Imagine this scenario. You’re feeling overwhelmed at work with a “to-do list” that seems impossible to complete. A teammate is having a bad day of her own; she’s just made a mistake on something she feels is of importance to the organization. She approaches (interrupts?) you, confiding her fears that she’s failed the team and worries they’ve now lost some confidence in her ability.
How do you respond?
- To hurriedly, but in a caring way, tell her, “It will all be okay,” then quickly return to your impossible to-do list;
- Respond, “At least you were given the opportunity and can now learn from it”, with an added effect of a cheery smile. Surely this will help boost her mood. After all, you are a “silver lining” type of person!
- Pull up a chair and ask your teammate to share more. You dig deeper and reveal that you, too, have been in a similar position before, and are sorry they are feeling this way.
Listening to the problems of others can be hard for a variety of reasons. Our initial inclination, particularly when we ourselves are under stress, may be to quickly fix the problem without really understanding what is driving the emotions. Or we rush to cheer them up; we sugarcoat or gloss over what they are really trying to tell us. These are likely well-intended responses. But while we think we are helping others, these actions can actually be viewed by the other party as partial responses, attached with a lack of caring – rather than evoking the perception that our true intention was to help.
Another obstacle to displaying high emotional intelligence is that demonstrating genuine empathy can be hard. It requires us to suspend our judgment of the other person. We must relate to what the other person is feeling – which can be scary, because who wants to return to a place emotionally where we didn’t like what we were feeling?
Demonstrating empathy means that we understand what the other person is going through and we share in how they are feeling. Emotional Intelligence means we can take it one step further by being moved to help if needed – showing compassion. When we do all three of these, we are building stronger connections with the other person and enhancing the strength of the relationship.
The ultimate goal of empathy is to develop a deeper connection and understanding with another person through dialogue. Effective empathy consists of:
- Focusing on the other person and helping them feel heard
- Asking clarifying questions without jumping to give advice
- Not glossing over the issue to make them feel better quicker
Now, back to the earlier scenario, I have a confession: It’s a true story. I was the person who messed up on something at work. I received all three of those responses from caring and well-meaning teammates. Fortunately, amongst them was one person who demonstrated real empathy. They made time to hear my story, shared with me that they had been in a similar situation, and strategize with me what I might try to help fix it. The result was that I left the conversation feeling better about myself and my next steps, and even better, felt that I had a true friend at work.