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The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace

What is empathy?

Empathy is being aware of others thoughts, feelings and emotions. If you are empathetic you have the ability to sense other people’s emotions, and imagine how they are feeling or what they might be thinking. This means you are able to understand the needs of others and you can see a situation from another person’s perspective. Everyone is unique and has their own values, cultural understanding and backgrounds. Thus, being empathetic can help when interacting and communicating in the workplace.

The difference between empathy, sympathy and compassion:

As humans we tend to respond with empathy, sympathy or compassion, when we perceive that someone is going through some kind of emotional distress. Sympathy and empathy are often confused with each other and it is important to be aware of the difference. Whilst all three are important skills, empathy has been found to have the most benefits in the workplace and is now seen as a vital leadership competency.

- Empathy is where you have the ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, you can feel what someone else feels. You experience their emotions, ideas or opinions “I understand you”. If you’re empathetic you actively listen to what they have to say in a non-judgmental way. There are three different categories of empathy:

- Cognitive empathy, this is the ability to understand what people are thinking and how they are feeling. This helps us to become better communicators.

- Emotional empathy, this is the ability to share your feelings effectively with another person. This helps to build deeper connections with people.

- Compassionate empathy, is the ability to understand people and share their feelings. This is what moves us towards action and helping.

- Sympathy doesn’t mean you feel what someone else feels, instead you feel pity or sorry for their feelings “I feel for you”. You might feel bad for someone, but you don’t understand how they feel. Sympathy is a surface-level of understanding from your own perspective. Whereas, empathy you’re able to understand their perspective regardless of your personal experiences.

- Compassion is wanting to help alleviate someone’s pain “I want to help you”.

Showing empathy doesn’t mean you need to find a solution to their problem, you might say something like:

“I’m really sorry. I’m so glad you told me. I want to be here for you”.

“I understand what you’re saying”.

“That must be challenging for you”.

The benefits of empathy in the workplace:

Empathy is often expected in the workplace, with a high expectation that leaders should be empathetic. According to a 2019 study 92% of CEO's believe their organisation is empathetic, and only 72% of workers agree. Research has shown empathy in the workplace has a positive impact on job performance. It can help to establish true connections and enhance relationships and team work.

Empathy can help to:

- Improve communication, being empathetic enables you to better adapt your communication style to the person or group you are interacting with.

- Strengthen relationships, try to build rapport and understand your co-workers perspectives.

- Boost team morale, which can in turn enhance productivity.

- Increase innovative thinking, being empathetic can help you to identify challenges or opportunities that you hadn’t thought of before.

Breaking down the barriers and creating a happier, healthier culture is important for an empathetic workplace. Showing empathy at work is different from your personal life. We tend to be more naturally empathetic towards our friends, family and loved ones. Whereas, professional empathy can look different. It is important that co-workers feel supported, but without invading their privacy. Some people keep themselves very much to themselves at work, whereas others share significant amounts of detail. This all depends on how comfortable and open the co-worker is. The more transparent and open you are, often the more comfortable people feel speaking to you.

How to be more empathetic:

Some people are naturally more empathetic than others. Fortunately, it is not a fixed trait, it is something that can be learned and developed. Everyone can enhance their empathy skills with training, experience and developmental opportunities. A large part of being empathetic is knowing how to have a good quality conversation.

10 top Tips to be More Empathetic:

1. Show interest in the needs and hopes of others. Work to understand the goals and needs of your co-workers.

2. Seek to understand. Understand that everyone has a life outside of work. People will be facing different struggles. Some employees might be experiencing personal problems whilst trying to maintain their professional responsibilities. Support these colleagues when it’s needed. Try to keep open communication and build trust in the workplace, as this will encourage transparency and team members will feel more comfortable.

3. Put yourself in their shoes, this can help you to see what their struggles look and feel like. Some questions to ask yourself: “How might I feel if what was happening to my co-worker was happening to me?” or “How would I want to be treated if I was going through the same scenario as my co-worker?”. These reflective questions can help you dig deeper and shift your perspective to gain greater understanding.

4. Give time and attention to others. Take time to have some conversations that are not necessarily work related, so you get to know each other on a deeper level.

5. Be a great listener. To really understand someone and sense what they are feeling, you must be a good listener. Make that person feel like they are being fully heard and you respect them. Actively listen, give the person you are speaking with your undivided attention, listen fully to the person and take in everything they are saying. Try to avoid thinking of a response whilst they are talking. Focus solely on the speakers needs and understand their feelings.

6. Don’t be judgmental, when someone opens up to you or shows their vulnerable side avoid judging or challenging the person.

7. Personalise your communication. Change your vocabulary based on who it is you are speaking to.

8. Ask questions, it shows you are interested and you can only ask appropriate questions if you are fully listening. Ask open ended questions to encourage more detailed answers. For example, instead of “are you alright?” and getting and yes or no answer, ask “how are you today?”.

9. You don’t need to fix the problem, as humans we often tend to be ‘fixers’, someone comes to us with a problem and we instantly try to come up with solutions to fix it. Sometimes, just asking “Is there is anything I can do to support you?” is exactly what that person wants to hear.

10. Validate their feelings, even if you do not completely agree with someone else’s perspective, you can show empathy by letting them know that you think their feelings are important and you are there to listen and help where possible. Let your peers know that you are there to support them. Even if you haven’t experienced what they are going through, after you have heard them out it can be useful to express empathy by voicing how you would feel in that same situation.

Being more empathetic can honestly be life changing. You are able to develop deeper relationships. People will notice you being empathetic and will appreciate it. You never know what someone might be going through, we all go through tough times, put yourself in their shoes, be kind, listen well and respond with empathy.

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