be our authentic selves without judgment. This fosters a psychologically safe environment where we are more open to collaborating with others, sharing ideas and trying new things.
Did you know that our brains recognize the workplace first and foremost as a social system? We are wired for connection, so when we feel isolated or rejected, our brains process those experiences as physical pain. When you are empathetic, you are signaling to the other person that they are not alone and that they belong. You also are making connections and strengthening relationships. People who feel connected experience less anxiety and depression, and they also experience more feelings of happiness and self-worth.
In a recent study by Catalyst, 50 percent of people who had empathetic leaders reported that their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17 percent of those with less empathic leadership. Another workplace study found that innovation levels increased by 83 percent when employees feel included.
Think about it: When you feel excluded, not only is your well-being impacted, but it also impacts your ability to be innovative and creative, because your brain is in survival mode. When you are in an environment that values empathy, however, your need to be on the defense decreases, leaving room for you to flow from your zone of genius.
Better Conflict Management
Disagreements are inevitable. We’re all different, so conflict is natural. It isn’t inherently bad and doesn’t have to be negative. However, when we have a conflict with someone, we tend to view them as the enemy. It becomes an “us versus them.”
But when we practice empathy, it provides us an opportunity to pause long enough to acknowledge the other person’s point of view and demonstrate behavior that we ideally would like reciprocated. This decreases tension, as well as symptoms of anxiety. It also allows people to move through conflict, rather than avoid it, because they feel more confident that the disagreement will be managed well.
Being empathetic doesn’t mean your feelings don’t count. Learning how to honor your feelings while leaving room to consider the feelings of others can help you have a broader perspective. And this will help you to better partner with the other person, decreasing the chances of making the conflict about each other. Instead, together you can address the real issue at hand.
Actively listening and asking clarifying questions to better understand another person’s position also can help to diffuse the situation. The more you both work to understand each other’s perspective, the easier it will be for both of you to regulate your own emotions. No longer in fight or flight mode, you also can better communicate your point of view and have a more collaborative conversation, where you can brainstorm new possibilities for coming to an agreement and positive outcome.