How to Embrace Diversity With Empathy

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The government is a diverse organization. So how do you work together? And how can you, as a government leader, continue to invest in diversity? One answer is empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree with everyone; it just means you assume a curious mindset and make an effort to truly understand.

Frieda Edgette, Certified Executive Coach and Organizational Strategist, explained how we can embrace diversity in the workplace with empathy as a tool. She explored the neurological and behavioral sciences underpinning empathy, its vital role in effective government leadership and shared practical tools to enhance individual and collective empathy across differences in the workplace.

First, how do we define empathy? There are three different types of empathy that span personal life and the workplace:

  • Cognitive empathy: Understanding the perspectives or thoughts of another. Alone, cognitive empathy can lead to manipulation. It can also lead to being cold and unfeeling.
  • Emotional empathy: Feeling and sharing the experience of another. Alone, emotional empathy can lead to overwhelming stress and even burnout.
  • Compassionate empathy: Understanding and being moved to take action. This can be grand gestures or even just listening. Compassionate empathy can improve communications, interpersonal relationships and even happiness.

“We often navigate and apply all three in our daily lives,” Edgette said.

What Gets in the Way of Embracing Diversity?
Often, diversity can be impaired by split-second decisions triggered by biases. We all are capable of impeding diversity because of our narrow experiences and takes on the world. Family, culture and environment all play a part in how we make sense of everything.

“Think about who you are,” Edgette said. “With biases, maybe you had a bad experience with somebody or read something. These can be called anchors and they can cloud our ability to see things with fresh eyes.”

When it comes to the inability to practice empathy, lack of exposure to other people or cultures is the primary culprit.

“In our brains, there’s a stress hormone called cortisol,” Edgette said. “If you see somebody similar to you, there’s little to no effect. But if you see someone different than you, it triggers implicit bias.”

But while instinctual biases can be linked to the science of the brain, so can practicing empathy.

5 Steps for Embracing Diversity With Empathy
The key to embracing diversity with empathy is to better understand ourselves. “We can’t connect and be real with others if we can’t be honest with ourselves,” Edgette said.

Edgette recommended these five ways to help you reset your empathy:

  1. Be authentic. Seek a better understanding of who you are. Develop self-awareness by exploring your identity, background, principles and life experiences. For example, you may be a white woman who likes tea and grew up on the West Coast. All of these factors affect how you see the world and your affinity to those like you or who are not like you. Seek to understand your triggers and fears.

For example, maybe you had a bad experience with someone who identifies as a particular race. Does that experience cloud your vision when coming across other people of the same race? What do you do when you encounter differences? Be honest when asking these questions.

  1. Self-manage. What is your natural response when presented with difference or conflict? Do you fight, flee or freeze up? Take note of your default response. Develop an “in the moment” strategy to practice self-control like taking a deep breath, going for a run or just assuming a power pose. 
  1. Practice active listening. When interacting with others, watch verbal and non-verbal cues. Make sure you turn your inner voice off for a moment and focus entirely on the other person. Let go of the stress of needing to respond. This activates “mirror neurons” in the brain where you are more likely to release oxytocin, the hormone that causes happiness. 
  1. Get curious. Channel your inner Indiana Jones, where you are adventurous and want to experience everything. Assume a learning mindset. Ask open-ended questions that start with “what” or “how.” What experiences shaped the other person’s life? Where do they get their information? What’s most important to them? Your only mission is to understand. When you seek to learn instead of assert your own opinions, you can open up more doors for problem-solving, creativity and interpersonal relationships.
  1. Respect, connect. We as the human race share 99 percent of the same DNA. It’s important to share stories with others and connect beyond work and government life. By being more open and more respectful of one another, we can improve communications and better connect, resulting in enhanced communications and productivity.

Edgette also shared some practical exercises you can try in your workplace.

  • Log 3 We’s. Think of someone who is different from you. Next, set a timer for 60 seconds. Write down three ways this person is just like you. Here’s an example. 1) We’re both people; 2) We are both trying to make sense of the government landscape; 3) We both want to be accepted. When the timer sounds, review your list. What do you notice? How do you see the person now? The next time you see this person, what is one thing you will do to connect? Be sure to write it down.
  • Randomly do five good deeds today. Today, do five random acts of kindness. For example, help someone across the street. Lend a friend or family member a hand. Pick up an extra meal for someone in need. Compliment someone at work. Make an effort to talk to support staff at your office and learn their names. Large and small acts can make all the difference.

Ultimately, you have the power to direct your mind, improve communication and connect across divides. Start by incorporating these empathy resets and exercises when meeting diversity in government. The more you practice, the stronger your empathy reserves become.

This blog post was originally published July 31, 2017 and recaps a session that took place at Govloop’s annual NextGen Government Training Summit. For more information about this year’s summit, go here.

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