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4 things you can do to practice empathy at work

Is empathy the new ambition? It seems like it. Spend even a few minutes in leadership and customer service circles and you'll hear the word empathy. There are empathy meetings. Empathy training. Empathy has become the cornerstone of humanistic design. There’s even a full-blown empathy economy. With all that empathy flying around, it’s no wonder there’s even empathy fatigue.

It appears that we’re less concerned about getting ahead and more tuned into getting inside the heads of others. Empathy is an important—even crucial—element of being able to meaningfully and positively connect with the people in our lives, from our partners to our kids to our customers and our colleagues.

But how “good” at being empathetic are you? Do you struggle to see others’ points of view? Do you struggle with wanting to see their point of view? Are there people in your life or workplace with whom you can’t seem to connect?

Empathy is natural—it begins when we’re babies and mimic the facial expressions and gestures of our parents—but it’s not always effortless. Fortunately, empathy is something that can be learned. And the more we do it, the better we get at it.

But how "good" at being empathetic are you? Do you struggle to see others’ points of view? Do you struggle with wanting to see their point of view?

Here are four things you can do to flex your empathy muscles every day. They can work on everyone, everywhere—but you’ll find the biggest impact in the places where you spend the most time, at work and at home.

1. Practice active listening

In conversation, do you find yourself tuning out while the other person is talking, focusing instead on what you want to say next? Maybe there’s a story you want to share or you want to express your opinion on the topic. Either way, you’re not listening. And that’s a surefire way to spark disconnect.

Whether you’re chatting with your four-year-old or discussing next steps on a project with a colleague, try active listening. That means focusing entirely on what the other person is saying without thinking about when it’ll be your turn to speak again or what you might want to share. (Some people even suggest actively not saying the thing that came to mind when the other person was talking. Radical!)

Instead, try:

  • Making eye contact
  • Offering non-verbal gestures like nodding and “Mmm-hmm” or “Ah” to indicate that you’re listening
  • Focusing solely on what they’re saying, not what you think of what they’re saying
  • Pausing for 10 seconds after they’ve finished to consider what you might want to say in response, if anything

This is advanced-level listening, but it’s worth it. You’ll find that you learn a lot more about a person by letting them speak freely and concentrate on their point of view.

[Related read: Empathy Lab: Building community in the workplace from the inside out]

2. Repeat back what they say in your own words

Repeating back what you think you heard is an off-shoot of active listening, commonly used in mediation or counseling sessions between two people. It comes from the insight that most of us want to feel heard or understood by others, particularly those they love and/or respect.

Rather than writing down exactly what a customer or colleague says and repeating it back verbatim, you might mentally or physically note the main emotion or issue:

  • “What I’m hearing is that you’re really frustrated by our daily scrum meetings because they happen right in the middle of your most productive time.”
  • “You feel like your boss is unfairly targeting you for something that the whole team is responsible for. Is that right?”
  • “It sounds like you’re really upset with Sylvia and how she’s being so judgmental. You feel like you can’t do anything right. I totally get how you would feel this way.”

Fun fact: You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying or feeling. Your assessment of the situation is beside the point when you’re being empathetic. The fact that you are listening and showing compassion is often enough to help the other person process the problem and find their own way to move past it.

[Related read: Not feeling it? Learn how to navigate the roadblocks to empathy]

3. Personalize your empathy

One of the hallmarks of empathy is putting yourself in the position of another person. You know, the classic “walk a mile in their shoes” adage.

Maybe if you were upset about being passed over for a promotion, you would want a trusted colleague to invite you out for a drink after work and allow you to vent. Other people might want to lay low and would appreciate it if no one mentioned it. True empathy is not slapping your preferences onto your compassionate acts.

Fun fact: You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying or feeling. Your assessment of the situation is beside the point when you’re being empathetic.

While it’s not possible to know what someone needs under any given circumstances, a kind smile, a note of encouragement, or a well-timed, unobtrusive question are all ways of showing compassion without inflicting your own values upon someone else. And here’s a wild idea: What about asking them how you can best support them in this moment? True empathy means taking time to consider what another person needs and wants, in a crisis and in regular interaction.

[Related read: Build a strong company culture by leading with EQ]

4. Value emotional intelligence in the workplace

If you have a leadership role, make sure your calls for empathy extend towards your colleagues and team, as well as to customers. There’s so much focus on understanding the customer that it’s said that a workplace culture of caring is less of a priority.

Jamil Zaki, author of The War for Kindness, notes that while empathy is a buzzword among leaders, it’s still a struggle to bring into organizations. “Thankfully there’s a way to work with the power of social norms instead of against them, and consequently change cultures,” he writes in the Harvard Business Review. Zaki notes that, “People conform not just to others’ bad behaviors, but also adhere to kind and productive norms.”

Zaki’s recommendations include:

  • Acknowledge growth potential: “The first step towards building empathy is acknowledging that it can be built. Leaders should start by assessing the mindsets of their employees, and teaching them that they can indeed move towards their ideals.”
  • Call attention to the behavior you want: “Empathy often belongs to a quiet majority. Foregrounding it — for instance through incentives and recognition — can allow employees to see its prevalence, turning up the volume on a positive norm.”
  • Find the right culture leaders: “To build empathic cultures, leaders can begin by identifying connectors [people who encourage team cohesion even when it’s not part of their formal role] and recruiting them for help championing the cause. This not only increases the likelihood that new ideals will ‘take’; it also allows employees to be recognized for connecting with others — highlighting another positive social norm at the same time.”

Empathy is not a switch we can turn on unless we value and practice it every day. So if empathy is not just a buzzword or a bullet on a job requisition, if it truly is our ambition, it should come with this warning: Side effects may include improved relationships, warm fuzzy feelings, reduced conflict, and an improved sense of well-being.