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Building Empathy: Part Two

Why Should I Care?

Why should you care about building empathy? Because building and demonstrating empathy in the workplace yields several very important results.

  1. Increased sales, loyalty and referrals
  2. Accelerated productivity and innovation
  3. Greater competitive advantage and market value
  4. Expanded engagement and collaboration

Executives and CEOs need empathy and active listening skills for strategic decision making, modeling diversity and inclusion behaviors, demonstrating tact and an enhanced ability to anticipate problems. Middle Managers benefit from empathy in their supervisory roles as they engage in appropriate communication, implement corrective actions, relate to their direct reports, create learning outcomes and engage in conflict resolution. Line level employees can benefit from empathy and active listening skills in communication with co-workers and supervisors and in self-monitoring their behavior.

Essentially, empathy is being able to put yourself in the shoes of another who is not like you. Someone who is the “other.” It’s harder than it may seem. Take a look at this video example:

Empathy for In Group v. Out Group

The good news is that you can increase your empathy. Because simply knowing about your cognitive biases doesn’t fix them. People (you and the “other”) need to CARE.  According to Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D.,  80% of behavior driven by emotions and 20% by thoughts. Research shows that to generate empathy and inclusive behavior we need to:

  • Identify where we and others fall into non-inclusive behaviors
  • Recognize the pain caused to us and others from non-inclusive, non-empathetic behavior.

In Building Empathy Part One, we discussed the neuroscience of empathy and provided an exercise for building empathy: the Awe Walk.  Let’s take that work a few steps further.

Building Empathy:  Take “the other” to lunchempathy at lunch

This plan is adapted from Elizabeth Lesser’s TEDTalk.  Her personal quest was to combine the “warrior” part of her personality with the “mystic” part of her personality.

I’ve always been attracted to those rare people who pull that off, who devote their lives to humanity with the grit of the warrior and the grace of the mystic — people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” “This,” he wrote, “is the interrelated structure of reality.” Then Mother Teresa, another mystic warrior, who said, “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.” And Nelson Mandela, who lives by the African concept of “ubuntu,” which means “I need you in order to be me, and you need me in order to be you.” ~ Elizabeth Lesser

When you take the Other to lunch, you can learn their story, spend a bit of time in their shoes, and build empathy. Here’s how to do it:

  • Agree on ground rules:
    • Don’t persuade, defend or interrupt
    • Be curious, authentic, and LISTEN
  • Ask four questions:
    • What are some of your life experiences that have led you to feel the way you do?
    • What issues deeply concern you?
    • What have you always wanted to ask someone from “the other side”?
    • Is there anything you would like to say to “clean up” the past?

So, who should you invite to lunch? Next time you catch yourself in the act of “otherizing”, that’ll be your clue.

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.” ~ Rumi

Building Empathy: Weekly Highs and Lows

Some families do this every night at dinner time. “What was your high today?” “What was your low?” Here, it is adapted for a work team.

  • Each Monday, each team member shares one high and one low from the past week, both in their personal and professional lives. In the beginning it will be hard to share the personal stories, so they could be small. (My partner cooked my favorite dinner as a surprise.)
  • Allow 10-15 minutes for this activity and manage the discussion so that everyone has approximately the same amount of time.
  • Make this a weekly practice during your team meetings.

As time progresses, you’ll find yourself learning more about your colleagues and what is important to them—both in the office and at home.  It will become natural to wonder—if not ask outright—how your colleagues and customers are doing (and mean it). Because your colleagues and customers feel you truly care about what is going on in their lives, they should feel more comfortable in telling you exactly what they want or need.

Don’t be surprised if you have a few team members who are reluctant to share their personal stories at first. If someone doesn’t want to participate right away, that’s fine. Encourage them to share a professional story instead. Over time, they’ll most likely feel more comfortable and be willing to share with the rest of the team.

Powering Inclusive Cultures, Spectra Diversity’s D&I Facilitation and Training Kit, uses mindfulness, the power of storytelling and other techniques to build empathy among employees and leaders within organizations. For more information or to purchase this training package, please contact

Source: UX Booth, “Three Exercises to Teach Your Team Empathy,” Jennifer Winter, July 11, 2017

Source: TED Talk, “Take the Other to lunch,” Elizabeth Lesser, 2010

Source: Entrepreneur, “4 Reasons Why Empathy Is Good for Business,” Maria Ross, Nov. 22, 2018

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