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Empathy Is the Answer

Your supervisor knows that you’ve got a lot on your hands between working and taking care of your kids, so they take a task off your plate. You notice that your normally energetic coworker seemed quiet and withdrawn during a meeting, so you reach out and schedule some time to chat.

Empathy is the common thread between these two scenarios.

During the recent GovLoop online training “Empathy in the Workplace,” Managing Editor Nicole Blake Johnson and Senior Digital Marketing Manager Leah Anderson discussed with moderator Emily Jarvis the importance of empathy, what it means to them and how one can practice it in the workplace.

For Johnson, the word “heart” was the key to talking about empathy.

“Empathy is a heart issue that causes you to ask yourself: do I care about people on a human level?” she said.

For Anderson, empathy is all about understanding – the ability to understand the emotions of other people, and to understand what’s affecting someone on a day to day basis.

But empathy is about more than just other people and how you relate to them. It’s also about how you relate to yourself.

“You have to stop and look within,” said Johnson. We often think of empathy as something we do unto others, but we need to have empathy for ourselves before we can apply it in social settings.

It’s also not just acknowledging people caring about them, said Johnson. Empathy drives you to take action. It’s not just noticing that someone is struggling but considering the ways in which you could help them.

As Anderson said, you can be empathetic even when giving critical feedback. You start by considering what your motive for giving feedback is, and then you present it in a constructive way and offer avenues for changing a behavior or improving a situation.

Empathy can also be important for interacting with coworkers who you normally have a difficult time getting along with. Anderson was careful to point out that you can be empathetic towards negative people, and that by understanding the social, environmental and personal factors that are impacting their attitude, you can change your relationship with them.

Empathy is obviously a great thing, but it is not always easy, and this is true on both ends of any interaction.

If you are initiating a conversation, you have to understand that you are asking the other person to trust you with their stories and experiences, said Johnson. To set yourself up for success, you also have to approach any interaction by assuming the best, added Anderson.

The final application of empathy in the workplace that was discussed can be a tricky one. Empathy is an integral and irreplaceable part of any discussion or action around sensitivity and inclusion, but this can often be a time when people feel uncomfortable leaving their own minds to occupy the shoes of another.

Anderson had some advice regarding this, which was that while one wants to be a perfect ally immediately, the reality is that effective allyship is a process where one learns along the way. It is also, as she pointed out, not a self-centered process, but rather one where the increased comfort, safety and well-being of others is the goal.

And as Johnson said, “it’s better to have the conversation than sit in silence.”

This is also true of the conversations we must have with ourselves, where we acknowledge our unconscious biases, reject preconceived notions about our coworkers and their experiences, skills and personalities, and resolve to take action.

The good news, Anderson noted, is that empathy is a skill that one can practice and improve over time.

And it’s a skill that’s vitally important to practice because as Johnson put it, ultimately, “the workplace is about people—it’s not just pushing papers around.”

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