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7 ways to build your empathy muscle for better workplace communication

Empathy is like any other skill that can be improved with practice. Here are seven ways to build empathy and improve your workplace communication.

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Last updated

18 Aug 2022
Empathy is like any other skill that can be improved with practice. Here are seven ways to build empathy and improve your workplace communication.

There will inevitably be moments of miscommunication in the workplace. It may derive from missing the context around a client meeting, interpreting someone's terse greeting as them being upset with you, or misunderstanding priorities during a tight deadline. 

During these moments, you might experience feelings of frustration, confusion, or even anger and find yourself asking questions like: Why did they make that decision? Why are they acting that way? Where did that reaction come from?

Navigating miscommunication can be a tricky challenge to tackle. (In fact, your first reaction might be to run in the other direction and avoid the situation altogether.) So what to do? First, take a breath and remind yourself that miscommunications happen; so do mistakes. Then: lean into your empathy. Here's why. 

What is empathy?

Considered to be one of the most critical elements of emotional intelligence, empathy describes our ability to understand and relate to others. Individuals who demonstrate strong empathy can perceive how others are feeling, see things from others' perspectives, understand conflicting points of view, and pivot their actions and responses based on this information. In the workplace, a culture of empathy helps foster a psychologically safe environment, improve employee engagement and communication, and normalize giving and receiving feedback

Sound too good to be true? It's not, say researchers who also found that empathy is like any other skill that can be improved with practice. Here's how.

7 practical ways to improve your empathy muscle

Improving your empathy might feel like a vague or abstract goal, but it's a skill set that can be honed through practice, persistence, and patience. Here we've rounded up seven practical approaches to help you get started on the right foot. Let's dive in.

1. Talk to new people

Actively seeking out conversations with people different from you can be one of the most effective ways to expand your understanding and diversify your perspective. In fact, research suggests that perspective-taking alone—or the act of trying to 'imagine' how someone feels—isn't necessarily an adequate or accurate way to build empathy, as we bring preformed biases into the analysis. The more effective approach: speaking with new people directly and frequently

Does approaching new people at work make your palms sweat? Not to worry. Some low-stakes approaches for striking up new conversations in the workplace are:

  • Inviting a colleague from a different department for a coffee

  • Joining a company sports club or game night

  • Attending an inter-departmental networking event

  • Asking a colleague from another team for an online coffee

Still nervous? That's ok. Getting comfortable with uncomfortable feelings is yet another way to strengthen your empathy muscle.

2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Exploring your own empathy may bring up feelings of unease. You may be frustrated by a lack of understanding, confused by your own prejudices or biases, or even angry after a conversation with someone with a conflicting belief system. Rather than avoiding or pushing back on these feelings, which tends to be our survival-state reaction during times of duress, embrace them. Acceptance of these sometimes uncomfortable feelings is a crucial part of strengthening your empathy skills. 

With this said, there will inevitably be times of setbacks. So if you find yourself in a particularly challenging situation or have a day where it feels as if you're back at square one with building your empathy muscle, consider the following tips to help you get back on track:

  • Take a breather. If you're feeling frustrated, take a short pause. Go for a walk, meditate, journal, or grab a cup of tea. Sometimes a mini-break is enough to prompt a mental reset.

  • Remember that you are not alone. There are other people who are also outside their comfort zone and may feel nervous or uncomfortable; it could even be the person on the other side of your conversation.

  • Take it step-by-step. Desmond Tutu wisely said, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.” In other words: be patient and keep going. Honing your empathy skills requires persistence. 

3. Practice active listening 

Active listening can be a challenging skill to master, but, when practiced regularly, can vastly improve workplace communication. Particularly when approaching difficult conversations, such as offering critical feedback to a colleague, active listening is a way to ensure that everyone is on the same page and still feels valued.

Some tips on how to hone your active listening skills during conversations include:

  • Be aware of body language. Maintain eye contact and nod to demonstrate understanding.

  • Don't interrupt. Allow the other person to finish speaking before you jump in.

