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Empathy in the Workplace

Female Doctor Treating Patient Suffering With Depression

Emotional literacy is not just an important trait to integrate into your personal life. Learn how empathy in the workplace contributes to a number of positive outcomes, whether in client interactions or manager-employee relationships.

In our contemporary world, technology has changed the way we interact. The self – or, our ideal, projected self – is at the center of our online social media presence and reputation. We have become socialized to be overly individualistic, as a writer for the American Counseling Association writes.

As changes continue with each new technology, how we continue to communicate will depend on our ability to practice empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

While empathy and emotional literacy are essential components in close relationships, they are also necessary within our organizational networks and client interactions. As diversity and inclusivity issues continue to be at the forefront of management best practices, these traits become even more crucial to a balanced, healthy organization.

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Exhibiting empathy with employees

Empathy drives positive bonds throughout the workplace structure. A study from the Center for Creative Leadership, which gathered data from 6,731 managers across 38 countries, showed that empathic  practices within the workplace structure were related to positive job performance.

Another notable point from this study is that having empathy and showing empathy are not the same thing. Managers must not only experience the feelings others are feeling, but they must also share and verbalize those emotions to be effective.

Because some managers will be better at exhibiting empathy than others, it’s important to understand that empathy can be learned. Organizational leaders first need to talk about empathy – define it, show it, and let managers know that it matters just as much as the organization’s bottom line.

Then, leaders should explain how employees can exhibit it through caring, seeking understanding, and listening. Simply giving time and attention to employees will help encourage empathy in the workplace.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article last year that outlined another reason empathy is a workplace requirement: the fact that 18 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder and that one in four adults experience mental illness of some kind each year.

This means that “workplace cultures need to make room for the wide range of emotions we experience,” as the HBR article indicated. Additional support from management is one way to acknowledge these complex, varied experiences and emotions.

One strategy managers can use to further show empathy and understanding is directly asking employees about their thoughts and feelings with surveys or dedicated discussions. These gestures show that their feelings matter, that they are being heard, and that their opinions are taken into account when managers make organizational decisions.

This all contributes to a workplace that fosters empathy.

Empathy at work

Empathic skills in client interactions

While empathy in the workplace can be driven by relationships between managers and employees, in mental health professions, empathy is one of the most important factors in client relationships.

In the medical field, empathy is required to treat and care for patients effectively. Being able to show empathy builds trust and satisfaction with patients and leads to successful treatment plans, as a study published in Scientific Reports indicates, which analyzed data from over 1,000 healthcare professionals.

Perhaps with physician-patient relationships more than other types of professional bond, it’s crucial to show patients that their thoughts, feelings, and emotional experiences are understood.

This is of course also true within the counseling and mental health professions, where the client-counselor relationship can be entirely at stake if the patient does not feel heard or understood.

The idea of using empathy as a tool for better psychopathological assessment was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century, and considered one of the most important discoveries in the social sciences.

This is because both experiencing and displaying empathy allows mental health professionals to connect with, understand, and eventually help clients.  It’s crucial for these professionals to not only sense what their clients may be feeling, but to also step into their shoes and experience what it feels like to have those feelings.

This process is also referred to as cognitive empathy, or perspective taking, and essentially means that we become able to identify and understand someone else’s emotions. Affective empathy refers to the sensations or feelings we have when mirroring what someone else is feeling; when we share their feelings.

Experienced social service professionals are likely practiced listeners already. Additional actions that show empathy include:

  • Repeating back to clients what they say, showing that they are heard, valued and understood.
  • Asking clarifying questions about anything not fully understood.
  • Sharing their own experiences that relate to the clients’ experiences.
  • Remaining quiet when the person is speaking or working through something verbally.
  • Showing no judgment to what a client is saying, but accepting them as they are.
  • Paying attention to how clients react to what is being said.

These are just some of the ways therapists and counselors can show empathy during client interactions. The bottom line is that clients should feel heard, understood, accepted, and encouraged.

Within workplace interactions as well as client relationships, empathy at its heart allows people to both experience and exhibit acceptance as a foundation to learning and growth.

Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (PAIRS) nurtures and promotes healthy relationships of all kinds. Whether training instructors and educators or offering research-validated relationship skills, PAIRS is committed to helping create a safer, saner, more loving world. Over 40 years of experience, PAIRS has found empathy to be  one of the driving forces of a healthier, happier society.

Contact PAIRS to learn more about relationship-building training programs.