Empathy is one of those natural qualities we all like to think we’re good at. After all, saying you don’t have empathy is a bit like saying you’re not a nice person. But while it may be a natural quality, many of us don’t use empathy effectively—in our communications at work in particular.
One reason for that is that work is clearly often hard. It’s stressful. We all have to put on a front to get through the day, and that can leave little room for empathy. We think that showing empathy will make us appear weak, or that by trying to understand different perspectives, we’ll end up indecisive and unclear.
Truthfully, it really doesn’t work like that. If we don’t consciously practise empathy, then we’re not communicating; we’re just batting back opinions in a way that’s ineffective and very easily escalates into misunderstandings and hostile working relationships.
So, what is empathy?
It’s the art of seeing the world as someone else sees it. It’s understanding and being sensitive to the feelings of another person. Importantly, having empathy is also about understanding yourself so that you can appreciate how you’re coming across and why you’re behaving as you are in certain situations.
If you want to communicate with people easily and productively, then make a conscious effort to use empathy in all your encounters at work. Consider things from the other person’s perspective. Look also at the non-verbal signals we all give off; little things can reveal so much about how someone’s really feeling in a situation, even if they’re not saying it out loud. Often an aggressive response comes from a place of fear or worry, so being able to recognise that and speak to someone’s fears, can immediately take the heat out of a difficult situation.
The benefits of an empathetic workplace
Showing empathy in your encounters at work doesn’t mean you just back off or give in to a viewpoint you know to be wrong. It means being able to appreciate what’s motivating someone to take a stance so you can talk to them about it productively. If you can show a willingness to listen and possibly adapt your own ideas, you’ll gain respect and trust.
Using empathy in your communications at work has many rewards, including:
- A better understanding of the needs of your customers or clients
- Less trouble dealing with hostile situations at work
- An ability to predict where and how a situation could escalate
- Better powers of persuasion and motivation
- Gained respect as someone who’s strong and confident enough to listen to alternative viewpoints
- No more silos based on long-held misunderstandings and failed communication
Why empathy is so important in the non-profit sector?
Employing empathy in your day-to-day working life is especially important when working in the non-profit sector. According to our recent survey of recruiters, it’s one of the key transferable skills they look for in candidates wanting to move into the sector; elevated from being a quality to an essential skill.
It’s partly because of the nature of charity work where you may be helping people who are vulnerable. So, you need empathy for the cause, but also the ability to understand others who are in need so that you can work with them in ways that are sensitive and appropriate.
And it’s partly because charities benefit from a diverse workforce which includes volunteers from all walks of life—and where many employees have entered the sector from a variety of careers, bonded often by a commitment to the cause that’s come from personal experience. It means you’ll do best in our sector if you’re an empathetic type of person who’s interested in learning from others whose experience is different to your own.
So how can you apply this to your working life?
Some of this may sound obvious, but we’re often guilty of only really showing empathy to certain types of people—and that’s generally people who are a bit like us, or who have a similar background or responsibilities. To really communicate effectively at work and in the non-profit sector in particular, you need to make sure you’re taking the time to understand the perspective of people who are completely unlike you. Colleagues who have utterly different concerns because of their age, sex, gender, background, home life or just their nature. Or people whose jobs and ways of working are just so different to your own i.e. you’re a creative and they’re in finance.
If you make the effort to use empathy to understand where others are coming from, you’ll open up lines of communication and develop rewarding relationships that will transform your working life. And you can break out of a culture at work that can too often be based on like-minded cliques and tribes working in opposition with each other.