How to practice empathy and emotional intelligence at work

April 04, 2022  •  Reading Time: 8 min.

Have you ever wondered how you can (better) incorporate empathy at work? And what that entails? Is it simply about having good listening skills, or the ability to really “read” people’s emotions? What if you already have a hard time assessing your own feelings?

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In this article, we will show you how to develop empathy and emotional intelligence at work. Always keep in mind that embracing empathy is an ongoing process. So don’t worry if you can’t implement everything right away. Not every person is a good listener from the start, nor is it a given that you are aware of all your colleagues’ feelings and can relate to and support them from the get-go.

What is a good definition for empathy in the workplace?

Empathy is the ability to perceive and understand the thoughts, feelings or experiences of someone else. Those with a range of empathetic skills (like the ability to practice active listening and building an emotional connection with those around them) can better comprehend other people’s perspectives, show compassion and establish true empathetic connections with co-workers.

Attention: Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Practicing empathy means being able to really take someone else’s perspective and genuinely experience their feelings, ideas, or opinions.

Why is it important to have an empathetic workplace?

By showing empathy at work, you can fully understand the other person’s perspective and thus strengthen your ability to engage with them. It also gives you a more comprehensive understanding of how your own actions affect colleagues. In many cases, this can lead to much more productive conversations and even drive the whole organization forward because it has such a positive impact.

What are the benefits of empathy at work?

Empathy matters: It’s a truly essential soft skill that helps you build great relationships with other employees and is an indispensable part of today’s workplace. The main benefits are an improvement in communication, the strengthening of work relationships between each team member, promotion of creative thinking, improvement of customer service and a positive impact on your personal life, as it is possible to strengthen relationships outside of work as well.

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How can you show empathy skills at work?

Now that we have established the importance of empathy to strengthen relationships between colleagues or with customers, and thus elevate your own job performance to a new level, let’s focus on how to achieve it!

One important point: There is no magic formula for empathy on the job. Empathy, by the way, is also about respecting other points of view, whether you agree with them or not. Those who are skilled at it avoid quick judgment and stereotyping. Empathy in the workplace therefore helps develop clearer interpersonal awareness.

The following techniques can help you show more empathy in the workplace:

  1. Consider the feelings of others

Stress in the team? When you consider and understand the other person’s perspective and feelings, you can respond much better. Educate others about your own assumptions and perspectives as well so that building a better relationship is a two-way street.

  1. Be an active listener

Can simple listening also be an act of empathy? Yes! If you listen carefully to a speaker before considering a response, you can often understand the content of what is being said much better. Focus on the speaker’s needs first before you act.

  1. Ask more questions

How can you find out what another person is feeling? By asking questions. Typically, it’s not that easy to imagine what the other person is feeling. However, if you ask more questions about that other person’s needs, you can understand much better how you can help.

  1. Be helpful

How else can you practice empathy? By offering your help! This simple gesture shows your colleagues that you are committed to the team’s success and want to help them achieve mutual goals.

dark haired woman sitting in office

For managers: How to provide more empathetic leadership at work

Are you managing an entire team in your organization? Leaders can take the following steps to show more empathy in the workplace and to their direct reports:

  1. Show genuine interest in the other person

How can I lead more empathetically? By knowing and understanding the individual needs, as well as the desires and dreams, of each team member. Only then can I design work tasks to contribute to both performance and satisfaction of the individual employee.

  1. Help employees with personal problems as well

Can I also talk to my employees about private matters? Insightful managers know that everyone on the team has their own personality and probably has a whole host of personal issues in addition to their job responsibilities. Therefore, part of your job is to support your team members in any situation when they need it most.

  1. Recognize signs of overload

Burnout? It’s a real problem in today’s world. Insightful managers are able to recognize signs of overwork in colleagues. Talk to your team regularly and check how they are coping with their current workload. If necessary, help them reduce their workload.

diverse female employees conversation

For organizations: How to create a more empathetic workplace for your employees

Organizations as a whole can also promote a more empathetic workplace and help their workforce improve their empathy skills:

  1. Teach active listening

Is it a necessity that everyone in the company has good listening skills? Not only the leaders should be good listeners, but also the teams among themselves should have some practice at it. After all, if everyone can listen in an active way, people feel respected and trust in the team can grow tremendously.

One tip for conveying this important skill: Teach your employees to pay attention not only to the words that are said, but also to the emotions and values expressed through nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, pace of speech, and body language.

  1. Encourage genuine adoption of perspective

What does it really mean to put yourself in the other person’s shoes? For your employees, it means always considering the personal experiences or perspectives of their colleagues. Managers in particular can apply this to problem-solving and conflict resolution.

  1. Communicate the importance of empathy in the workplace

Point out the importance of empathy to your staff. Although hard skills like task-oriented abilities are also very important, devoting time and attention to others is what really drives and increases employee motivation and performance.

Why does empathy often fail in the workplace?

Why is it difficult for many companies to integrate empathy into their work culture? In general, it can be said that empathy cannot be mastered from one day to the next. Moreover, many businesses do not see this skill as crucial and therefore do not promote it well enough within the organization.

The most important point about why empathy often fails in the workplace: Humans are only human. This means that some people are naturally empathetic and can recognize the state of mind of others. Other persons may not be that way at all. Likewise, some people are just generally more stress-resistant and therefore able to deal with the problems of their colleagues, while someone else can barely cope with their own (work) problems and is hardly able to pay extra attention to anyone.

Companies and leaders should therefore foster the ability to empathize among every employee from the very beginning. This is an ongoing process that continually requires a certain investment of time and energy. Especially in companies with many people working remotely, empathy may not be the highest priority. Here, the primary concern is to boost and maintain employee morale and overall motivation. However, it’s worth considering an empathic approach in these situations as well, as many companies simply see increased productivity and engagement as a result.

Conclusion

In recent years, organizations have increasingly chosen to prioritize soft skills in the workplace. This ranges from creating a positive environment to topics such as conflict resolution. In terms of empathy (i.e., the ability to truly listen to others and grasp their emotions) in the workplace and an empathetic leadership style by managers (which also means less top-down management, for example), there have been major advances recently as well.

Although at first glance it may not seem so easy to be empathetic at work and still maintain a professional attitude, there are simple steps that all workers can take to support this working style. All it really takes is an understanding of what empathy (as opposed to sympathy) really is, and to truly practice and embrace it.

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FAQ

What is employee empathy?

Empathy in the workplace is the ability to perceive and understand the thoughts, feelings or experiences of colleagues. In this way, employees are able to make authentic connections with each other that improve their interactions and also make them better performers.

Why is empathy at work important?

Showing empathy at work is very important as it can result in more effective communication and therefore lead to higher quality results.

Why is empathy a vital leadership competency?

Empathetic leadership and understanding employees’ feelings and thoughts can lead to a high-performing team, benefiting the entire organization and its bottom line.