How to use empathy in the workplace

15 July 2019 -

Architects looking at plans From active listening to coaching others, follow these tips to help you colleagues feel valued

Many leadership theories suggest that empathy — the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others — is an important part of management. When managers appropriately use empathy, their colleagues feel validated and understood, resulting in higher engagement and productivity.

Demonstrating empathy is one of the competencies in CMI’s Professional Standards Framework — but, while some people naturally exude empathy, others struggle to relate to their colleagues. The good news is that empathy is not a fixed trait: you can learn, develop, and implement your empathy skills over time to get the most from your team. But how?

Be a good listener

To understand others and sense how people are feeling, managers must pay attention to what is said. Listen to hear the meaning behind what others are saying, paying particular attention to nonverbal cues. Emotion expressed through tone of voice, pace of speech, facial expressions, and body language may be more telling than the words people speak.

Choose your language carefully

Active listeners are able to reflect the feelings expressed and summarise what they are hearing. They reflect by paraphrasing information to prove that they’ve paid attention to and understood what was said. If possible, try to share a similar experience you have had. Every word you use is important, so aim to use language that reflects the tone of the issue at hand.

Withhold judgment

Put yourself in the shoes of the other person to understand what it is e like for them — and withhold judgment. Your goal is to empathise, so listen first, and operate under the assumption that there’s always something more that you haven’t caught yet. This is especially true when the other person seems irrational or emotional: all the more reason to lean in with curiosity.

Coach others in empathy

Empathy encourages collaboration, which in turn improves productivity. Try to reiterate to your team that empathy can be practised, refined, and improved, and train them to put emphasis on listening without judgment. Challenge them to consider what they have in common with people, instead of focusing on what makes them different— and, of course, model empathetic behaviour for your colleagues to emulate.

For more advice on developing more productive working relationships, read CMI’s Engaging your team Checklist 121.

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