29. June 2021 - Tracy Evans

Empathy in Practice

Empathy is critical to building a strong, productive organization. In this post, we begin exploring empathy and putting it into operational practice.


Empathy is critical to building a robust and productive organization. As a leader, you may recognize the value of empathy, but:

  • What’s the difference between feeling empathy and putting it into operational practice?
  • How do you achieve it when changing organizational cultures is so hard?  

Suppose your people are working in silos or pulling in different directions. In that case, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your strategy or technology is. A lack of empathy often leads to poor communication and a culture of mistrust, blame, and lack of respect—despite everyone’s best intentions. Individual, team, or organization, you have a better chance of realizing your vision and delivering value to your customers and stakeholders when you apply empathy.

The good news is that people can always learn and adapt. This post lists some ways to help everyone get there.

Empathy is learnable … and teachable!

Empathy is sometimes hard to define, sometimes called a “soft” skill. But if a “hard skill” is a business-critical one like problem-solving or collaboration and creativity, then empathy should count as a hard skill. There are practical, concrete ways to enhance the use of empathy in your organization.

Six ways to put empathy into practice now

The ability to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes” is essential in business. Understanding someone’s situation, needs, and goals (especially when they are different from our own) is helpful in everyday life, too! 

Teaching people the skills they need to be empathic will help you “operationalize your values,” as Brené Brown puts it. Empathy is a skill that is useful to everyone, not just customer-facing product or support teams. When you consciously practice empathy inside your organization, it becomes part of the fabric of your culture. Before you know it, that extends outwards, becoming part of your relationships with suppliers, partners, and clients alike. 

Here are six practices, habits, and processes we find helpful that you can use to operationalize empathy right now. 

Practice 1: Know and challenge your bias

We base our views on who we are, our history, our experiences, and the communities we belong to. Attributes like gender, age, and ethnicity are the filters that color our worldview. 

In recent years, more and more people are working to be aware of and overcome their own implicit biases. Surprise yourself. Take the test over at Project Implicit to discover your implicit social associations.

Part of practicing empathy in the workplace is considering how people in different job roles look at things from very different angles. And remembering my own biases while I do it. For example, 

  • The developer might be thinking, “How can we create beautiful, functional, secure code?”
  • The marketer’s priority might be, “How do we best connect with the customer?”
  • The executive might be worrying, “How do I get our product out the door in time to satisfy our investors?”

In management roles, exhibiting empathy is fundamental to setting your team up for success and getting the most and the best out of everyone. For example, you can identify the introverts and extroverts in your team. Then you can effectively delegate different tasks like traveling, working onsite with clients, and giving public presentations to the extroverts. The introverts might prefer tackling a complex dataset, planning events, or preparing reports and presentation materials. 

Our work experiences shape our biases, worldview, and perspectives:

  • Years of experience
  • Kinds of organizations
  • Business cultures 
  • Types of jobs
  • Trust and contribution
  • Responsibilities
  • Managing people
  • Professional Communities
Filters and perspectives develop during our work experience.

Practice 2: Establish perspective

Be aware of your filters, challenges, and biases: Be mindful that you’re influenced by your unique life history, experiences, and context. And when at work, especially remember the work cultures and experiences you bring with you. 

Understand someone else’s point of view: Remember that other people are looking through their own set of filters based on their unique history and experiences, too! They’re just as likely as you to have had a toxic boss, a weird hobby, and something special to contribute to the project.

Actively strive for more diverse perspectives: Travel from your armchair. Consume content from communities and thought leaders adjacent to—and entirely outside—your own. Talk to people! Engage customers, colleagues, community members through conversation, interviews, or surveys. Listen to them. See what challenges they’re facing and how they’re tackling problems.

Filters and perspectives develop during our work experience.

Practice 3: Be curious. Ask questions.

Curiosity is being highly motivated and seeking to understand the perspective of others. It’s also about identifying opportunities to learn more about other people and their points of view. The best way to feed this curiosity is to ask a lot of questions.

If you find yourself doing most of the talking in a conversation, stop and challenge yourself to ask more questions (and listen to the answers!). And when they tell you something, follow that thread. See where it goes.

Hardly anyone can resist talking about themselves and their passions. Help them open up with follow-up questions that encourage them to share more:

  • “Tell me more. What are you thinking?”
  • “How did that work out for you?”
  • “What did that feel like?”
  • “What led you there?”
  • “What do you make of that?”

Practice 4: Listen. Listen. Listen.

