Empathy. It’s Professional.


I come from Montana and am a bit of a tomgirl. As someone who grew up with a horse trough in the backyard as a “swimming pool,” I am sometimes self-conscious about my lack of sophistication.

Since I started working at a government agency, I have had to fight against my aversion to business attire and polish up my laid-back demeanor so as to project a level of professionalism that does justice to the role of public servant.

Meanwhile, over the twelve years I have worked in government, I gradually became fluent with my agency’s culture and practices. I spent those first few years trying to act like I thought a professional government employee should act – reserved, detached, and official.

But as the years went by and I became comfortable with “how we do things around here,” my approach started to seem aloof and fake to me. I realized that in trying so hard to be professional, I wasn’t channeling my natural instinct toward empathy, and was therefore missing the chance to take my work relationships to the next level.

I am starting to get it. Being professional is still my job. But now, instead of trying to do my best imitation of a bureaucrat, my professionalism arises out of empathy and a passion to help people do their jobs and to help my agency succeed. Rather than a self-conscious motivation to appear a certain way, I try to be more “you-conscious.”

How does empathy make me better at what I do?

Empathy helps you listen attentively. It’s not always easy to set aside the frustrations and to-do lists that fill our thoughts all day so that we can really pay attention to someone. How many of us have muted the conference call and checked our email? Instead, make an effort to think about the person on the other line – what is her to-do list like right now? What are his goals and frustrations? You will find yourself more likely to actively care about what they’re saying and maybe even coming up with ways to help.

Empathy makes you more creative. When attentive listening leads to real engagement, you will find it easier to quickly connect to other ideas, people, or solutions. Empathy nurtures curiosity. In fact, studies show that innovation is more likely to be associated with higher levels of creativity when employees are empathically motivated to take the perspective of others.

Empathy helps you build a sense of partnership. Try saying “we are going to find a solution” rather than “what do you want from me?” Rather than operating from a self-interested default setting, you start from a base of wanting to help others excel. Being empathetic creates a relationship built on mutual trust and shared goals.

Empathy helps you negotiate. Just because you empathize with someone else, doesn’t mean you have to agree. With an empathetic perspective, you are more likely to correctly interpret the thoughts and expectations of other people. And when people feel understood, they feel better. If that person feels reassured that you understand their position, they are often more accommodating and cooperative toward a jointly acceptable solution. This give you more room to solve problems and communicate effectively than if you are simply trying to control the situation.

I was always tapping into empathy to some degree. As a communicator I can’t write or design a product without trying to anticipate how my intended audience will see, feel, and experience that product. But now I much more consciously use empathy to guide the direction of my work and interactions with others. Not only has it made work more satisfying, but it has been a catalyst for creativity, and has helped me see a new terrain of possible solutions and opportunities for the people I work with.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to keep striving for a smidgen of sophistication too. But I’m keeping the comfortable shoes.

Rachel White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Kathleen Vaught

Great article! Empathy should no longer be shunned in the workplace as an “emotional weakness” or confused with sympathy. Understanding and appreciating our fellow humans can only lead to more positive experiences – both at work and home. Thanks!

Marc Clark

Empathy is a necessary ingredient to effective teaming! When we reach out to others, we make ourselves available to be more than just “present” in collaborations and conversations. How can we value the insights and opinions of families and clients if we cannot value these same things from colleagues and co-workers. Good listening and co-learning starts with empathy.

Rachel White

Yes! It can be hard to listen “with both ears” (i.e., really pay attention). And I love the idea of co-learning. Thanks for the comment.

Violet Ungemach

Empathy is something that I don’t always think about when I am rushing through my days and schedules. I loved your point on “Empathy helps you listen attentively”. It is evident that my own to-do list can often interfere with my listening/understanding ability thorough the day. Ackowlegding this can defiantly help to stay focus and take break to hear out my coworkers and friends. Love this post!

Suzy Christophersen

“I spent those first few years trying to act like I thought a professional government employee should act – reserved, detached, and official.”
This quote really resonated with me. I, too, felt I needed to be professional. I got so tied into that idea that I decided to go by my given name of Susan because it seemed more professional. It stuck and it was the first brick in the wall I built around myself. The wall got so tall, that unlike in other places I’d worked, very few people called me what my friends called me –Suzy. It took me more years than I’d like to admit to realize that I couldn’t connect with others if I wasn’t being myself. I now go by Suzy and am more empathetic, and a better collaborator and co-worker.

Margaret Evans

Wonderful point!! I have many times in my life been accused of being too empathetic, in my personal life and in my work life. The most satisfying jobs I have had have been the jobs where not only was I able to express and use my empathetic nature for good, but was lucky enough to work with at least a few other people with empathetic personalities!!

Ellen Welch

Developing empathy as a team building skill takes time, but pays off. As a manager I know confidentiality is imperative, yet many of those situations which evoke empathy are confidential. One of the most frustrating things a manager must balance is when you support a staffer who is dealing with an issue, yet their coworkers, unaware of the need, see favoritism or you’re turning a blind eye to someone’s slacking off. Building trust for the team helps with the development of empathy. If we trust that we are performing to the best of our ability, then we have the ground-floor for empathy. Trust gives us the opportunity to pause in a snap judgement and consider, “Maybe something else is going on, and I need to be ______.” Fill in the blank – patient, understanding, helpful, etc. When working side by side with people each day, that pause allows for understanding and empathy…and it does wonders for maintaining a positive environment.

Rachel White

I like that idea of trust as the ground-floor for empathy. As a manager, you must be tapping into empathy on many different levels and I am sure it gets really complicated. We are lucky to have managers like you!