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Q&A on the Book Empathy at Work

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Key Takeaways

  • We constantly experience the three kinds of empathy - cognitive, emotional and empathic concern - but it’s cognitive empathy that companies and leaders refer to when they are talking about being more empathetic at work
  • The best way to start expressing or showing empathy to others is through your communication 
  • Highly collaborative teams are empathic because they embrace varying perspectives, value unique ideas, and give each other the space to speak freely and openly
  • To overcome the barriers of empathy at work, leaders and employees alike must immediately acknowledge the failure and do their best to course correct
  • To engage empathy in difficult situations, one must be patient, garner perspective, and focus on connecting with their listener to further their relationship in a positive way

The book Empathy at Work by Sharon Steed explores the role empathy plays in team communication and interaction, and provides tools to help people become better empaths in difficult situations. It describes the steps we can take in order to show empathy daily and contribute to a healthy, collaborative, positive work culture. 

InfoQ readers can read Empathy at Work online by signing up for an O’Reilly membership (free, no credit card required).

InfoQ interviewed Steed about the importance of empathy for people working in agile teams, what we can do to become more empathic, the qualities that empathetic companies have, how speaking with intention can make our communication more empathic, why  allowing some autonomy can be incredibly empathetic, how leaders can deal with empathy failures, and how we can develop an empathic mindset.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Sharon Steed: I was actually approached by the people at O’Reilly Media to write something about empathy in corporate environments. I spoke at Velocity in New York in October of 2018, and they liked my talk topic and suggested I create some content for them. I’ve been speaking about individual empathy, empathy at work, and empathy on teams for several years now, so I had a good idea of the kind of ebook I wanted to write. I’ve also done a course with LinkedIn on empathy and communication, so saying yes was easy since I’d had some experience creating this caliber of content.

Once I started to actually outline and write, that “why” question came up again a few times. I wanted to write this particular piece so that professionals could have a go-to source of how to engage empathy in corporate settings. There are so many great works out there by people talking about communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence and other similar topics, and of course Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and empathy is massively impactful and groundbreaking in so many beautiful ways. I think that empathy in a professional context, however, is still a thing that hasn’t been explored nearly as much as other “soft skills.” I wrote this book to essentially start the conversation around this topic to a much broader audience than I usually get to engage with. 

Speaking is wonderful because I get to be face-to-face with people from all walks of life, but a talk can only get so far into the world. The internet helps some with recorded talks being posted online. Even then, however, I can’t connect with audiences who aren’t physically there. This ebook allows me to spread my message and work in a much larger way, and that continues to be a very exciting thing. 

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Steed: I’d like to think this is a book that could help everyone! If you are a living, breathing human being, you most likely have several daily interactions with other humans. And to truly optimize those interactions, you must engage empathy in a meaningful way. 

With that said, I intended this book to be for those working on teams at companies. Specifically, I wanted this book to help people in management roles. Being a people manager is an incredibly difficult job; it’s almost like two, maybe even three, jobs at once. You have to manage down to your team and make sure that each member is not only producing at minimum a satisfactory level. You must also manage up to your own direct superior and satisfy their directives and expectations. Finally, you have to complete the tasks of your own specific job title. 

When I was writing this book, I was thinking specifically about these individuals. In most of my talks, I have a section on culture and how to improve a culture through engaging empathy. I firmly believe that true company change starts top-down, spreads from the bottom, but is implemented in earnest from the middle. Managers are the most influential group in almost any company because they are consistently engaging with the widest range of people in the building. If managers can become better empaths, a true cultural shift can happen and feeling inside of any company will be a more positive one.  

InfoQ: How do you define empathy?

Steed: There are several definitions and types of empathy that all circle around the same general idea, and then there is my own specific definition for me personally in my own day-to-day life. I’ll start with the dictionary and academic definitions, and then round it out with my own paradigm. 

