Consider these two scenarios:
1. An emotional employee shares a personal problem with their boss. Due to this difficult time in their life, they are requesting some time off. The boss doesn’t acknowledge their struggle and says “This really puts us in a bind. We’re already short-staffed and I don’t have anyone to fill in for you.”
2. In a different scenario, the same emotional employee explains their situation to a boss. This boss says “I’m so sorry that you are going through this, it must be very difficult for you. As you know, we are already short-staffed, but give me a day or two to figure something out.”
In the first scenario, the boss is devoid of empathy. Their self-absorbed response communicates a lack of compassion and an inability to step into someone else’s shoes. In the second scenario, the boss’s response signals understanding and willingness to find a solution. Even if that leader did not have an immediate solution, by acknowledging the employee’s situation and expressing empathy, the employee feels heard and understood.
Empathy is a key leadership skill that builds trust and strengthens relationships. While all of us, leaders included, have different levels of empathy, during difficult times the ability to acknowledge someone else’s problem, show concern and attempt to solve problems can forge a stronger and more unified workplace.
In a July 2020 McKinsey & Company article published in the Harvard Business Review, Paul Tufano, CEO of AmeriHealth Caritas explained “This has been a sustained period of uncertainty and fear, but also a great opportunity to forge a stronger, more cohesive, and more motivated workforce. If CEOs can step into a ministerial role — extending hands virtually, truly listening, relating to, and connecting with people where they are — there is enormous potential to inspire people and strengthen bonds and loyalties within the company.”
There are four key challenges of communicating without compassion in the workplace:
- Misunderstandings and Misinterpretations: Without compassion, communication may just be an exchange of words that doesn’t convey true understanding. The lack of emotional tones behind someone’s words can result in conflicts and misunderstandings.
- Emotional Disconnection: When someone fails to recognize the emotions of others, it can leave people feeling unheard and emotionally detached. That can cause frustration, anger, and a feeling of isolation.
- Defensive and Reactive Responses: In the absence of empathy, people may feel threatened which causes tension and can prevent productive conversations.
- Lack of Collaboration: Because compassion builds trust, it can facilitate collaboration. Otherwise, people may hesitate to share their thoughts and ideas fearing judgment or dismissive responses.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus is famous for the following quote: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” While his words were spoken more than two-thousand years ago, the importance of listening still holds true today. By giving your full attention to the person speaking, you are communicating that you are trying to understand their point of view.
To better communicate with empathy, consider these five key tips:
- Focus on the other person, not yourself to make the person feel heard
- Listen first, speak later.
- Use words and phrases that demonstrate your concern such as “I understand how difficult this must be for you”.
- Do not interrupt.
- Ask clarifying and open-ended questions to promote dialogue and increase understanding.
The poet Maya Angelou is famous for saying “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
By making people feel heard and valued when we communicate with empathy and compassion, we can de-escalate situations and create a safe space for people to express their feelings. Safe spaces foster meaningful connections, strengthen relationships, resolve conflicts, and build stronger organizations.