7 Practical Tips for Increasing Empathy

05/06/2016 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

We have something in common with rats that may surprise you. Those scurrying little (sometimes large) rodents ruling garbage cans across the world are actually capable of empathy, just like humans.

Many species display empathy in some form or another, but primates--especially us humans--have a more sophisticated capacity for empathy due to our large working memory and more developed neocortex. Have you ever winced when you saw another person take a hard fall? That is the result of mirror neurons, the discovery of which fundamentally altered our understanding of empathy. Since then, neuroscientists have identified what they call an "empathy circuit" in our brains. If this circuit is damaged in any way, it can curtail our ability to understand what others are feeling, all the while leaving our capacity for logic intact.

You Naturally Have the Ability to be Empathetic

Empathy is not a "you either have it, or you don't" quality in human beings. Unless you've experienced a particular brain trauma, you have the ability to be empathetic. And so does that rude team member of yours!

On a personal level, empathetic people tend to be more generous and concerned with people's welfare, and tend to have happier relationships and greater wellbeing. But what exactly is it? Empathy is the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Empathy is Important at Work

Yet empathy doesn't only come in handy when listening to your best friend explain his woes. It's actually very important for work, both for leaders and team members alike. The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations reports a correlation between empathy and increased sales, high performing managers of product development teams, and increased performance in highly diverse teams. Studies have also shown that empathy improves leadership ability and facilitates effective communication.

How could this be? Well, if you think about how fundamental relationship building is to almost every aspect of business and life, it's easy to see why. It's been proven that empathy is an important part of effective relationships. In studies by Dr. Antonio Damasio, "medical patients who had damage to part of the brain associated with empathy showed significant deficits in relationship skills, even though their reasoning and learning abilities remained intact."
The benefits of empathy at work are many. Here is a partial list to give you an idea of how increased empathy can greatly impact your working life.

Five Benefits of Empathy at Work
  1. You will better understand the needs of your coworkers and customers.
  2. When communicating, you will better understand what is unspoken, and see more clearly the perception you create in others with your words and actions.
  3. Dealing with conflict will become easier and with the increased understanding of other's motivations and fears, you will find it easier to deal with any negativity that comes your way.
  4. You'll be able to better predict actions and reactions of others, which will help motivate the people you work with.
  5. It will become easier to convince others of your point of view.
Empathy is Essential for Leaders

For leaders of the current workforce, empathy is essential. Dr. Daniel Goleman cites three key reasons why empathy is so important for leaders: 1) the increase in the use of teams 2) the rapid pace of globalization with increased cross cultural communication and 3) the growing need to retain talent. Empathy also enables leaders to create environments of open communication and feedback, understand and navigate the problems employees face, validate what their employees are going through, and anticipate the needs of teams.

Empathy Can Be Exercised

Now that you've seen just how much empathy can benefit you at work, you're probably wondering if you're an empathetic person. As I mentioned, we all have the capacity for empathy. However, it is a skill that takes practice for most people. As Dr. Mohammadreza Hojat states, "Empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait." Lucky for us, cognitive attributes can be exercised.

So how do we exercise and strengthen our empathy muscle? Here are seven practical tips for increasing empathy.

Seven Practical Tips For Increasing Empathy

1. Listen and don't interrupt.
Truly listening can be a challenge. Sometimes we are just waiting to give our own opinion. Read here for tips on improving your listening skills.

2. Be fully present when you are with people and tune in to non-verbal communication.
You can start being fully present by putting away your phone, not checking your email, and not accepting calls while you are interacting with someone. A study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, reports that the things we say account for only 7% of what we are trying to communicate. "The other 93% of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language." If all you're doing while you speak with someone is listening to what they are saying while you scroll through your upcoming appointments, you'll miss the bulk of what is being communicated.

3. Smile at people.
Smiles are literally contagious. The part of your brain responsible for this facial expression is the cingulate cortex, which is an unconscious automatic response area. Since smiling releases feel good chemicals in the brain, activates reward centers, and increases health, you'll truly be doing yourself and your colleague a favor when you show those pearly whites.

4. Use people's names and encourage them.
Encouraging people can be as simple as nodding at them while they talk in a meeting. This simple gesture, along with using their name, can make great impact on relationship building.

5. Try to empathize with people whose beliefs you don't share.
This tip might particularly come in handy during election year! One good way to approach differing beliefs in conversation is to say, "That's interesting, how did you develop that idea?" or "Tell me more."

6. Give genuine recognition.
Move beyond "great job" and give specific compliments like, "Your research on this difficult topic is thorough" or "Thank you. I would have missed that information if you hadn't pointed it out."

7. Challenge yourself to have a deeper conversation with a colleague.
Understanding a person's point of view or personal challenges requires conversation that moves past the weather. This doesn't mean you should ask your colleague about highly personal matters. Start by sharing a little more of your own experiences and perspectives and see if your colleague follows suit.

Tip number seven is what I want you to do this week. It's an excellent way to jump in the waters of improving empathy. While you speak to this person, think about using their name, smiling, encouraging them, listening, without interrupting. This singular conversation won't just be practice; it will lay the foundation for a better working relationship with your colleague. You also might enjoy yourself!

Who is the most empathetic person you know? In what ways do they show their empathy? I'd love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below, send me an email or find me on Twitter.

P.S. Empathy is strongly linked to Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Learn how to improve your EQ here.

 
Anne Loehr is a sought after international keynote speaker, writer, consultant, and trainer. She helps leaders in large organizations connect their everyday decisions today to the future workplace. Her end goal is to help organizations retain their top talent and not only survive, but thrive. To learn more about Anne, check out www.anneloehr.com or follow her on Twitter.