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.