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The Power of Empathy: How to Thrive in the Face of Adversity at Work

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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As a person of color, you may face unique challenges and opportunities in the workplace. Maybe you have already experienced your fair share of bias, discrimination, or microaggressions from your colleagues or managers. You may also have had to navigate different cultural norms and expectations from your own and others. At the same time, I'm sure you have valuable insights, perspectives, and experiences that can enrich your work and contribute to your organization's success.

Throughout my career journey, empathy has played an essential role in my success in challenging work environments. Empathy is the ability to sense and understand other people’s emotions, and to act according to what you find. As a function of empathy, one can sense and understand another's emotions. Despite being deemed a weakness by some, it is an essential skill that can benefit employees in any work environment. As an employee, having empathy can be your greatest asset and it has gotten me through the many challenges of being a professional of color.

How Empathy Shapes the Employee Experience

A key component of a positive employee experience is how employees treat each other. On average, we spend more time with people at work than with our own family and friends. Consequently, empathy should be the thread that runs through the culture of a company. In the workplace, you can comfort others through your words and actions by demonstrating empathy. Even though it may seem insignificant, this can make a big difference for many teams. When you show empathy, it helps to build trust between you and your colleagues. This helps to develop genuine rapport and openness. Additionally, leaders who demonstrate empathy are able to inspire trust and loyalty from their employees. They are able to create a culture where everyone feels valued and respected.

Now don’t get me wrong, empathy alone is not enough to create a positive and productive workplace culture. You also need to have clear goals, values, and expectations, as well as skills such as communication and conflict resolution. Empathy without action can also be frustrating and ineffective for both the giver and the receiver. There are a variety of ways you can practice empathy at work, but you can begin with these:

  • Make an effort to ask thoughtful questions.
  • Be more observant in meetings, and daily interactions in the workplace.
  • Communicate both written and verbally with intention.
  • Never begin a conversation with "No" in mind, be open to hearing the ideas and opinions of others.

How to Develop and Demonstrate Empathy at Work

I learned about the importance of empathy at work when I needed it the most. One week stands out in my memory as the worst I ever had in my career. I felt like I was under constant attack from all sides. While I was dealing with negative treatment from others, I worried about how this would affect my ability to do my job in the future. I was honestly drowning in anxiety and frustration, with no escape in sight.

On one of the days that week, I had completely forgotten about a meeting with an intern who was interested in my role. We were supposed to meet in half an hour and I felt guilty for being in such a bad mood. I tried to hide it, but the intern could tell something was wrong. She asked me if I was okay. “I’m not feeling great today, but I’ll manage,” I said. She offered to listen if I wanted to talk, so I shared more of my feelings with her. She empathized with me and said things like:

  • "It's normal to struggle sometimes, and you're not alone."
  • "You have the skills and the resilience to overcome this challenge."
  • "You deserve respect and kindness from others."

Then she stood up and offered me a hug. I had never hugged anyone at work before, but that day I really needed it. I was at the end of my rope, and the work environment around me was toxic. I had seen many examples of empathy at work before, but this one touched me deeply. This intern not only shared with me a delicious Starbucks drink recipe from her previous job as a barista, but she also showed me that empathy could come from anyone, regardless of their race, background or position.

What that experience taught me about empathy in the workplace:

Listening is a valuable skill.

By listening attentively and actively to others, we can show them that we care about their feelings and opinions. Listening can also help us to better understand their perspectives and needs, and avoid misunderstandings and conflicts.

Empathy and sympathy are quite different.

While empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others, sympathy is compassion for someone else’s plight. Empathy involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and feeling what they feel, while sympathy involves acknowledging their situation and expressing concern or support.

Language is important.

The words we choose can greatly influence how we connect and interact with those around us. By incorporating empathetic language, we can demonstrate our concern for others' thoughts and emotions, and show that we value and embrace their differences and individuality.

Finally, the most valuable employees are not just productive but also empathetic and committed to showing up as their best selves for their roles and their colleagues. When interacting with others, it's important to consider their perspective before providing an appropriate response. This will shape your perception of the world around you and guide your interactions. And since each of us goes through our own challenges at one point or another, it's only a matter of time before you'll need that same level of understanding and empathy.

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