Here’s a fact: empathy is making its way into the boardroom – all types of boardrooms. If you’re just hearing this as the latest corporate buzzword, let’s discuss it a bit to bring you up to speed on what it is, why the heck it matters and how you can consider it the next time you’re sitting around a table of colleagues (no matter how dry the topic is!).
What is it?
Empathy is all about people…and the wonderful complexities that make us human. It’s about understanding emotions, relating to others, seeing yourself in those around you. Empathy is understanding other perspectives and being able to work WITH that. Often the best leaders of organizations are also great at empathy. They may have come by it naturally, or most likely they have had years of practicing it which has helped grow their career to where they are now.
Brene Brown, well-known author and professor, who has studied empathy, vulnerability (among other related topics) describes empathy this way, “Empathy is…communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You are not alone.’”
Why empathy matters at work (and in life)
Practicing empathy reduces conflict. Period. It takes us out of our negative emotions and allows us to see things (even slightly) differently. We can all have a tendency to get caught up in our ideas, allowing our ego to take control. That can cause conflict with others, especially in the office (or maybe in our home life?), when we are working with others who don’t share our same perspective. No doubt, working this way is not fun. It drains our energy, squashes the best ideas and halts progress.
When we think about the common goal within our work, we begin to see the bigger picture. The common goal often comes from the common good. The common good grows with those around us coming together. In sum, empathy breeds CONNECTION. When we have connection, we COMMUNICATE on a whole new level to make great things happen.
Easy ways to begin practicing empathy
- Listen! This isn’t just about opening our ears. We need to open our eyes. Our minds. Our hearts. Shit – yup, we just said it. We just made this real…and despite this list saying “easy ways”…it just became less easy. And this is only point #1
- Wear the other person’s shoes: Your mother was right. Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and we may better be able to understand why they are saying/doing/believing the way they are. This is the poster child point on empathy. Until the next point.
- Be vulnerable – gasp! V-v-vulnerable? Believe it or not, it does have a seat at the boardroom table. A big seat. When we are vulnerable, we are relatable. We are real. Our points are more clearly understood. We better understand others’ points. It may require a few breaths, and a few (hundred) meetings, but once we allow others in, empathy will shine its bright light
- Consider diversity an improvement: It can be hard to adjust to many different perspectives, but that’s the beauty of collaborating. When we accept that not all opinions are the same, we can work towards bringing them together into one big, giant, opinion that conquers all the smaller ones
- Ask questions & clarify: When in doubt, frustrated, unsure, unclear – ask questions. Seek to understand where others are coming from. Sometimes the clarity brings us closer. Sometimes clarity makes us realize we were saying the same thing. Or totally opposing things. In the end, clarity will help us understand. When we understand, we are empathic
Good luck in your quest towards empathy. There are many, many websites, books and videos on empathy. Some great resources we like include:
- For classrooms (or if you’re open-minded, corporate environments): https://startempathy.org/resources/toolkit/
- A training manual for adults from The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion: http://cultureofempathy.com/References/Experts/Others/Files/Marieke-Kingma-Empathy-Training-Manual.pdf
- Short video on empathy, sales and the workplace: https://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/video/2014/aug/28/empathy-in-the-workplace