What’s needed in our workplace is a big dose of empathy—and not just from workplace leaders. Showing empathy is everyone’s responsibility. The good news is that our brains are wired to provide that help. According to Jamil Zaki’s The War for Kindness, mirror neurons allow us to feel what others near us are feeling. Through practice, Zaki suggests, we can grow kinder.
Just by finding opportunities to intentionally talk empathetically, you’ll be able to get your mirror neurons firing. In so doing, you’ll make the office a better, more caring place to work.
1. “How are you feeling?”
Often, the best thing you can do to create a more empathetic workplace is to ask someone how they’re feeling. By inviting someone to open up and share, you show that you think that person is important, and you legitimize their feelings.
If a colleague in a sales organization loses a client, you know they’ll feel down. Take time to go over to their desk, look them warmly in the eye, and inquire about the situation. You might say, “I’ve heard what happened with that client. How are you feeling?” It may not solve the problem, but it will give your coworker a chance to explain and unburden himself.
We may be afraid of emotionally intruding, but in many instances, you can take your cues from the person with whom you’re speaking. If someone doesn’t want to tell you how they’re feeling, they don’t have to get into detail. But generally people will be heartened that you took the time to enquire about how they feel.
2. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
This expression will go far in conveying empathy when a colleague has shared a trying situation with you. Suppose a teammate has just learned that her job is being discontinued, or she tells you that things are not great at home. Sometimes the most empathetic response is the simplest. You can follow that up with more detailed questions, and, by talking through the situation, you two may be able to come up with a way for her to best move forward.
3. “I would feel the same way.”
This expression is a great bridge builder when someone shares their feelings about an incident. Suppose a colleague tells you he was passed over for a job, and adds that the interviewer did not have any interest in him from the start. There was an internal candidate who had the inside track. Your colleague feels duped and disappointed. By saying “I would feel the same way,” you convey a sense of commonality.
4. “How can I help?”
This expression works wonders in building a relationship, whether you are a colleague or someone’s boss. A 2018 LinkedIn survey revealed that of the many people who dreaded the workweek on Sunday night, 60% said they did so because of their heavy workload. So be a supportive colleague by offering to help. Often people just need reassurance. Offering to help doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to take on the workload yourself, though you should obviously be willing to follow through with any offer you make.
5. “Tell me about it.”
There may be moments in any day when someone makes a passing remark that clearly hints at a larger story. Regardless of what experience it was, asking for more details can help show our colleagues that their experiences are important to us.
I recently had a call from a former student who has had many challenges in life, but when we spoke she recalled the time we two rode over a footbridge in a VW convertible. That experience—and the retelling of it—will bind us together for life.
6. “Awesome performance.”
Empathy also can be expressed when someone in your office has done something praiseworthy. Acknowledging a job well done shows that you feel as the achiever feels: great! If one of your team members has done an impressive job with something, make sure to compliment them. Realize that everyone needs a pat on the back for the hard work they’re doing. So whether you’re their boss or a colleague, thank them, and congratulate them on a job well done.