Updated Sept 2020
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 look at a few empathy building exercises that can be applied both online and offline:
- The benefits of empathy at work (why do it?)
- 2 simple ways to build empathy when your interactions are almost all online
- 4 general empathy exercises for teams
But first, let’s look at a more concrete idea of what empathy is.
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What is empathy?
Empathy is a common term that’s sometimes both misused and misunderstood. For example, empathy is at times confused with sympathy. They’re similar concepts that both have to do with connecting with another person through emotion, but with a few important distinctions. To be “sympathetic” is to feel pity towards someone—you may not have experienced what they’re going through or fully understand it, but you feel bad for them. But to be “empathetic” towards them is to share their perspective and understand it. (Most likely because you’ve experienced it yourself.)
As you can imagine, in most cases, empathy is the more powerful of the two. (How many times in movies and films have you heard someone say “I don’t want your sympathy/pity!”
The academic definition
This research paper1 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.
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 Google2. Let’s break down the ways in which high empathy drives better results at work:
It improves collaboration
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. (If working in silos is a problem for your team, empathy can help!).
It can enhance creativity and problem-solving
“Thinking outside of the box” is a term often used for being creative. Practicing 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.
It helps you provide better customer service
Nowhere is empathy a more effective tool than in customer service. When you practice empathy, instead of just seeing someone as a difficult customer, you might be able to better recognize and acknowledge their challenges and see the problem from their angle. This will go a long way in helping you show them that you really want to help them—and can make difficult conversations much easier, even if the problem at hand isn’t necessarily solved in that moment.
It strengthens loyalty
Similar to customer service, empathy creates loyalty—and we’re not just talking about repeat customers. 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).
It can help you sell more
Good salespeople employ empathy in every professional interaction. It helps them identify and acknowledge prospects’ challenges and goals, see things from their point of view, and provide a way to overcome their unique challenges.
It boosts morale
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.
Developing empathy for your teammates is simple enough when you’re all working in the same office and see each other physically every day. But what about distributed teams and remote teammates?
If everyone is working from home and only seeing each other face-to-face in the odd video conference call (and even when people use video conferencing tools, sometimes they don’t turn their video on), what challenges does that create?
Because so much of conveying empathy relies on communication, that is the biggest thing you can do in order to maintain a high level of empathy toward your team when everything is physically apart from each other. If you can’t communicate with someone, you can’t show them you’re feeling empathetic—and you can’t receive empathy either.
So, here are three quick tips for practicing empathy when you’re communicating in an online world:
1. Turn on the video (if you can)
In most cases, being able to see the other person’s facial expressions and body language helps support active listening and build empathy.
You’ve probably experienced this. It’s something that’s plagued almost all of us. You’re talking to someone over text, make a little joke, but the other person misinterpreted it. It’s harder to read someone’s tone accurately when you don’t have that other visual and audio information—even a phone call, which is slightly better since it gives you the sound component, doesn’t give you the full picture.
Nuances like sarcasm and little jokes often get lost in conversations when you can’t see the other person’s visual cues, and that’s why having the video on in a meeting can help smooth the path for communication and ultimately, building empathy. If you’re on a phone call and a tough topic comes up, turning that phone call into a video call might help you get through that conversation more easily.
For example, the RingCentral app lets you transition between different types of calls easily:
But let’s face it. Video meeting fatigue is real.3, 4, 5 Whether it’s a perceived expectation that we have to act chipper all the time on a video call or the face-to-face interaction without the rewards of being in the physical presence of coworkers we may be friends with, the praise for video conferencing is starting to take a toll on, well, most people.
So, for this tip, if you can muster it, do it. But if not, we get itt.
2. Have other forms of communication handy
From using emojis to being more conscious of how your tone comes across over text, there are so many ways to be more mindful of how we convey empathy at work.
Not every interaction you have with a colleague or client is going to be in-person or over a video call. Often, you’ll be messaging each other (or even texting). And for most people, they may not have a strong preference for a certain channel of communication.
But some of your teammates may prefer to talk about things on a call rather than type it out. Someone may be working from home because their house needs repairs—and things are a little messy, so they’d rather not be on video this week. Maybe you find that you’re much more productive over text because your days are usually booked up with meetings and you want to minimize unnecessary calls when you can.
Being cognizant of these needs is another, less explicit, way to practice empathy. Think of it as a way of meeting your teammates and clients halfway and being thoughtful of how to help someone be their best self when working with you.
And sure, you may think that this is too “fluffy” of a consideration when it comes to your teammates since it’s just a job and they have to communicate in whatever way the company mandates, but what about your clients and prospects? (We’d also argue that even from an internal standpoint, this would make your group projects and tasks go much more smoothly—which is valuable in itself.)
So, how can you do this? Well, one simple way is to have the right tool(s). Make things as easy as possible for your team—instead of having one app for talking over messaging and another for video conferencing (and another, and another…), see if you can find platforms that have multiple communication options in one place:
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.