3 Empathetic Exercises to Practice When Your Coworkers Are Struggling

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April 15, 2024 at 11:9PM UTC

My mom works behind the scenes of healthcare heroes in a hospital in our town. She’s not physically saving lives in emergency rooms, but she’s changing the lives of those that do.

My mom works in Patient Experience; she’s responsible for listening to patients and loved ones of patients and getting their feedback about their experience in the hospital. But she goes above and beyond — she uses her experience listening to patients to help the doctors and nurses who serve them. She’s a caregiver for the caregivers.

When a crisis happens, or there’s a high-stress moment, or even a trauma situation, my mom helps lead a team to extend emotional support to the caregivers in need. She does this by practicing tremendous empathy; empathy that has the power to help these caregivers emotionally process challenging situations and overcome hard times.

I’m not writing this to say how much I love and respect my mom (because I do!), but because her ability to practice empathy in the workplace is something we all need in our workplaces, even if lives aren’t at stake.

As managers, as coworkers, and as human beings, we have the power to make a difference in people’s lives — even just their work lives — when we practice empathy. Here are some tangible, actionale ways how according to someone who empathizes for a living.

1. Focus on the people, not the output.

When something doesn’t go our way at work or we find that our coworker isn’t living up to our expectations, our instinct might be to immediately course correct and focus on getting them to do better. Yet we can’t jump to assuming that they’re not meeting expectations because they’re lazy or unqualified. We should first meet them where there are and ask how they’re doing. We need to show our concern first for them as a human being, not as an employee.

When an error is made or something goes wrong, start a conversation with that coworker by first checking-in to see how they’re doing. They’re not going to be honest if they’re worried about getting punished or even fired; they’re going to be honest if you give them the freedom and space to tell you why they’re having trouble.

2. Lighten the load.

When your coworker is overwhelmed, it can be easy to comfort them by telling them things are crazy or stressful right now. Validating someone’s feelings can be helpful, but it won’t help them stop feeling overwhelmed. What will help is lightening the load. Are there tasks you can take off their plate? If you’re overwhelmed too, you don’t need to stay logged on late to help them — but can you spare 15 minutes to do one task, or even offer to cover for them so they can take a short break? You don’t need to drain yourself to lighten the load; you need to be there and pour some from your cup into theirs.

3. Listen (and just listen).

If you like problem-solving, it can be difficult to not jump into solutions mode when someone tells you what’s wrong. Yet empathy isn’t about fixing everything — it’s about acknowledging someone’s feelings and truly making them feel heard.

Brené Brown suggests throwing out the phrase “at least…” when practicing empathy. When someone tells you they’re incredibly overwhelmed at work, don’t remind them that “at least they have a job.” Instead, validate their feelings and thank them for sharing what they’re going through with you. Sometimes, saying little and focusing on listening is the best way to practice empathy. You don’t need to give an inspiring speech for someone to feel like you’re supporting and really hearing them.

Empathizing with someone isn’t easy. It can take an emotional toll on you to meet someone where they are and fully listen and process what they’re going through. When you practice empathy, be aware of yourself, too. What are boundaries you may need to set, and how can you give yourself the time and space to decompress and process after you’ve empathized with someone? Who can you lean on when you need support?

With the right care for ourselves and others, empathy has the power to make work people-driven, not results-driven. We can make tangible differences in our coworkers’ lives by listening and meeting them where we are. And we can make work a place where we feel supported, valued and empowered to be ourselves and work with our team.    

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice on practicing empathy at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss'ers!

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