5 Steps You Can Take to Overcome Your Empathy Barriers

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Empathy in the workplace is counter-intuitive to how many of us have been trained to show up and lead. Practical, functional leadership has been the name of the game for nearly 100 years. Employees were viewed as productivity machines with little regard for the human getting the work done — until now. The power of empathetic culture in a workplace to help employees thrive is being borne out in various studies. Ninety percent of Gen Z say they are more likely to stay in an organization that has empathetic leadership, according to a 2021 State of Workplace Empathy study from BusinessSolver. Another 2021 study from Catalyst found that 86 percent of employees are able to balance the demands of work and personal life when they have an empathetic leadership.

And yet, 31 percent of American adults ages 18 and over are unable to agree with the statement, I can easily see the point of view of others, according to a survey in January 2022 by my insights firm, Ignite 360. Imagine that: one-third of the adults you interact with today are not going to be able to easily see your point of view. Organizations of all shapes and sizes must resolve the tension between their desire for empathy and the limited skills needed to get there to create stronger workplaces in the future.

Which leads to the question: What gets in the way of you getting to a place of empathy?

Related: Why Empathy Is Important in Leaders Right Now

Step 1: Dismantle judgment

This is the biggest towering obstacle on the journey to empathy. It’s imposing, like Mt. Everest, and damn if the hardest mountain to climb doesn’t come first. This is about being judgmental as opposed to making a judgment. It comes from your biases, past experiences and stereotypes. Awareness of when we are being judgmental, what we tend to get judgmental about and where it comes from is the first step in tearing down the wall that judgment can put up. Be mindful of the source of your judgment. If you notice a repeated pattern, there may be an injury or bias of your own that needs attention.

Step 2: Ask good questions

Empathy is about understanding, which means you want to explore what lies beneath another person’s behavior, perceptions, values, opinions, beliefs and attitudes. To do that, keep your questions open — don’t ask questions that can be answered with a single word. This will frustrate most teenagers, who will still try to give you an I dunno or a shoulder shrug. But it helps open people up if they can’t cop out with a yes, a no or a maybe. Try not to lead the witness, as they say on courtroom dramas. A leading question that is set up to affirm your own biases will not yield an open, exploratory conversation. An example of a leading question is: What’s the best part of returning to the office five days a week? That assumes that there is a best part. Perhaps there is and perhaps there isn’t. Reframe the question as: What are the pros and cons of your physical work locations? And eliminate the word why — it puts people on the defensive. It has since they were a child and Mom asked why they drew on the wall. Use how, when, where, what and who instead. Also try starting sentences with, tell me more about… and see where that takes you.

Step 3: Active listening

Body language speaks volumes, as does paying attention to someone’s workspace in person or viewing it through Zoom. I was on a video call during the holidays and noticed a shelf filled with nutcrackers behind the other person on the call. I asked about them and we had a delightful 15-minute conversation. It was about how his parents have been giving him a nutcracker every year since he was eight, and how he has now started that tradition with his own son. We shared family traditions at the holidays and learned things about each other we wouldn’t have otherwise. As a result, my connection to him is much stronger than if we had kept the call transactional and focused on the work.

Listen to these visual cues as well as what is being spoken. Be present when you are talking to someone so that you can really tune in and listen. And use all of your senses, including intuition, which pings off the other signals you get from active listening. The verbal and visual cues combine to tell you something. Your intuition may tell you when someone is hurting or when they are not being completely honest. Use your intuition to guide you through those conversations in a supportive, empathetic manner.

Related: What Is Empathy, and Why Is It So Important for Great Leaders?

Step 4: Integrate into understanding

Take time to make sense of it all. What have you heard? What does it mean? Remember: it’s about the other person, not about you. This step requires you to hold potentially contradictory information side by side. An example I like to use is about favorite sports teams. Take a crosstown baseball rivalry like the Yankees and Mets. Instead of being dismissive (judgmental) of a fan of the opposing team, take a minute to hear what they have to say. Understand what motivates them to love their team. How does it compare to your own love of your team? Neither one of you is wrong, it is just your point of view. If you have the curiosity to learn what they like about their team, you may find commonalities in interest and passion that you can connect over. Or you might learn something new about the other team. Make room for this understanding. It’s just as valuable as the information that you already have and may lead to an insight about the other person. Intellectually, you want to be able to say, okay, this is what is true for this person, this is how they see the situation and this is the angle that they are coming from.

Step 5: Use solution imagination

This is the moment when you step into the shoes of someone else. Based on what you have learned, what do you imagine their point of view on a topic to be? Draw on everything that you’ve heard and keep your judgment at bay. How would you respond to them in a conversation? Maybe they’re a customer at your business. How would you meet a need that they have? Here you want to consider the why and add that to the narrative in your head. Know their story with them. Repeat it back to show that you have heard them. That’s empathy. Then you formulate a response that demonstrates that you get where they are coming from. Use your newfound empathy to forge a stronger connection and collaboration. And even to reach a compromise that leaves everyone feeling seen and heard.

The five steps to empathy may appear simple, but they are not easy. It takes self-awareness, practice and patience to bring about change in our behavior to be more empathetic. The end result makes us better leaders, managers, team members and individual contributors. I believe that’s worth it.

Related: Stop Talking About Empathy, and Start Acting On It

Portions of this article are adapted from the author’s book, Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Timepublished by Page Two Books in February 2022.

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