Maya Angelou said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”

Let us look at why that is. In the business world, research tells us that empathy is a trait of great leaders. Research shows that people with high levels of empathy build stronger relationships and are generally better able to deal with stress than their unempathetic counterparts. However, empathy is a term that still has connotations of being “too soft,” “too sensitive” or “too touchy-feely” in the workplace.

Having empathy does not mean that you walk around all day crying as you talk to each new person you run into. Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, even if you have not had the same experience. It means being able to see people as their whole selves and actively trying to understand what they are thinking and feeling. It also means spending more time reflecting on our own biases, feelings, and judgements and exploring those to better understand ourselves and how we relate to others.

Beyond the Comfort Zone

A lot of times when we talk about empathy, we describe it as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” What does this really mean? It means putting yourself in their situation to understand them better. Now, have you ever borrowed a friend’s shoes? Likely, you are borrowing from someone who you know is the same size shoe as you, and unless it is a true emergency and you are completely shoeless, any shoe will do.

It is easy for us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes when they are the same “size” as us. Oftentimes with empathy, this can be the same way – we empathize better with those that are like us and have shared or similar experiences.

In our social circles, this is a lot easier than it is at work – we often share something in common – we know the same people, live in the same neighborhood, share a love of the same team, have kids that participate in the same activities etc. In other words, we have some sort of common ground.

At work, it can be more difficult to empathize with people because we do not know what other things are going on in their professional or personal lives. Research shows that people naturally show more empathy to those that are like them. It may take a little more effort and it may be out of your comfort zone to squeeze your size 10 foot into a size 8 shoe, but it will be worth it once you start making real connections with co-workers, those that you train, those that you lead and those that lead you.

Personal & Professional Benefits

You may be wondering why empathy is so important and if it is worth the effort? Short answer – it is worth it, and it can provide benefits for both your personal and professional well-being. Empathy helps improve communication skills – making you more effective in your work as well as your everyday life.

People who are more empathetic are better team members and lead to more collaborative and productive work environments. Research also shows that showing compassion to others through empathy has a positive effect on our own health, helping to reduce stress and negative thoughts and don’t we all need a little more of that right now?

Empathy is not just important for individuals in the workplace. Research shows that companies with empathetic environments outperform their peers by 20 percent. Companies will be placing more focus on this in the future as they look to improve the collective empathy of their employees and organizations.

Think About the Shoes

Luckily, empathy is not one of those things that “you either have or don’t have.” Research shows that with just a little effort and thought, people can strengthen their empathetic muscles and cultivate empathy in themselves.

So the next time you find yourself in a meeting with someone you don’t know well or haven’t connected with previously, or doing a training session with new folks, or even in the grocery store behind someone who is taking too long – think about the person’s shoes.

  • Where have their shoes taken them that day, week, month or even over the years?
  • Were they slipped on at home while chasing three kids and preparing lunches?
  • Were they wearing them when they were helping to care for an aging parent?
  • Were they on when their boss dropped an aggressive timeline on them last minute, adding to an already overloaded plate?
  • Were they wearing them when they were treated differently because of their gender or the color of their skin?

When you think about the person, think about where their shoes have been taking them lately. It is a step in the right direction of becoming more empathetic and having the courage to display it.

Author: Carrie Garrett

Learning and Curriculum Development Manager, CMR Institute

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