How to build empathy within your organisation

Empathy is a highly coveted skill. Organisations that have this as one of their core capabilities are proud of the trusting relationships their people are able to build, both with each other and with their clients, and the respect they’re afforded as a result of the warm and inclusive cultures they’re able to create.

These are organisations that people want to work for and have serving them. At a time where many people’s trust of large institutions is at an all time low, as we enter a global recession and as we continue to live through great change and uncertainty, this is arguably one of the most important skills for organisations to develop.

There are a whole range of benefits that organisations that focus on this capability typically enjoy. They include being able to craft highly tailored products for clients, nail their advertising message, come up with creative and innovative solutions to problems, handle conflict adeptly, sensitively manage their relationship with the wider community, motivate and inspire others and more!

But is empathy developable? And, if so, how can organisations develop this critical skill in their workforce?

Empathy isn’t a trait – it’s a skill that can be developed. Recent research into neuroscience has discovered that our brains remain flexible right until our lives end, meaning new neural pathways can be created at any point.

For some it’s easier to develop than others – those with autism or narcissistic personality disorder, for example, will likely find it harder. Also, culturally, being vulnerable and demonstrating emotional maturity isn’t something many of us are well versed in.

But this shouldn’t put us off, we need to start somewhere.

Empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and sharing their experience. It differs from sympathy, which is about showing sorrow and compassion for another person’s experience. The character Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, says:

“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”.

This is empathy.

Daniel Goleman in his work on emotional and social intelligence, talks about there being 3 different types of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy. This is where there is an acknowledgement of another person’s experience but no emotional connection. It’s common to find this type of empathy in organisations.

The second is emotional empathy. This is where there is acknowledgement plus a genuine emotional connection. As Carl Rogers said in 1995: “You are a confident companion to the person in his inner world.”

The third is compassionate empathy. This is the same as emotional empathy, but it also has an action orientation to it. The person literally joins the person they are showing empathy to on their personal journey, assisting and guiding on the way.

But how do organisations develop this skill? One way of doing this is by implementing a formal empathy learning program.

These can consist of a whole range of things, including the following:

  • A clear definition of empathy, including how it differs from sympathy, and an overview of the benefits of being more empathetic, both to the learner and the organisation.

  • An overview of where the opportunities to show empathy lie, i.e. in the interactions we have with others and the stories we tell, and a step by step breakdown of what it looks like in practice to show empathy.

  • Mindfulness learning. Key to showing empathy is noticing what another person’s experience is. It’s not possible to do this if we’re wrapped up in our own experience and unable to non-judgementally acknowledge what the other person is sharing with us.

  • Active listening. Once we’re non-judgementally paying attention, it’s important to show the other person that we’re doing this. Nodding our head, saying “aha”, putting our phone away, maintaining eye contact, mirroring others’ body language are a few of the things we can do. Show that you’re interested and curious.

  • What you’re looking out for. Sometimes it’s easy and the person we’re speaking to will tell us how they’re feeling. Other times we need to figure this out for ourselves, using body language, tone of voice, facial expression, the words used and what we know of that person to guide us. Understanding emotions – what these are, the purpose they serve and what they look like in other people is key.

  • What to do when you think you’ve identified how someone is feeling, i.e. play it back to them! It’s important not to agree or disagree with them, or to come up with a solution to their problem – you want them to feel heard and validated, that’s all. Just repeat it exactly as you heard it. Not sure you got it right? Check with them! This can be hard in the workplace, as problem solving is what we do at work.

  • How to see things from another person’s perspective. Being well versed in how to see things from different perspectives is key to showing empathy. Find some images and objects and practise seeing them from a different perspective. You can also put yourselves in the shoes of someone you’re close to and imagine how they might feel about a potential situation.

  • Learning about other’ experiences. Being well practised in the breadth of our human experience is also key. This can be done by watching a new movie, reading some literary fiction or experiencing something new.

  • Learning about bias and privilege. Most of us fall foul to these without realising it – having an awareness of them can help us appreciate that other people’s experiences are different to our own and help us non-judgementally show up to every interaction we have.

  • For leaders and marketing professionals, you can include storytelling, and how to incorporate empathy in the stories you tell.

There is a lot more that you can do to build empathy within your organisation, including 1-1 coaching and informal learning. You also need to nail the design of your learning programs and put in place mechanisms for ensuring the learning sticks, including ensuring your senior leadership team is on board and is modelling the behaviour. This is for another blog!

Building empathy isn’t for every organisation – there are some organisations where empathy is such a part of their DNA their people can end up with compassion burnout, e.g. health care workers. These people don’t need help building empathy, they need help setting boundaries and switching off.

Susie Mogg