  • Avoid prejudgments. Your task is to understand the other person's perspective; wait to share your opinion or draw conclusions until after they've spoken.

  • Paraphrase. Summarize to demonstrate your understanding and ask questions if you need clarification.

  • Pause to reflect. Take a moment to evaluate what the person has said before immediately responding.

  • Remember your conversation. Make a few notes afterward to serve as a reference for a later time.

Still feeling unsure? Rememberthatyou don't have to understand every detail about something to make a person feel respected. Sometimes listening is enough.

4. Share your mistakes and failures

While listening to other people's thoughts and feelings is a core empathetic skill, so is the reverse act of being open and vulnerable with others. We all have failures; we all make errors. But rather than sweeping these moments under the rug or attempting to mask them in the name of perfection, being open when things don't go as planned is a way to demonstrate trust and build communication skills.

While it might feel intimidating to be vulnerable in the workplace, one way to begin is to reframe team conversations. For example, rather than focusing only on successes (common in performative workplaces), also consider sharing failures. What mistakes did you make? What challenges did you face? What lessons did you learn? Sometimes the simple act of experiencing someone else's vulnerability is enough to prompt someone else to do so as well, which further establishes trust and cultivates a psychologically safe environment where people act from a place of empowerment rather than fear.

With this said, it's important to point out that being vulnerable in the workplace requires two key elements: an individual's willingness to be open and a company culture that embraces and encourages this openness. If the situation lacks either part, it's ok to protect yourself and acknowledge that perhaps it's not the best environment or moment for you to be vulnerable with others.

5. Join a shared cause

  Working on a shared cause can help strengthen your empathy muscle by utilizing teamwork to remove biases and heal prejudices. It's also an excellent way to meet new people. While there are endless amounts of ways to join a shared cause, some ways to get started with your team are:

  • Organize a volunteer day. Give back to your community's neighborhood as a team by working in a community garden, visiting a retirement center, or the like.

  • Share your knowledge. Volunteer as a mentor or speaker at underserved schools to speak to students about your industry, career path, or unique skill set.

  • Be the plug. Lift others up and help them succeed by serving as a mentor or advisor for a pre-professional program.

6. Ask for feedback

It's common to feel stressed, anxious, and even fearful when giving and receiving feedback in the workplace. But it's also a golden opportunity for personal growth and professional improvement, which includes being aware of discrepancies between how you perceive yourself and how others do. While the method in which you receive feedback will depend upon workplace culture and structure, some ways to initiate these conversations are:

  • Request 360 feedback. Take the baseline of what you perceive about yourself and compare it to input from your managers, peers, and reports. Identify a priority area where there may be discrepancies and set goals for improvement. 

  • Evaluate soft skills during project retrospectives. After leading a project, ask for input on your leadership and communication style during the team retrospective. What were your strengths? What could you improve upon? 

  • Seek out informal one-to-ones. Sometimes feedback is given more freely and organically in casual, relaxed settings. Try mixing up your one-to-one meetings by starting with an icebreaker, having a virtual coffee, or taking a walk if you’re in the same city as your colleague or team lead.  

7. Advocate and amplify other voices

As the saying goes, the loudest voice in the room seldom belongs to the most intelligent mind. You might already recognize this in certain situations. You might also recognize that you have an opportunity to advocate for someone who needs to be heard or amplify an underrepresented voice, but you're just not sure how to do it. 

One surefire way to practice empathy while advocating for others is to support causes even if they don't directly affect or benefit you. Perhaps you are pushing for increased parental leave even if you're not a parent, or helping organize an LGBTQIA+ event with colleagues even if you're not part of the community. 

In that same vein, it's equally important to recognize your privilege as a tool for advocacy and amplification. Do you have resources you could leverage to push a cause forward? Is there an introduction you could make? A platform you could lend? Take a moment to internally assess and then offer your resources up as a way of putting empathy into action.

There are many other strategies for building your empathy muscle. What other approaches have you found to be effective?

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