Why We All Need to Leverage Empathy with Colleagues

A friend once told me about a classic work problem that we’ve all faced. She’d been working on a project for several weeks and was ready to put her ideas on the table at a meeting. But she ran into a huge roadblock because another colleague kept disagreeing with her, preventing her from moving forward with her work. My friend was using her expertise to get the best possible product out the door, so naturally, her initial reactions were frustration and hurt when someone tried to change her ideas that she had put so much work into.

But then she said something incredibly wise that I won’t forget. When she left that meeting, she realized that the person who disagreed with her was just as passionate as her about getting the product right, using their unique expertise and value. Instead of seeing the situation as someone trying to block her ideas, she reframed the situation to view it as a person whose opinion was coming from a place of earnest. From that point on, she also reframed how she pitched ideas, acknowledging that colleague’s perspective and reiterating that they wouldn’t be forgotten during the project.

The key that helped keep the situation under control was active listening, which is essential to empathizing with others. Active listening requires taking personal responsibility to understand your colleagues’ perspectives, withholding judgment until they finish speaking, and then supporting them to demonstrate that understanding.

As more and more cases of COVID-19 unfold worldwide, and lockdown measures continue, everyone is experiencing unique challenges and stresses. When big or sudden changes like this occur, you can reframe it as an opportunity to build trust in your organization. First, address the situation and be authentic in acknowledging the stress. Place the blame on the moment, not on individuals. Take time to ask your colleagues how to activate your listening skills to identify with how they are feeling and to understand the circumstances they are working within. Find out what you really need to be able to support them better, be more flexible, or to make room for compromises.

Be generous in your interpretations of people – we don’t know what everyone else is going through. Assume the most polite interpretation of others. This is especially pertinent during times of high stress, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of assuming that someone is intentionally ignoring your email, consider the possibility that this colleague is also a parent and might be occupied with childcare. Consider how you might behave if you were in their position. It won’t serve you to dwell on suspicions, nor will it bode well for your future interactions with your colleague to cling to negative assumptions.

Exercising empathy is useful for everyone in an organization, not just for management. Expressing gratitude for your team’s hard work, listening actively, and encouraging people to bring their most authentic selves to work increases trust within organizations. While senior management should lead by example, everybody can benefit from a shared culture of empathy and looking for opportunities to develop emotional intelligence.

Empathy is vital for business success and personal development. It helps build personal resilience in people, which, in turn, affects the resilience of organizations overall. We might not be able to control global events, but we do have the power to exercise empathy and kindness towards the people we work with.

Empathy is the first step in design thinking, and the foundation on which designing an innovative product or service begins. Spring2 Innovation offers tools to help you apply empathy in your work environment. To learn more, check out our variety of upcoming courses.