If you look up empathy in a dictionary, it’ll say something to the effect of, “The feeling to understand or share the feelings of another person.” Empathy is essentially attempting to feel what the other person is feeling in the sincerest possible way in order to better understand them. Researchers and academics have defined several different types of empathy, but the three main ones most talked about are emotional empathy, cognitive empathy and empathic concern. 

Emotional empathy is inherent in us; when we see someone laughing, we smile. When we see someone crying, we feel sad. Cognitive empathy is understanding what a person is thinking or feeling; this one is often referred to as “perspective taking” because we are actively engaged in attempting to “get” where the person is coming from. Empathic concern is being so moved by what another person is going through that we are empowered to act. The majority of the time when people are talking about empathy, they are referring to empathic concern. 

These definitions of empathy are all accurate and informative. But a big point that I always try to make is that empathy is a verb; it’s a muscle that must be worked consistently for any real change to occur. That’s why everyone’s definition of what empathy is in their own lives is going to be a little bit different. We all feel understand in a different way, so each person truly has to define what empathy looks and feels like for themselves. For me, it’s allowing me to finish my thoughts. I’m a stutterer, and it sometimes takes me a bit to get a word or a thought out. Although someone may know what I’m going to say, I need them to allow me to say it. That is showing me empathy. I always encourage my clients and audiences to define empathy on their own terms. 

InfoQ: How important is empathy for people working in agile teams?

Steed: Some of my favorite events to speak at are agile-focused ones, in part because they already get it. Why? Because the agile manifesto and approach to work is already inherently empathetic. Things like providing a supportive environment; trusting people to get the job done; reflecting on how to be more effective; and adjusting and tuning an individual’s or team’s behavior if something isn’t working within the system are all incredibly empathetic actions. Let’s break this down. 

Supportive environments are those that allow for everyone to thrive in the exact capacity that makes each individual successful. What does that mean? It means that everyone understands and accepts that just because one person finds success in a specific way, it doesn’t mean that any other individual will use that same approach. Supportive environments are those where every team member meets their coworkers at whatever level they are at without bias or judgement. 

Trust is imperative to any successful endeavor. If teams don’t trust each other - both interdepartmentally or internally as a unit - there is no way a company can truly achieve the goals they set out for themselves. Trust is empathetic because it lends itself to understanding. When you trust someone, a few things are happening. First, you are taking the things they say at face value. There’s no questioning ideas or methods, there’s just encouragement and giving them the space to work. Second, there is a sense of understanding among the team; you give people the benefit of the doubt because you know you don’t have all the answers and that others might be better equipped to deal with a specific problem than you are. 

Reflecting on how to be more effective and then adjusting as needed is a real cornerstone of empathy in my opinion. Something I say in my talks is that you (the audience) will fail at this, probably multiple times a day. I struggle with it all the time! But the most important thing is to get back right back at it as quickly as possible. Regroup, take a deep breath, and then try again. You see, reflecting on how something went and examining behaviors that worked and didn’t are useful on agile teams because it is literally an agile action. Being adaptable and being thoughtful are empathetic actions as well. 

InfoQ: What can we all do to become more empathic?

Steed: Empathy is going to be a bit different for everyone because all of us have different wants and needs. Empathy is also much easier when we are dealing with people who we identify with or who we care about. So though it is always useful, empathy is most imperative when we are in a situation with a person we don’t identify with or we are in a difficult/uncomfortable interaction. 

With that in mind, one thing I always tell people to always remind yourself that you most likely do not have the full context of a situation. This means, quite literally, that you don’t know everything. You only know what you see and what you are told, then from there you create your opinion. Your opinion on the situation is not a fact; your opinion is your view - your perspective - of what’s going on. And your perspective doesn’t take into account the various moving parts of the situation as a whole and all of the individuals involved. 

So being empathetic in most situations where empathy is vital is reminding yourself that you have no idea what’s going on in this person’s life and what may be affecting their mood at work. So always approach every situation with a good amount of patience. Patience is the key to both not taking anything too personally and also to keeping the true goal of the interaction in mind. 

