I’ve been talking to people a lot recently about empathy – what it is, what our reactions are to it, how can it be helpful – or not.
Many people believe empathy is a good thing, but do not generally give it a lot of thought, particularly when it comes to professional relationships. Whether you work primarily in an office as part of a team, primarily with clients, or primarily on your own, acknowledging that emotions are a part of life and being open to sharing compassion can be hugely beneficial. Even at work!
Compassion & Empathy – What’s the Connection?
Empathy is when we feel, or understand, someone else’s emotion. Compassion is one of the possible responses to empathy; in fact, it’s the goal. When we can see that someone else is in any type of distress – dealing with an emotion we typically think of as “negative” like anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, etc. – compassion is what we’re feeling if our response is to help them, or to fulfill their need.
For example, if I’m mediating between two parties, and one of them is so distressed she bursts into tears, I may or may not be able to accurately name her emotion. It could be anger, grief, or sadness. Regardless of naming the emotion, if I feel an impulse to offer her some comfort – be it a tissue, words of comfort, or placing my hand on her shoulder – that’s compassion.
The particular form my compassion takes might not help if I have not accurately understood her emotion. So, my first action should be to ask, gently and with a true desire to understand, what she’s feeling, or why she is crying. Then, I will have a better idea of precisely how to offer comfort.
When we share both empathy and compassion with people, we feel a deeper human connection. And that’s great! In general and also for work purposes. Feeling connected to other people is essential to human happiness in every aspect of our lives. In fact, in our professional lives, it can:
Improve effective teamwork and collaboration.
Foster employee engagement.
Cultivate positive and longer-lasting client relationships.
Yet traditionally we have been taught that emotions do not belong in the workplace. This is partially because of the long history of gender stereotyping – men don’t have emotions, after all, and it’s men who mainly work outside the home, right? [insert eyeroll emoji here]
Of course we know that statement is not true. While it does still affect us, though, I think there’s a bigger issue holding us back from embracing emotions, empathy, and compassion in professional contexts. Namely, it is so hard to know what to do with all those messy emotions! Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just ignore emotions sometimes?
It might be easier, but it does not work – because ignoring emotions does not do anything with them. By definition, emotions are still there, influencing our behaviors and our thoughts.
So what can you do with emotions at work?
If you feel comfortable with it – and that will change in different situations – let the emotions flow. Emotions help you connect to the people with whom you work.
Be open to discussing them.
If you see someone struggling with some emotion, ask them about it. Or you can try to name it – gently, asking if you’re right, no one likes to be told they should be feeling a certain way – but we all love the feeling of recognition when our emotions are understood by others.
Also, you can simply state your own emotions as part of everyday professional conversations.
When needed, reframe the situation, or reschedule the conversation/tasks.
This is a big one for the more difficult emotions that may come up because of things that happen outside of our professional lives. A break-up, a death, a difficult time with a loved one – the emotions connected to these events do not just disappear because we’re meeting a client or sitting in a cubicle.
How to reframe it:
First, make sure you understand what’s going on. Ask questions, gently and with a true desire to understand – not to fix or correct.
Second, reflect back what you’re hearing – simply restate the words you just heard.
Third, check-in. Ask if you’ve got it right! Sometimes we may repeat the very same words back to someone, and they may alter what they said. And if they don’t, then you have helped them feel heard and understood.
Finally, you get to reframe – and I do not mean put a positive spin on it! Instead, reframing means you offer an alternate perspective. Suggest or ask how the other person causing these emotions might be feeling, or ask if they can think of an alternate path forward.
Sometimes, reframing is not an option – the death of a loved one is one situation which comes to mind here. Simply acknowledging the loss and the deep emotions and sitting silently with the person grieving may be the best way to express compassion.
One of the reasons we avoid emotions at work is that they can interrupt work. Yet, the best thing to do if work truly cannot be accomplished that day is to take a break!
Come back with more focus another time – in 20 minutes or an hour or the next day.