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How to build empathy
Stacey Nordwall

Stacey Nordwall

Former People Program Lead, Leadership and Learning, Culture Amp

If you do a quick search for “empathy in the workplace,” you’ll find a plethora of articles explaining the value of building empathy to enhance workplace relations and the importance of empathy for developing leadership skills.

What you won’t find is solid information on what building empathy really means or how to do it. Instead, you’ll get something like: “How do you build empathy? Be empathetic!” Unfortunately, that’s not particularly helpful and misses out on critical elements of how to truly build empathy.

Through my training as a marriage and family therapist, I learned techniques that have practical application. In this article, we'll explore interchangeable responses and explain how and why they're important to building empathy. 

Using interchangeable responses to build empathy

During my training, I worked with a number of clients in a therapeutic context. In the beginning, I would practice interchangeable responses with other students in my program. Here's how it looked:

  1. My partner would describe a situation.
  2. I would repeat the situation they described in my own words.
  3. Then, I would attempt to match what they said with a certain emotion.

One of two things would happen – they would agree with what I had said and further elaborate, or they would contradict my interpretation and attempt to clarify. 

It seems simple, but something incredibly important happened there. I listened, took the information I was given, and reflected on it. I repackaged my understanding and confirmed with them to see if my understanding of their situation and their feelings about it was correct. If I did a good job, the person felt understood and the conversation would continue and go deeper. If I didn’t do a good job and didn’t show I understood, the person might make one more attempt to help me understand. If I still didn’t manage to reach understanding, the conversation would stall and we missed an opportunity to build empathy.

What most people miss when it comes to building empathy

The critical gap people miss when it comes to building empathy is confirming their understanding of the situation. You can try to put yourself in what you believe to be the other person’s shoes, but you are making an assumption that you know what "their shoes" are. All you know is how you think you would feel if you were in their situation based on your lived experience, but that does not mean you understand what they think or how they feel.

This is where the concept of building empathy as is often discussed does not fully stand up. It does not work if it is one-sided. It does not work if your interpretation or your assumption isn't correct.

How building empathy with interchangeable responses looks like in action

Let’s look at an example interaction. 

Employee: “I keep getting more and more requests sent over to me from the same department. There’s so many coming in, I’m not sure I can keep up.”

Manager: “Yep, everyone has a lot going on.”

Employee [nods and walks away]

Let’s try again using interchangeable responses and confirming our understanding.

Employee: “I keep getting more and more requests sent over to me from the same department. There’s so many coming in, I’m not sure I can keep up.”

Manager: “It sounds like you have a steady stream of requests piling up and it’s starting to get overwhelming.”

Employee: “Yeah, it is frustrating. It doesn’t seem like they’re even trying to solve the issues before they send them over to me.”

Manager: “So it seems like you want them to do some troubleshooting before they send requests to you, but you’re unsure about how to talk to them about it.”

Employee: “Well, yeah, I’m not sure what to say to them. Do you think you could talk to them about it…?”

In this example, we have moved toward an understanding of the situation and the sentiment, as well as the support the employee wants. How the manager chooses to act on this, perhaps by coaching the employee on how to have that conversation, all stems from initially engaging in the conversation from a framework of curiosity and an attempt to confirm understanding.

This isn’t just a therapeutic skill – it’s an everyday skill you can use in the workplace. Starting out with something as seemingly simple as an interchangeable response matched with an emotion, and then confirming your interpretation with the person is something you can use with coworkers, leaders, and those who you lead. Bridging the gap from assuming you understand what it is like to be in someone’s shoes to being curious and open enough to confirm your assumption will move you toward truly building empathy.

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