Looking for better teamwork and performance? Try empathy.
Empathy is the ability—and willingness to try—to understand the feelings of others. It means seeing their point of view, not just yours.
When people feel understood, they are more willing to listen and collaborate. They feel safer to test new ideas. They handle change and bounce back more quickly from challenges.
Surveys show 80 percent of CEOs believe empathy is key to success. Their employees feel more strongly, with 96 percent saying empathy at work is essential.
When empathy is high, engagement goes up. Almost 80 percent of people say they’d be willing to work more hours if they had a more understanding environment.
When empathy is low, turnover rises. Eighty percent of millennials and 66 percent of Baby boomers say they would leave their job if their workplace became less empathetic.
Empathy improves performance. A Harvard Business Review study found companies where empathy is high outperform other companies by 20 percent.
Essential but underused
Despite agreement that empathy is important, it is still undervalued. More than 90 percent of employees say empathy isn’t practiced enough in their organization. Just half say their CEO shows empathy—and the CEOs agree, with almost 50 percent saying they struggle to demonstrate empathy.
Empathy should be easy. Our brains are wired to recognize the feelings of those around us. But many workplaces don’t encourage us to use this natural ability.
When we are consumed by pressure and results, it’s easy to forget about the people who make the results possible. This leads to a sad irony: The same people who regularly show how much we care about our spouses, children and friends leave that part of ourselves behind when we go to work.
But we’re all human at work, as we are at home, with the same emotional needs. The care you give to family and friendships is the same care needed for productive relationships with your coworkers and customers.
Some believe you either have empathy or you don’t. But research shows empathy can be strengthened with practice. Here are six FISH! Philosophy tips to exercise your empathy muscles:
1. Know your own feelings
When you are overwhelmed, your brain goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. You can’t think clearly about your own feelings—much less those of others.
Take a walk. Slow down. Take a few minutes to meditate, focusing on each breath. Observe your feelings without judgment. Describe them as a neutral observer, the same way you would describe any situation you were watching.
The better you understand your own feelings, the better you’ll be prepared to understand what others are going through. You’ll find it easier to choose an attitude of openness and concern.
2. Cut the distractions
If you are on your computer or glancing at your phone while listening to someone else, you will have a hard time picking up what they are feeling. Plus they are likely to be upset by your inattention, which won’t help your relationship.
You don’t just use your ears to Be There for people. Facial cues and body language reveal more than 90 percent of what they are feeling. Look and listen. Resist the urge to think of answers for them. Just work on understanding first.
3. Don’t guess
Listening and being attentive is a start, but sometimes you must go deeper to make sure you are clear about what people are feeling.
One way to find out is with a caring question. If you notice a coworker is feeling pressure to finish a big project, you might say, “I see you’ve been working hard. I know when I had a similar project, I was really excited but I also felt overwhelmed at times. How are you feeling?”
This open-ended approach leaves it to your coworker to tell you, if they want, about their feelings, while showing you cared enough to ask. That means a lot. It may give you an opening to ask if you can do anything to help.
4. Keep working at it
It’s human nature to see relationships as fixed. We give the benefit of the doubt to people with whom we have a good relationship with and assume the worst of those we don’t.
But relationships can change. Simple acts such as saying thank you or offering a compliment can Make Their Day and repair shaky relationships. An angry response can damage a relationship you’ve worked hard to build.
Relationships require constant care. It’s easy to misinterpret actions, like a coworker’s offhanded remark or unanswered email, that they never intended. Unless we communicate regularly with each other, we often fill in the gaps with our own stories about what we think happened.
Be There for people. Get to know them as more than just an address on the other end of an email. Your team—and your life—will be better for it.
5. Find the balance
The act of empathy releases brain chemicals that make us happy. But there are limits.
Constantly being in tune with people’s feelings can be emotionally exhausting, especially if you start to feel like you are the one giving all the time—or always giving in.
If you are overloaded, don’t be afraid to set boundaries. You don’t have to say yes to every request. Ask yourself what you need to recharge.
When you take care of yourself, you will be healthier. You’ll project that happiness onto everyone around you.
6. Celebrate It
Empathy is contagious. Studies show after seeing others vote, conserve energy, or donate to charity, people are more likely to do it too.
To encourage empathy in your workplace, find champions—people who others naturally look up to—to model it. Recognize and celebrate people when they live it.
Healthy cultures use empathy to find solutions that help everyone succeed and feel valued. It can be hard work, but it beats the dysfunction that happens when people don’t care what others think.