People with a strong sense of empathy are more enjoyable to be around. Empathy makes someone more likely to help others, to show compassion, and to hold humane and reasonable expectations of others. On the other hand, a lack of empathy leads to situations like a boss crashing an employee’s chemotherapy appointment to ask about work-related matters.
We think about empathy primarily in terms of how we relate to other people. But is having empathy beneficial to yourself too? And how can organizations help nurture a sense of empathy among employees and management?
Why Empathy Is Emotionally Healthy
Good Therapy, an online association of mental health professionals, reports that people with high levels of empathy report having larger social circles and more satisfying relationships. In essence, being able to understand the perspectives, intentions, and needs of others is a significant requirement for being able to sustain lasting, in-depth relationships.
What do relationships have to do with emotional wellness, though? As it turns out, quite a bit.
A major component of high levels of emotional wellness is having positive and meaningful personal relationships. These deep human connections allow us to thrive by providing vital support and encouragement, both in good times and in bad. A strong support network helps people deal with the negative effects of stress and has been shown to improve well-being, particularly among older adults.
In short, having a healthy sense of empathy results in better relationships, which results in better overall emotional health.
How to Nurture Empathy
Can empathy be taught? Or is it simply one of those innate things that some people have and some don’t?
As it turns out, humans are hard-wired to experience empathy, possibly through a set of brain cells called “mirror neurons,” which create sensations in the body to “mirror” someone else doing something. (If you’ve ever found yourself leaning your body forward while mentally willing your favorite quarterback to run faster, you can thank your mirror neurons for this involuntary copycat movement.)
These neurons aren’t limited to physical movement—they also allow us to experience the emotional states that we observe in others.
Our hard-wiring, however, doesn’t always come to the forefront as we saw with the example of the wildly unempathetic boss from the beginning of this article.
So, how can people—managers and employees—train their empathy muscle?
- Pay Attention: If we aren’t observing a person’s emotional state, our mirror neurons won’t kick in and help us feel what they’re feeling. Facial expressions and body language speak volumes about someone’s emotions, far beyond what their words might convey. If we aren’t paying attention, either because we’re too distracted by our own thoughts, are multi-tasking, or simply can’t be bothered to look people in the eye when they’re talking to us, we miss out on those vital clues. A good exercise to help strengthen empathy is to watch TV with the volume muted and try to determine someone’s emotions simply by looking at their facial expressions (soap operas or other dramas are good fodder for this exercise).
- Role Play: We might feel empathy for someone but do a terrible job of showing it. Role-playing with an honest and trusted friend or colleague can help people discover if their own body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions send a message of, “I simply don’t care about your situation.” From there, they can work on vital improvements like better eye contact, inviting posture, and vocal warmth.
- Practice Humility: Many people who lack empathy also lack humility—they think that how they would handle a situation is the only “right” way to handle it. For example, a manager may be baffled by an employee being sad and lacking energy because their hamster died that day. But perhaps that hamster was the employee’s sole source of solace during a difficult time in their life and was a truly beloved confidant. Help people understand that everybody has different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives on what is right for them, and encourage them to ask questions so as to better understand those perspectives.
- Develop the Imagination: While it may be easy enough to empathize with someone who has experienced the same things we have, it gets a bit tougher when the person’s situation is completely unfamiliar to us. At that point, we have to imagine what someone else is feeling—even if we haven’t experienced anything like it ourselves. To strengthen that ability, reading is an excellent method. Consider starting a workplace book club, where employees can discuss how Celie felt when Shug moved in, or what must have been going through Offred’s mind when she got into the van. Identifying with the emotions of characters experiencing situations that are outside of our realm of experience helps us better identify with the emotions of real people and their own unique situations.
Much like any other skill, empathy is one which must be nurtured and developed. Some people will have an easier time with it than others; but it is something that most everybody can learn with some degree of success.
By focusing on developing empathy and improving emotional wellness, your organization can create a culture of caring which boosts engagement, fosters better communication, and improves overall employee satisfaction.