Once you’ve asked the right questions to help them open up, listen. Listen actively. That is easier said than done, but here are some keys to start practicing:

  • Pay attention.
  • Reserve judgment.
  • Ask for clarification if you don’t understand what they said.
  • Summarize. Briefly repeat in your own words what you just heard. Say something like, “What I hear you saying is ...”
  • Share. Actively participate in the dialogue by saying something like, “That sounds like something I went through.”
  • Keep listening. But don’t let your sharing take over the conversation. You’re supposed to be listening! :-)
  • Make eye contact. Look at them while you’re listening! Doing that also unlocks a special bonus ... 

Bonus: Pay attention to nonverbal cues to better understand the meaning behind what someone is saying. Emotions expressed nonverbally can be as telling as the words people speak, or more so. Focus on tone of voice, pace of speech, facial expressions, and gestures.

Practice 5: Help and unblock

One of the most significant components of empathic, effective leadership is enabling others to succeed. For me, good leaders spend a considerable amount of their efforts removing blockers for others.

For example, imagine you see a colleague doing a task with an inferior tool, and you can provide a better one. The empathic thing to do is unblock them. Share your knowledge about a method or a tool that will help them achieve their goal faster, simpler, better, or more securely and remove that blocker for them.

There’s a trap here: Just like how OSP approaches product communication, don’t tell them they are “doing it wrong.” Highlight the excellent job they are doing, be specific about the challenge you see them facing, and show them the value of your alternative. Offer them a chance to try a different way, the opportunity to make their workday better or get onto more interesting things.

Practice 6: Words matter.

Having and using the right vocabulary is essential. Using words that express feeling more often helps create a safe space where people feel comfortable sharing and being open. Openness can lead to more connection and more opportunities. As we say at Open Strategy Partners, “Communicate, connect, grow.” :-)

Being open can still take courage. Be an active listener. Even if you don’t know what to say, acknowledge and connect with the speaker: “I don’t know what to say right now. I’m just so glad you told me.”

Making this your ‘new normal’ allows emotions to become a further welcome context in discussing any particular situation. 

Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of Nonviolent Communication, “a process for supporting partnership and resolving conflict within people, in relationships, and in society,” provides a set of tools—observation, feelings, needs, and requests—to speak about any topic, no matter how fraught, in constructive ways.

The model, also known as empathic communication, consists of two parts: expressing oneself honestly and listening honestly. Practicing non-violent expression and listening can help us talk about our emotions and needs in ways that make it easier for others to be empathetic.

Empathy in Authentic Communication

I was going to call this section “Words Matter, Part 2” because putting words together into product communication is most of what we do at OSP. In our day-to-day work, we have tools and processes that are operational expressions of empathy. We’ll be going into more detail about them in future posts, but I wanted to share a few of them with you here: 

  • Interview: Follow Practices 3 and 4. We create expert-level content without being experts in every single thing our clients do. Don’t be shy about asking questions. Curiosity doesn’t “look stupid.” Subject-matter experts love talking about what they do! 
  • Quote: Your experts’ words are gold. Quoting them is the easiest way to be technically accurate. Remember to get their sign-off before publishing quotes attributed to someone.
  • Review: Always have your texts reviewed by one or more technical experts in the field (e.g., code samples work, descriptions are accurate, etc.).
  • Survey: Need to know what people think? Survey a community! Groups like open source projects and your clients’ clients are good places to get solid information on a given product. Public-facing surveys of job roles or industries can be great, too, though it’s sometimes hard to break through the noise and get responses.
  • Connect: When you produce content that is relevant to your intended readers (and couched in terms they relate to), you show that you understand their situation. They’re more likely to be open to what you’re offering and telling them in your work.
    • Context, environment: Keep in mind that any given job, community, profession, or industry has different concerns and responsibilities. Defining and understanding these is where the “classic” marketing tool, target audience, comes in.
    • Needs, challenges: We work with an OSP version of another marketing classic, the target persona, in our Persona Maps to make sure we can put ourselves in someone’s shoes—understand their job, needs, and challenges—while we are writing.
    • Vocabulary, tone, style: Developers, marketers, academics, and public servants may all benefit from your product, but you need to tell them the stories they will care about, using words and examples that resonate with them.

We hear you.

Open Strategy Partners helps organizations like yours put empathy into practice in your communications.

Start building trust authentically with the people who need to hear your stories and understand the value you deliver. Or join us for a writer’s enablement workshop and sprint.

To get in touch with us, follow what we’re doing, or learn about our Writer Enablement Workshops, email us at hello@openstrategypartners.com, or hit us up on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

Subscribe to our podcast, “Communicate, Connect, Grow,” on: Apple PodcastsSpotifyRSS Feed, and YouTube!

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References

Image credits: Man holding eyeglasses photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash, multicolored building photo by Alex George on Unsplash, eyeglasses in hand photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash.

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