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Working relationally – the importance of empathy

We believe the current crisis presents us all with an unprecedented opportunity to refocus on the centrality of relationships at the heart of our businesses and charities. In a series of short blogs we will look at 3 specific, practical ways in which we can each strengthen our working relationships during this time of isolation and home-working – by strengthening our empathy, the directness of our communication, and how we manage conflict.

We’ll look first at empathy.

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative to study hundreds of their teams and figure out why some stumbled and others soared. They analysed everything, in true Google style, looking at all the expected factors – team composition, communication approach, planning styles, leadership styles, goal clarity, etc. They found that none of these correlated with team effectiveness. Eventually they isolated two unexpected behaviours as essential in all high performing teams: “high average social sensitivity” and ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ Google discovered that innate empathy (or social awareness) of team members is the mystery ingredient and key factor in relational effectiveness.

In the last 25 years neuroscientists have discovered that we are each born with mirror neurones which program us to care vicariously about the experiences of other people around us. We all experience this: if we’ve seen someone stub her toe, or cut her finger, or fall off a bike, and winced because we could feel the pain ourselves. When we cultivate this quality we increase our capacity for connection. When we don’t, disconnection, isolation and loneliness soon follow.

But there’s a problem. The data suggests that empathy is on a steep decline, for example in the U.S. where empathy levels have declined by almost 50% in the last 40 years. At the same time our interest seems to be increasing – internet searches on ‘empathy’ have doubled in frequency in the last 10 years.

The good news is that we can all strengthen our empathy ‘muscles’. There’s a gym in which we can strengthen both our confidence in stepping into the shoes of others, and our capacity to act on these insights in support of our colleagues.

Here are 8 exercises that we can start practicing today in our ‘empathy gym’.

  1. Cultivate curiosity about others, especially people who are not like us. Talk to others about what it is like to walk in their shoes. Explore their perspectives, issues, passions and and concerns.

  2. Collect and ask great questions. Thoughtful, open-ended, gracious questions are a powerful way to deepen our understanding of others, and build connections. Curate 20 brilliant questions that you feel confident and comfortable asking.

  3. Learn to be still and attend to the present moment, noticing, seeing, taking in all that is around us and within us – alive to all five of our senses. As we do so we will become more present to those we are with.

  4. Practice giving people your full attention. Before leaping into an online conversation, pause and ask what it’s like to be whoever you are speaking to, at this time. Clear your mind of other thoughts. Put aside distractions. Remember the greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.

  5. Train yourself to listen ‘actively’. In conversations focus not just on the message, but the tone of voice, body language, breathing, eye contact. It’s well know that the communication we receive is primarily shaped by tone of voice and body language, not words themselves. Practice summarising and reflecting back what you are hearing, to check your understanding. Ask yourself – how do you like to be listened to – and do the same. Get feedback on the quality of your listening from from family, friends, and colleagues.

  6. Express gratitude with authenticity. We simply don’t do this enough. Look for and grasp opportunities to encourage others, being specific about what you appreciate.

  7. Think as a coach would – helping people to think through and tackle issues, challenges and opportunities themselves. Use the ‘GROW’ coaching model, developed by John Whitmore, which you can easily find online.

  8. Remember that empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon a mutual exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences. For me, it was a profound lesson to discover that being vulnerable actually increased my effectiveness as a leader. Being open about my uncertainties, frustrations, anxieties, challenges at home, invites others to be more open, transparent and real too.

If you are interested in hearing more please check out our Webinar ‘How to lead others’ on the Resources page of our website –

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