The critical gap when it comes to building empathy

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. We'll explore interchangeable responses and confirming understanding, explaining how and why they're important to building empathy. 

Practicing interchangeable responses

During my training, I worked with a number of clients in a therapeutic context. In the beginning, working with other students in my program, we would practice interchangeable responses. In this exercise, the goal was to repeat back to them in my own words what the situation they described to me was, and to attempt to match it to an 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, didn’t show I understood, the person might make one more attempt to help me understand, but if I still didn’t, the conversation would stall and we missed an opportunity to build empathy.

The missing ingredient in building empathy is not that you think you understand the other person, but that the other person feels understood.

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 ‘their shoes.’ 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, your assumption, is not correct.

It takes two to build empathy. (Click to Tweet!)

Interchangeable responses 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.

"Empathy isn't just a therapeutic skill; it's an everyday skill you can use in the workplace." (Click to Tweet!)


Stacey Nordwall is a People Geek and People Operations Manager at Culture Amp. She has an MA with Honors in Counseling Psychology from St. Mary’s College of California and a BA in Psychology and Communication from Stanford University. She is passionate about learning how and why people think and behave as they do, and working to improve the world of work. You can connect with Stacey on LinkedIn

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