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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch in “to Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

One thing I have learnt from being both a mentor and mentee is that what we all seek is to be heard and understood.

Because it’s what motivates us to stay in a job or return to a shop or restaurant.

The work might be great, but if it’s never acknowledged, you’re never invited to share an opinion or asked, “how are things really going for you?” you might already have feelers out for another position where you do get to feel valued.

The food might have been good, but if you’re left feeling the wait staff weren’t interested in you or your patronage, you’re unlikely to go back or recommend the restaurant to your friends.

You might have been thrilled with the purchase of that new outfit for a special occasion, but if the assistant appeared more interested in upselling you a pair of shoes, that can reduce your desire to return next time.

Empathy is part of caring. I find it enormously sad that too many organisations and businesses have yet to wake up to the fact that the empathetic leader will be the one to nurture a more successful and progressive business. Because when we feel cared for, listened to and appreciated we feel encouraged, more confident and willing to put in the extra effort.

The 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study revealed that workplace empathy is acknowledged as important by leaders, but a large empathy gap remains. While 72% of CEO’s believe empathy is important and needs to evolve, and 92% believe their organisations are empathetic, only 72% of employees believe that to be true.

The risk being that if it’s not addressed, organisations will lose their top talent and be perceived as less attractive to potential employers. If retention is an issue remember 93% of employees have indicated they would stay with an empathetic leader…

What would you choose?

A higher paying job where profits came before people or a lower paying job, where you felt you were being treated as a person, listened to and encouraged to grow professionally?

Empathy can be learned and there are a number of simple ways it can be nurtured at work.

1. Listen Up

Are you a good listener?

This isn’t about having to listen to all the bitching and moaning that can take place at work, but actively take care to listen to what your colleagues are saying.
Do you take their comments seriously, pay attention to their opinion or expressed concern?
Not everyone shares your world view. Being prepared to listen to an alternative perspective can be enlightening for both sides.

Are you putting up boundaries to being heard?
If you’re putting people through the online merry-go-round when all they’re trying to do is to speak with the relevant person i.e. you how can you simplify access and be available?

If time is precious and in short supply how can you notify your colleagues when you’re free?
If you’re going to listen well, you’re going to need time for that.
I was recently made aware of the Luxafor flag system, a rather nifty light up busy status indicator you attach to your computer. Makes a change from the “Go away I’m busy” notice on the office door.

Sometimes it’s about tuning in to what isn’t being said. It’s natural not to want to hurt feelings or cause offence, but half-truths and white lies can be damaging.

2. Ask the better question

A generic questionnaire is unlikely to get to the heart of the matter or the truth.

This is about being willing to ask the curly questions and prepared to receive all answers.

Asking a thoughtful question demonstrates you’ve noticed something is going on and your willingness to engage in a conversation. Getting specific with a question can help the person answering to be.

If their answer doesn’t really provide you with an answer that makes sense, seek clarification and choose to dig a little deeper.

3. Stay mindful to the emotions of others

We all have “those” days where everything goes pear-shaped. We can get a little tetchy, frustrated and irritable. How does stress, worry and fatigue impact your mood and behaviour? If a colleague is clearly annoyed or upset, it may be nothing to do with you (OK, sometimes it might be!) and you think they need help but are not receptive to that right now just acknowledging their frustration and letting them know you’re ready to talk or listen or both when they’re ready can make a positive difference to how they feel about their circumstance.

4. Beware of making assumptions

While it’s nice to think we’re mind readers, we’re not. We cannot get inside someone else’s head and truly know what’s happening for them. If you’re not psychic, the safest approach to avoid jumping to conclusions as to why a colleague appears to be having trouble adjusting to the latest round of organisational change is to ask. It might be that they are having difficulty adjusting to the new way of working, or there may be external events happening outside the workplace influencing their behaviour.

Knowing our colleagues well enough helps us to be more empathetic to extenuating circumstances and enables us to help in a positive way.

5. Offer to lend a helping hand

We’re all busy and working through our incredibly long and complicated to-do lists and we all have different skill sets and expertise.

When a colleague puts their hand up for help, do you make it easy for them to get the most appropriate help straight away? Do you point them in the direction of someone who can help, or do you step in to help out because you can assist and are willing to give of yourself and your time to help them out?

Learning new skills, new technologies and procedures is part of the modern workplace but doesn’t always come easy. Having the patience to demonstrate perhaps repeatedly the “how-to” to a colleague will ultimately help reduce mistakes, bolster stronger social bonds and make it easier for everyone to get the help they need at the right time.

Empathy matters. A lot.

Choosing to be more empathetic is a win-win for everyone to feel better understood, listened to and connected with each other.

Are you bridging the empathy gap?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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