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Communicating with Empathy in the Workplace

"Empathy is not a weakness. It is a skill that we should all work to foster within ourselves."

When I first started teaching virtual communication skills over Zoom, I received a piece of feedback that in my mind is a perfect example of showing empathy in a professional setting.

I had done a virtual workshop for one of my clients and they called to share what the attendees had said in the survey they sent out. “Tanis, they loved you” she started out, “But… many of them mentioned that of course, you can do the things you talked about, you are a professional speaker. They want you to teach them how they can do those things as more introverted individuals.”I took a pause and realized that I had missed the mark. I hadn’t taken the time to acknowledge the fact that the skills I teach are hard and take a considerable amount of practice, even for me as a professional speaker. I hadn’t put myself in their shoes and looked at my content through their eyes.

So, I sat down and reworked my entire presentation. I made a list of all the fears people experience when they go virtual and added content that was designed to help them work through those fears and let them know they are not alone. I changed up the opening activity to include the truth about how when I went virtual everything that could possibly go wrong did.

I shared how I spent money on equipment that didn’t work, how my green screen collapsed during a live workshop, and how I talked so fast during my practice run that the presentation was half as long as it should have been.

I showed cognitive empathy, which is one of the three types of empathy I want to share with you. Cognitive empathy is where you work to understand how someone else is feeling and thinking. I had to put myself in their shoes, see the virtual world from their perspective, and work through my content to make sure it was what they needed. Cognitive empathy is the type of empathy I believe all great leaders have to practice on a daily basis. It is the type of empathy that helps others feel like you get them, you understand what they are going through, and you are on their team rooting for them to succeed.

You can also show emotional empathy, where you share the feelings of another person. A great example of emotional empathy is when you are watching your favorite TV show and something tragic happens to one of the characters that causes you to start tearing up. Then you think about it before you go to sleep and are maybe even bothered by it the next day or the next time you watch the show. You are emotionally affected and therefore are showing emotional empathy. This in my opinion can be a slippery slope because if you are someone who cannot separate yourself from others’ sorrow or pain, you will end up carrying it around in your mind and heart which can be exhausting.

The third type of empathy is compassionate empathy which is the most active form of empathy. This is where you not only have concern for someone and share their pain, but you also take steps to reduce it – you take action. An example is when someone has a sign that tells you they are hungry. You feel for them, and then you go and buy them a meal – you did something about it. I will admit that I have been accused of ‘trying to save the world, one person, at a time’, because my compassionate empathy often takes over.

I share the three types of empathy with you because I want to help people understand that empathy is not a weakness. It is a skill that we should all work to foster within ourselves. It is not easy; in fact, it makes us push ourselves outside our comfort zone which can be quite humbling.

It wasn’t easy for me to figure out how to teach someone who is completely different than me how to feel more comfortable in the virtual spotlight. But with some empathy and great feedback along the way, I can now say that I don’t miss the mark anymore when I deliver my presentation.


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