Another thing we can do to be more empathetic is to be mindful of who we are speaking to at all times. So many of the people I work with feel that they aren’t strong communicators. I think many of us have some sort of insecurity around the way we communicate with others, especially our coworkers. And it’s understandable; we live in a time in which the standards of how we must treat each other are incredibly high. Everyone wants to be (and absolutely should be) treated fairly, spoken to with respect, and dealt with in a professional way. The problem is that all of those things mean something different to every single person. When I say to be mindful, I mean take this human being you are speaking to into account during the conversation; treat them not the way you want to be treated, but they way they want and need to be treated. That single behavior will make an enormous difference in how others respond to you. 

InfoQ: What qualities do empathetic companies have?

Steed: Every company is different, just as every team, department and individual is different. What works for one company is not going to work for another. This is why every leadership team needs to prioritize defining empathy (both as individuals and as entities as a whole) before they can create a system that works for them in engaging empathy. 

With that said, there are a few characteristics that most empathetic companies have. One is transparency. The vast majority of workers understand that not all information is available to them, and that many of the important things going on behind the scenes are on a need-to-know basis. However there are ways for companies to let their employees in a little. The example I give in the book is how Buffer publishes everyone’s salaries and the formula behind it. Obviously not every company can or should do that, but this kind of transparency helps trust and security thrive. 

Another global characteristic is that everyone is given the space to speak their mind (within reason) and, as a result, everyone feels heard. New managers especially may feel the need to rule with an iron fist or to immediately exert the power of their team. Allowing their direct reports to express themselves when they have concerns or just a unique take on an old idea, however, really lends itself to a more open culture and one that is rooted in trust and autonomy.

InfoQ: How does speaking with intention make our communication more empathic?

Steed: Something I say both to my clients and in my talks is to “speak with intention first, for impact second.” This means that we should speak with the end goal of the interaction in mind and then use impact to help both drive home our point and to further foster a connection with the individual with whom we are speaking. 

Think about the last time you got upset with someone at work or a conversation went from benign to heated. What was your gut reaction? Maybe it was to raise your voice; speak sarcastically; insult the person’s ideas; or to give negative and aggressive body language cues (i.e. crossing your arms, eye rolls, etc.). When we get into situations where we feel we are being attached or disrespected, the first thing to go negative is our communication. We get defensive (because we are hurt and upset) so we then speak in a tone and with language that showcases those feelings. This can devolve incredibly quickly into an argument, a destroyed relationship and - most importantly for those at work - a fractured team. 

Instead of approaching the conversation with the end goal in mind, we are now in “fight mode.” We speak for impact first with the intention of hurting the other person the way they just hurt us. That’s why prioritizing intention over impact is empathetic; we are making the foundation of our message (and, therefore, our thoughts) solution-oriented. We have a goal to keep in mind, and we know that our words are going to either help achieve that goal or make that goal that much harder to achieve. 

We have a goal to keep in mind, and we know that our words are going to either help reach that goal or make that goal much more difficult to achieve.

You mentioned in the book that allowing some autonomy can be incredibly empathetic. Can you elaborate?

Steed: Allowing autonomy really goes back to trust. Managers and leaders who trust their employees are going to give those employees “long leashes,” so to speak. I realize that this won’t work on every team. But it’s important that everyone is given a chance to at least work in a way that best suits their style. Autonomy is more than just about allowing people to do whatever they want when they want. It’s allowing people to think about problems in different and unusual ways. It’s giving space for people to work through issues on their own and then engaging their thought processes to see how they think and where they end up. In short, allowing people to be a bit autonomous on your team is empathetic because you are giving others the time and energy to work thought things at a pace and capacity that works best for them. 

Many teams have rules and specific ways things are done, and that makes sense. No one wants to fix something that works perfectly well as it is currently. However, allowing for some autonomy gives employees some space to figure things out on their own terms. And the result of doing that is a team and workforce that feels included in the company in a much greater capacity. This is empathetic because now everyone feels understood. And understanding is truly the cornerstone of empathy.

