We learn empathy at a young age. Through everyday observations and interactions, we continuously grow to recognize and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. It’s inherent in all of us to some degree.
But as we get older, the pressures of life combined with hundreds of daily distractions force us to subconsciously separate some of our feelings of empathy from many of our interactions.
And that’s understandable—being empathetic to every person you meet in a day would be mentally and emotionally exhausting.
But it’s still an important trait that we should be using more often—especially in our professional lives. It makes us more mindful and provides perspective. And that can have a profound impact on the way we work and the results we get.
So we’ve identified a few ways you can both teach and learn empathy in the workplace.
In this post we’ll cover:
- The definition of empathy
- The benefits of empathy in the workplace
- 4 easy-to-do empathy exercises
What is empathy?
It’s a common term that’s often both misused and misunderstood. For example, empathy is sometimes confused with sympathy. They’re similar concepts, but with a few important distinctions. To be “sympathetic” is to feel pity towards someone. But to be “empathetic” towards them is to share their perspective.
The cliff metaphor
Imagine Person A getting stuck on the side of a steep cliff. Person B hears Person A calling for help. Person B makes their way to Person A to try to save them. Unfortunately, they’re now both stuck on the cliff and can’t get down. Person C hears the others calling for help. Instead of climbing up the slippery rock face to save them, she considers how they got there and the best way to save them. She returns with some rope and harnesses:
- Person B felt bad for Person A and acted out of sympathy. It was a well-meaning sentiment but actually made the problem worse.
- Person C listened to the others, recognized the problem, and used empathy to understand what was needed to resolve the situation.
- Person A, well, they shouldn’t have wandered off the trail.
The academic definition
This research paper by Jean Decety and Jason Cowell offers a more in-depth definition of empathy that’s useful for understanding its different aspects:
Empathy consists of three parts:
- Emotional sharing: experiencing the same feelings as others simply by observing them
- Empathic concern: the desire or motivation to care for individuals in need
- Perspective-taking: the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes
To paraphrase, empathy is the ability to recognize someone’s emotions and put yourself into their shoes to—and this is the part that most people forget about when they think of empathy—create a positive outcome in a given situation.
Empathy in business: why it’s important
Of course, we all know that being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes is a pretty important skill to have in life. But, what does that mean in the context of work, or running a team?
As it turns out, empathy is extremely beneficial in business. In fact, empathy was considered a key trait of the most innovative teams at Google. Let’s break down the ways in which high empathy drives better results at work:
Teamwork makes the dream work. And empathy is a key ingredient in making that happen. It empowers teams to see the forest and the trees, and to recognize how everyone’s individual challenges and goals come together to achieve the overall larger goal.
Creativity and problem-solving
“Thinking outside of the box” is a term often used for being creative. Empathy allows people to step away from their own perspective and look at problems from a different angle. Using empathy to see the world through the eyes of your customers, clients, and coworkers can help you come up with solutions you may not have been able to from your own point of view.
Nowhere is empathy a more effective tool than in customer service. Being able to recognize and acknowledge customer issues tells the customer that you care about their problem. It also tells them that you really want to help them. This can make difficult conversations much easier, even if the problem at hand isn’t necessarily solved in that moment.
Similar to customer service, empathy creates loyalty. If your customers, clients, and coworkers see that you care about their problems, challenges, and goals, they’re more likely to reciprocate—which can make it easier for you to do your job and reach your own professional goals.
Good salespeople employ empathy in every professional interaction. It helps them identify and acknowledge customer challenges and goals, see things from the customer’s point of view, and provide a way to overcome their unique challenges.
High employee morale has a positive impact on every facet of the way a company works. And high morale starts with empathy at the management-employee level. Being able to empathize with the challenges that your workers are up against allows you to provide the support they need to be successful.
4 empathy exercises for teams
We know why empathy is so important in the workplace—but understanding the benefits of empathy and practicing them are two different things. These exercises can help you teach empathy in a way that makes it easy to apply in everyday professional scenarios.
We’ll include a summary of the empathy exercise, what it’s best used for, how to do the exercise, how long it takes, and how many people are needed.
1. Active listening
We’re all guilty of it. Someone begins talking to us and we unintentionally zone out. It’s not that what the person is telling us is unimportant or that we don’t care. Sometimes we just need to apply focus. And that’s what active listening is: forcing yourself to listen to what the person is saying and being proactive in the conversation by actively participating in what they’re telling you.
Ideal for: Customer service, sales, day-to-day interactions
People required: 2
Time needed: 10–15 minutes
How to do the exercise: Have everyone in your group choose a topic they can speak about at a conversational level.
