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Kindness + Business

How to Develop and Display Empathy at Work

by Claire Millard

Empathy is becoming recognised as a vital skill for progressive leaders, and is listed as a core competency for leadership in many modern companies. This leads to the question of whether or not you can teach empathy as a management skill? Can you make someone who struggles with empathy better at displaying this human emotion? Can you give empathy to someone who seems unable to build these connections between themselves and other team members?

Whilst it may feel at times as though some colleagues are completely lacking in empathy, it is unlikely that they are truly devoid of this most basic of human emotions. Harnessing and displaying empathy, however, is a different matter, and something many people struggle with, often for fear of appearing weak or overly emotional. Having the emotional intelligence necessary to build powerful personal relationships through showing empathy at work is quickly becoming essential - and the following ideas might help release the natural empathy skills you have already.


Think about listening to understand, not to answer. This small but vital difference means that you are able to fully focus on the person you're talking to, rather than feeling under pressure to come up with an appropriate answer or response. Use active listening techniques, thinking about your body language to show you're still following, as well as summarising what you've heard and mirroring the actions and emotions of the individual you're talking with.

As simple as it might sound, whatever your level of interest is in the conversation, don't play on your phone or check emails whilst you're supposed to be listening. Not only is it outright rude, but also, there is usually someone watching, even if it is not your direct interlocutor - and the resulting reputation for lacking in empathy can be horribly damaging for any leader.

Be authentic

Empathy cannot be forced or faked - which is both what makes it a powerful leadership skill, and what makes it tricky to develop for some people. Open up about yourself a bit (keeping it appropriate for the work environment, naturally), to help genuine relationships develop naturally. Don't ignore or hide the emotional content in a conversation with colleagues, as this will feel like a barrier to others. Showing some vulnerability and human feeling, on the other hand, will help relationships blossom.

Look to use appropriate physical contact - a hand on the arm can mean a lot, for example, and try to properly notice emotional signals in others. They're not always obvious, but do pay attention if something is different or unusual in a colleague's manner or mood, for example. Name the emotion, simply commenting that you've noticed that the individual seems tired, or frustrated, for example, to allow discussion if this is what they want.

Use all methods of communication

When talking to your team, don't forget about non verbal communication which can be as important as the words you choose. Research shows us that body language accounts for up to 93% of what others actually 'hear' in any communication.

Smile, and encourage others to do so also. Not only will the positive body language be mirrored by others and make relationships run smoother, but the release of endorphins you get from smiling will mean you feel better for it!

Look out for horns and halos

In recruiting, employers are taught to think about 'horns and halos' - meaning the immediate impression created by candidates which can appear as clear as though they walked into the room with an angelic halo or satanic horns. These immediate impressions are usually caused by unconscious bias, and result from our subconscious finding similarities and differences in others and surmising that this is either a positive or a threatening thing.

Do your best not to judge others, and examine your own prejudices where you see them. True empathy is really about being able to walk in others' shoes. Use your imagination to think about how it might feel to do or be someone else.

Finally, accept that showing empathy is a risk. You have to put yourself 'out there' which can be a scary thing. Offer help to your colleagues, and be the one that makes the first move to build relationships and show support. It is a leap of faith that will be well rewarded.

Source: Career Addict