InfoQ: How can leaders deal with empathy failures?

Steed: I’m a huge fan of people taking real, sincere responsibility for the things that they do wrong. Think about it: how often do people really apologize for a misstep and then immediately try to course correct? It is miserable to admit when we are at fault, and even worse to have to figure out how to make things right. When leaders fail, it can be especially difficult for a few reasons. First, everyone sees it; everyone knows when you’ve failed and everyone can then, as a result, judge you. Second, your failure could potentially have a major impact on the team or company. 

When we take this same reasoning and results to failures of empathy, the aftermath can be quite overwhelming. Everyone wants to feel heard and valued. When we fail at empathy, we risk making people feel insignificant and unimportant. That’s why when we fail, we should immediately acknowledge the misstep and then reinforce to whomever we are speaking with that they are, indeed, a valuable part of the team and that their ideas and feelings matter. I know this sounds very “soft” and mushy, but it really goes back to one thing (and it’s a thing that those in the agile community really value): humanity. 

We’re not dealing with difficult coworkers; bosses who are never happy; direct reports who can’t follow directions; or leadership that doesn’t seem to care about their teams. We’re dealing with human beings, and humans have lives, feelings and complex emotions that can’t be turned off when we’re in the office. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to constantly remind themselves that when they fail at empathy - because they will, without a doubt, fail at it - that they immediately confront that failure and try to re-engage when emotions are more level. Also, it helps if there is some sort of system in place for when empathy fails. 

InfoQ: What’s your suggestion for developing an empathy mindset?

Steed: I’m constantly championing empathy as a verb so people can truly engage empathy on a daily basis on their teams. However, I get that empathy is a very abstract concept; it’s not something that you can give a few simple directives for and then just go do. You have to put considerable thought into what empathy is going to look and feel like for you and your team. 

There are, however, a few constants when attempting to get into an empathy mindset. This isn’t necessarily a guide or a process; it’s more so a few things you’ll absolutely have to consider (and become quite good at) in order to truly engage empathy in difficult situations.

The first thing is patience. We do not live in a culture where patience is valued or tolerated. We are constantly bombarded with stuff: current events, terrible news, cute puppy gifs, funny memes, and a host of other things. We are a “right now” culture and if we have to wait for something? We definitely do NOT want it. However patience is truly the foundation of an empathy mindset. Patience helps us calm down and see the situation from its basic level: an interaction with an actual end goal.  

The next thing you need to have is perspective. The two things that I do when I need to get perspective is to first, repeat what was just said to me. Often times, we don’t hear what was said to us; we hear our opinion of what was said. When we are repeating or rephrasing what was said to us, we are doing our best to eliminate bias and to get clarity.  The second is to focus on understanding. This goes back to reminding ourselves that we do not have the full context of the situation from the other person’s perspective. Understanding is reiterating to ourselves that because we don’t have the full picture, we should be slow to anger and put all of our energy into hearing the other person out. 

Finally, we need to focus on truly connecting with the person we are addressing. When we’re in a heated situation, we lose sight that this exact conversation is the one that will springboard all future interactions. So we need to take care to maintain and further the relationship. An empathy mindset basically comes down to that: engaging in the necessary behaviors that allow relationships with your coworkers to flourish. 

About the Author

Sharon Steed is an international keynote speaker, author and founder of Communilogue, a corporate empathy and communications consultancy. She has spoken at companies and conferences from various industries in 15 countries spanning four continents on improving team communication and collaboration through engaging empathy; vulnerability as a professional asset; and has given a TEDx talk on empowering insecurities. An author and course instructor for O'Reilly Media, Inc., her live online training "Empathy at Work" is held continuously throughout the year and her eBook Empathy at Work is available in the O’Reilly library; and her course "Communicating with Empathy" is available on LinkedIn. 

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