73. Empathy: Cultivating Compassion at Work

Cultivating an empathetic workplace is all the rage, but how do we do it? It begins with a commitment to ensure that empathy is baked into your workplace culture. Next, you and your coworkers need to be willing and able to recognize and respond to each other’s emotions. Finally, when you truly act in order to relieve each other’s suffering, you may have found the key to unlocking the benefits of empathy.


Today on Crina and Kirsten Get to Work our gals engage in an exciting exchange on empathy.  Let’s get clear about what we are talking about.  We often use sympathy, empathy and compassion interchangeably and narrowing down on what each means helps us better understand the concepts.

Sympathy means we can understand what the other person is feeling.

Empathy means that we feel what a person is feeling.

Compassion is the willingness to feel what a person is feeling and to relieve the suffering of another.

Now that we know what we are talking about, why are we talking about empathy?  Because it turns out it is a really good thing and we all should want to give and receive more of it in the workplace.  We rarely “should” on our listeners, but this is a first for a reason.  Empathy is powerful.

Of course, Brene Brown has created a spectacular and hilarious video should be the first stop on a tour of empathy. Brené Brown on Empathy – Bing video

It turns out that we are hardwired for empathy.  Children as young as two demonstrate an appreciation that others hold perspectives different than their own, as evidenced in a study at Lund University in 2018.  Lund University, And research at the University of Virginia found when people saw their friends experiencing threats, they experienced activity in the same part of their brain which was affected when they were personally threatened. See – literally – empathy is wired into our brains.

Empathy contributes to better mental health, better physical health and more ease with work-life balance for employees.  And it turns out that what is good for employees is good for employers – empathy increases innovation, engagement, inclusivity and performance, according to a .2021 study by Catalyst.

What about the gender gap in empathy?  Women self-report that they are more empathetic; however, it turns out the vast majority of studies on this issue report no significant gender difference in empathy ability.

How can we bring more empathy to work:

Give your full attention to people

Consider other people’s perspectives

Actively support people 

Start meetings, calls, emails and other communication with a personal check in

Open your written communication with a signal of gratitude

Ask specific questions (not “how’s it going) and be curious about the answer/body language

Speak directly with individuals

Show active listening skills

Follow up after life events (how was your time with your parents this weekend?)

Create more informed policies and statements about social issues

See The Power of Empathy in Times of Crisis and Beyond (Report)