Empathy is one of the superpowers of soft skills.  It allows us to look through the lens of others and get a different perspective on life.  Improving your empathy can help foster stronger working relations, build trust and improve your mood.

"When you increase empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems." ~ Stephen Covey

Why is Empathy Important?

Improving our empathy in the workplace can change how we react to events. Simon Sinek gave a fantastic example of why being empathic can make a difference in the workplace. Take his excellent example:

If someone doesn't deliver or reach the expected performance, what is your typical reaction:

  • You take a negative stance towards that employee or team by pointing the finger of blame, ask them to pick up their game, or they might struggle to maintain their position.
  • You take a more positive stance and note the employees' performance is down but ask them if they are ok, you are concerned about them and if there is anything you can do to help.

Which one is likely to build trust and confidence our employee has in you and your organisation?

"Empathy is when you consider the person and not their output."

Some find empathy more than others, but is it possible to learn? If so, how do you improve your empathy?  Here are five tips I have discovered that can help you today.

Read More Fiction

There is strong evidence that shows if we read fictional stories, our levels of empathy increase.  Reading allows us to get inside the shoes of the character and "practice" our empathy of fictional characters.  There have been several studies to explore the theory including a Canadian report - Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes from Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson.

Stories thus appear to offer us a deeply-felt simulation of social experience (Oatley, 1999) that may hold real consequences for our actual social world (Mar and Oatley, 2008; Mar, Oatley, and Djikic, 2008). Specifically, engaging with narrative fiction and mentally simulating the social experiences represented may improve or maintain social skills, especially skills of empathy and social understanding. Consistent with this idea, our group has shown that frequent readers of narrative fiction perform better on two different empathy tasks, whereas frequent readers  of expository non-fiction per-form worse (Mar et al., 2006).

Be Curious - Show Interest

Being curious and asking questions is a way to show you empathy towards other people.  Asking questions allows you to look below the surface of a person.  The simple fact is we cannot understand what is going on in peoples lives if we don't ask.  It is not about being nosey; instead, it is to understand the state of the person and show that you care.  Being curious also involves removing your biases, so you know how a situation makes them feel rather than how you felt in a similar case.

Listen & Be Present

If you are going to ask questions, then you need to be present at the moment and ensure you listen - hard.  As Alex Ferguson said in his book Leading:

"There's a reason that God gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth. It is so you can listen and watch twice as much as you talk. Best of all, listening costs you nothing."

There is nothing more distracting or showing someone a lack of interest when you are scanning the room, looking at your phone or fidgeting. Show you are interested by maintaining eye contact, nodding and rephrasing their statements as questions to show you are interested in what they say.

Eat Well - Exercise - Rest

The ability to empathise largely is dependent on our mental state.  If we are tired or stressed ourselves, the ability to understand becomes more difficult, as we become more self-obsessed and less interested in others.  We can increase our tolerance to stress, and therefore be open to empathy by ensuring we eat well, exercise more and ensure we have plenty of sleep.

Perspective Taking

Perspective Taking is the art of being able to see a problem from another viewpoint, i.e. that of your colleague.  Once again, we need to adopt humility and put aside our thoughts, feelings and biases.  Through questioning and listening, we have learned we start to consider our colleagues' thoughts and feelings.  We do not have to agree with their opinion, but we should respect it.  Perspective Taking allows us to build empathy and also created a shared learning experience.