Empathy 101 for Better Relationships at Work
Empathy 101 for Better Relationships at Work

Regardless of your ideological views or political persuasion, these are turbulent times around the world. I’ve noticed a sense of angst, heightened anxiety, and a palpable change in how people treat each other both personally and professionally.

It’s time to get back to what distinguishes us as human beings –  treating one another with compassion, dignity, and respect. Even those with whom we disagree the most deserve to be treated with care.

As a leadership coach. I’ve seen communication breakdowns lead to dysfunctional work environments that breed toxicity and extinguish morale. Righting the communication ship is not impossible. In fact, getting back to basics will help make communication at work, and in your personal life more effective and satisfying.

Empathy Defined

Empathy is recognizing emotions in others and being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. It helps you understand the other person’s perspective and reality. You need not always agree with the other person but being empathetic requires you to think beyond yourself and your own concerns and allows you to discover another point of view.

To use empathy more effectively, consider these action steps from MindTools.com

  • Put aside your viewpoint and try and see things from another person’s point of view
  • Validate the other person’s perspective
  • Examine your attitude. Are you open to discover new things?
  • Listen
  • Ask what the other person would do. Encourage them to explain their position.

Listen Intently

Leadership from the Core founder and principal, Marcel Schwantes believes the secret to communicating well is to be emotionally present. This begins with listening intently. Active listening is a skill you can hone.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a scenario when someone talked over you while you desperately tried to convey your message but never felt as if you were heard.
Being silent is tough for many but this is an essential behavior when listening. Being an active listener allows you to hear with your eyes and ears. Open and receptive body language is important to fully absorb what the other person is saying and honor their air time.

Resist the urge to jump in with a solution or a contribution to the conversation. Allow the speaker to finish. Know that moments of silence allow for comprehension and processing.
When the speaker is finished, ask clarifying questions to ensure that you have understood them correctly. Paraphrase salient bits of the content using language like: “What I heard you say is…” and give the presenter the space to illuminate, if needed.

Brave Up

Bad things happen when good people say nothing. If you witness inappropriate behavior, consider how you can intervene to mitigate the situation. Being an advocate for othersis a key part of trusting relationships and impactful communication.

Be a true leader and model the way for positive and supportive interactions. It takes courage and bravery to speak up when something inappropriate happens. These acts of courage will soon permeate to create a culture of advocacy with palpable benefits.

Be Kind

As the iconic bumper sticker says, Mean People Suck. Differences in style, opinion, and ideological viewpoint will always happen. Research has shown that diverse perspectives on a team lead to more creative solutions and productivity.

When we lose civility with those with whom we disagree, we miss the entire point of diverse perspectives. Better Angelsis a non-profit national citizen’s movement created to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing together opposing viewpoints to understand each other and teach practical skills for communicating across political differences.

Disagreement is healthy but waging war at work when colleagues disagree is debilitating and toxic.


I see professionals spiral in communication meltdowns when they focus on an either/or scenario. Most workplace conflict can be solved with compromise or an alternative solution that is not yet on the table.

Instead of heading into a negotiation in attack mode, consider these communication prompts to diffuse the emotion and focus on jointly created solutions.

  • How can I help?
  • Can we come together to find a solution?
  • Let’s meet half way.

Stop the Blame Game

Renowned author and research professor at University of Houston, Brenee Brown is teaching the world how to be brave leaders. I’m a Brenee Brown groupie and I especially love her video on blaming, which makes us all recall a scenario when we blamed someone else inappropriately.

Relationships will be more authentic and trusting when we stop the blame gameand take responsibility for our actions. This requires humility and vulnerability, which can make us feel uncomfortable.

Growth happens when we are uncomfortable. If you have done something wrong – own it. Ask for forgiveness and offer a genuine apology. Don’t ruminate on something that happened. Address it head on and set the groundwork for a new beginning.  

Gossip is Toxic

We all know that gossip is harmful, hurtful and rarely, if ever based in truth. Yet, I have clients in organizations of all sizes and industries who report that gossip is pervasive in their workplace.

Be firm in your commitment not to gossip. What might seem innocent at first can grapevine into something that ruins a reputation and causes serious harm.

Go to the source and nip the gossip in the bud. Don’t succumb to collegial peer pressure if you hear gossip shared amongst colleagues. Don’t take the bait – walk away and be firm in your conviction not to participate.

As Michelle Obama once said, “When they go low – we go high.” Taking the high road can be lonely and scary but it’s always the right thing to do.

Set the Ground Rules

I work with many hiring managers who talk about the “no jerk policy” when sourcing candidates for open positions. Every team should come together to set ground rules for behavior and
communication. If the team creates the ground rules this will enhance buy-in and accountability.

If your team has been together for a while, refresh your ground rules. Consider how new hires will change the dynamic and give them the opportunity to share in the creation of the revised code of conduct.

Validation Makes the World Go ‘Round

We know intellectually that it’s OK to disagree with someone and that diverse viewpoints lead to strong teams and productive organizations. Emotions get high when we don’t feel validated when trying to share our point of view.

Take a moment and breathe before you speak and use the intentional pause to honor others by being an active listener.

Your willingness to own your mistakes, apologize and be grateful are the foundation of strong communication. We can work out our differences and we must tap our better angels to do so with compassion, dignity and respect – even when it’s difficult.