5 ways to increase empathy at work and in life


Leading and living with empathy has never been more important in our world than it is today. Empathy is the ability to identify with the challenges that others face and to see those challenges from their perspective. I consider empathy a “humble curiosity”, and it’s an important skill set that is fundamental to emotional intelligence and resilience. It can also serve as an important protection factor against burnout and is fundamental to successful teamwork and leadership. You can build your muscles of empathy with a few simple but intentional strategies. Here are five ideas for leaders, parents, and you to develop humble curiosity:

Increase active listening. Active listening is a key part of humble curiosity. Many of us listen to fix or listen to win, rather than listening to understand or listening to learn. Those sentence beginnings help to activate curiosity:

  • Tell me more/tell me more about it…
  • Help me to understand…
  • Guide me through this…
  • I wonder…

Plus, they also help spread defensiveness and actively signal to the other person that you’re ready to learn more. Above all, taking the wrong approach to listening can impact trust. For example, if a team member just wants to talk about a problem with a project, offering to fix what isn’t broken can be off-putting and lessen the likelihood that they’ll contact you again.

Limit toxic positivity. When you’re struggling, others often don’t know what to say and, out of kindness (or discomfort), try to make the situation better. Unfortunately, this often backfires. My aunt battled stage 4 colon cancer over a year ago, and our family came together one night to support her. At one point in the conversation, she burst into tears and said, “I feel like the cancer is winning. A member of Family A patted her on the back and, in an attempt to comfort her, told her to try to “think positive”. Empathy is not an answer. It’s about being willing to sit in the dark with another human. Pema Chödrön writes beautifully: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the injured. It is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Toxic positivity usually begins with the following phrases: “Well, at least…;” “Looking on the bright side of things;” or, “It could be worse.” You have every right to ignore it.

Prioritize clear communication. Researchers recently asked a large group of workers, “What more do you need to feel capable of being your best at work?” ” The only consistent response between August 2020 (at the start of the pandemic) and October 2021 (later in the pandemic) was “clearer communication from leaders”. Leaders can develop empathy through clear communication by doing the Following:

  • Provide transparency and continuous status updates
  • Reclarify the roles and objectives of team members who must meet remotely or in a hybrid format; disruptive events can create new and competing tasks for teams
  • Ask how people are doing
  • Have open conversations about stress and other difficult topics
  • Quickly resolve friction points that emerge within teams
  • Talk about a time when you overcame a challenge in the workplace

Enable people to increase their efficiency. Efficacy is the belief in your ability to cope with a wide range of stressful, challenging, or new demands and to be successful. It is the knowledge that you can develop a sense of control over your environment and circumstances. Well-meaning parents and leaders can undermine the development of effectiveness when they constantly intervene to solve a problem, short-circuiting valuable learning. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to persevere, establish personal and meaningful action plans, and commit to reaching ambitious goals and taking good risks. This short framework will help you better understand the process of developing your effectiveness in a particular area:

  1. Accept a goal/challenge
  2. Make an effort
  3. Get feedback on this effort
  4. Improve this skill/ability
  5. Keep trying
  6. Succeed (and celebrate each success!)

Hired out of curiosity. When was the last time you asked your business customers what keeps them up at night? Do you know the scale of the challenges your clients and team members are facing? If not, you must be curious. The curious tend to appreciate complex thought, tolerate uncertainty better and tend to avoid judging, criticizing and blaming others. Above all, you can create a culture of curiosity by hiring for it. Ruma Batheja, Head of Knowledgetics Research, suggests what follows:

  • Take a candidate for an office tour. You may need to get creative with this approach depending on whether people are back in a physical workplace, but virtual tours can also work. Tours allow a candidate to ask questions about office decorations, signage, ongoing initiatives, and the physical location of the teams (or if the teams are physically located).
  • Find out about your personal hobbies or interests, which can be particularly useful for candidates who are fresh out of university or graduate school and have not yet had the opportunity to show curiosity in the workplace. Ask them what this interest or hobby has taught them about life and how it might transfer to their work.
  • Curious people are always interested in deepening their knowledge. Simply ask the person to explain something new they learned in the past six months.
  • Give them a challenge to solve. Tell them about a task that needs immediate attention and ask them how they would approach solving the problem.

Humble curiosity is a superpower. Empathetic leaders reflect on (and ask) how others are doing, they are good at listening to what others have to say, they build trusting relationships with people who enter their space, and they see others’ perspectives without bearing judgement. At its essence, humble curiosity is the gateway to connection – something we could use more at work and in life.

** The phrase “humble curiosity” was coined by my colleague, Cat Moon.

Paula Davis is the CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute and is the author overcoming burnout: why teams hold the secret to well-being and resilience.


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