A few examples:
- What you did over the weekend
- The last amazing restaurant you ate at
- A podcast you recently listened to
- A funny thing your kid did
Once topics are chosen, break the group into pairs and have them go off together. The first person takes their turn speaking about their topic.
The second person’s role is to listen intently to the story, stopping every so often to restate what the first person said, but in their own words.
Using the podcast example, imagine the first person explaining how a podcast host and guest had a disagreement on the show:
“So they got up and left? Just like that?”
When appropriate, the second person should prompt the first for more information.
“Wow. What did the host say?”
When the first person has finished telling the story, switch roles. When they’re done, each person should be able to repeat the other’s story.
Why it works: This exercise makes the second person an active participant in the story. It lets the first person know that they’re listening and interested in what they have to say. The result not only makes for a more in-depth conversation that’s understood by both participants but also continuously builds trust between them.
2. Two sides to every story
Demanding coworkers, irritable customers, and unreasonable clients. We’ve all dealt with them. While not something we typically remember fondly, those experiences do offer an opportunity for learning.
The idea of this exercise is to try to defend some of the more unreasonable or absurd demands we’ve experienced. To do this, we have to truly put ourselves in the shoes of the person making the demand. The goal isn’t necessarily to agree with what they’re asking but to begin understanding it.
Ideal for: Customer service, sales, marketing, HR
People needed: 2
Time required: 15–30 minutes
How to do the exercise: Have everyone recall a time in which they felt someone was being unreasonable. Break the group into pairs.
Start with one participant telling the story about the situation from their point of view. The other person is to listen closely (this is a great opportunity to use active listening skills if you’ve already completed that activity) and make mental note of the key details.
The second person should try to imagine what the “irrational” person’s position was. As they’re hearing the story, try to imagine:
- Why the person was making this request
- How they felt
- What the impact of the situation was on them
- Reasons why it may not be so unreasonable
When the story ends, the listener should attempt to play devil’s advocate and explain why they understand the “unreasonable” party’s position.
Why it works: Everyone has a point of view, and often, they differ. Instead of siding with the person telling the story, this exercise forces the listener to closely examine the circumstances around the scenario and imagine why the other party felt a certain way. This can highlight points of view that weren’t considered and create a greater sense of understanding.
3. Best and worst
Team meetings usually involve you and your team updating each other on certain projects and sharing a couple of wins. These important meetings keep people motivated and projects moving along. But they’re also a great opportunity to get real with each other, share, and empathize with your team.
This activity encourages you to share both the good and the bad. In addition to highlighting challenges that an individual may need help with, it’s a great temperature check and does wonders for getting everyone on the same page.
Ideal for: Any team that meets on a regular basis
People required: 3–10
Time: 5–30 minutes, depending on team size
How it works: At your next team meeting, add the “best and worst” exercise to the agenda. After each person shares their necessary updates, get them to share the best and worst part of their workweek.
“The best part of my week was completing the project ahead of time and under budget. The worst part was trying to get our headcount spend approved.”
Why it works: Sharing is caring. When teams can share both the good and the bad, they’re making others aware of the challenges they’re up against. This may also highlight other challenges that team members may not have been aware of, too. In the end, it causes us to see things from a perspective that we may not have previously considered.
4. Laural, Yanny, and the dress
If you’re not familiar with “Laural and Yanny”, it’s a soundbite that’s heard differently by different people. Similarly, “the dress,” was a 2015 meme that pictured a dress that different people saw in different colors. There is a scientific explanation for why people experience these things differently, but that’s not important for the sake of this exercise.
Ideal for: Everyone
People required: 2
Time needed: 10 minutes
How it works: Play the “Laural and Yanny” clip to the group. Ask them which name they hear. Put those who hear “Laural” on one side of the room and those in the “Yanny” camp on the other.
Then pair everyone with someone from the opposite camp. Have them listen to the clip together and talk about what makes them hear the name that they do.
You can also do the exercise using “the dress,” in which case participants will see either a white or blue dress.
Why it works: The neat thing about this exercise is that there is no right and wrong. Those who see blue or hear Laural, really do. Those who see white and hear Yanny do, too. It forces participants to accept that someone else can interpret something differently without being technically wrong.
Beyond just empathy exercises
While empathy is often thought of as a touchy-feely soft skill, it’s so much more than that. Time and time again, it’s proven to be a trait that brings people together, builds trust, and creates strong relationships. And those who employ empathy in professional situations tend to be great collaborators and problem solvers that others enjoy working with.
With results like that, who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic?
These exercises can help you teach both you and your team some critical skills for employing empathy both in and outside of work. But perhaps the most important way one can teach empathy is the same way that we learned it as children: by example. As leaders, we have to use empathy at every opportunity to demonstrate that it’s more than just a skill, it’s a better way to be.