People no longer see companies as pure profit-making machines. They see them as part of the community and have high expectations for their behaviors as a brand.
Both employees and customers select companies based on their values and actions.
Not listening to and acting on the concerns of workers responsible for your company’s success is a recipe for financial and reputational disaster.
One way to improve employer-employee and business-customer relationships and build a compassionate workplace is by using empathetic communication.
What is empathy in communication?
Empathy in communication is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It involves actively listening to your audience, acknowledging their emotions, and responding in a way that shows you care about them as individuals.
In a small-business setting, empathetic communication can help build strong relationships with customers and employees, and foster trust, loyalty, and ultimately improve the success of your business.
Why is empathy important for effective communication?
Communicating without empathy can lead to arguments, rash decisions, and lost trust. In business, this can equate to:
Lost sales: Unempathetic salespeople and brands that ignore important civil matters can lose the loyalty of customers.
Tarnished reputation: As more employees and customers see the unempathetic nature of your business, it can lead to naysayers speaking out against your company.
Employee turnover: When employees are consistently treated without compassion, they’re less likely to stick around.
Diminished productivity: If employees are dealing with personal issues and can’t talk to management about them, it could affect their performance long term.
In a Workplace Empathy survey from Businessolver, 59% of employees say they’re afraid to talk to a manager or HR about mental health issues because it could negatively impact their job security. However, 77% of CEOs worry that being too empathetic can cause them to lose respect.
Yet, if they look at the benefits for the company, they’ll find it’s well worth the time investment.
For example, 70% of employees and HR professionals say that an empathetic organization can increase employee motivation. Other benefits include:
- Improved employee morale, since they have managers that are care about their needs
- Increased respect and collaboration among teams
- Higher productivity and engagement as workers feel supported and valued
- Enhanced customer loyalty, once they see your company is humane (when speaking on humanitarian issues)
- Reduced employee turnover
The takeaway: Founders should hire empathetic management teams to foster workplace empathy. And train customer-facing teams and PR personnel to have empathy in their communication.
Empathy communication skills
So what skills do you need to become efficient in empathetic communication? Is it offering a shoulder to cry on? Or is it being very agreeable?
According to Jamie Mitri, founder of moss retailer Moss Pure, you must clarify what empathy is before you can improve your empathetic communication.
“Empathy isn’t showing sympathy for another person or trying to be a problem solver for another person,” says Mitri. “It's understanding the other person’s viewpoint. It doesn’t mean you must agree with that person or feel sympathetic, but rather place yourselves in their shoes and understand why they feel the way they do.”
Tim Taylor, co-founder of the nonprofit America Succeeds, suggests leveraging skills such as compassion, mindfulness, and collaboration to expand your ability to communicate empathetically.
“For example, there’s more than one way to manage someone failing to meet the expectations of their job,” explains Taylor. “Did something happen with them outside of the office that’s impacting their ability to get the job done? And if so, do they feel comfortable sharing that with you?”
If they don’t, then this is a clear sign you need to work on your empathetic communication and create an atmosphere that fosters open communication. Once your workers feel comfortable talking to you, find ways to support them within and beyond their roles and responsibilities. That could include offering more flexibility or bringing in outside support for extra guidance.
Two other skills worth honing include:
The ability to recognize and understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Self-awareness can be crucial for understanding the impact of your actions on team dynamics and company culture.
For example, taking time to reflect on your communication style and how it may affect the team. By recognizing and addressing any areas of improvement, you can work toward building empathy and stronger relationships.
2. Emotional intelligence
The ability to recognize, understand, and manage your emotions, and the feelings of others. For example, a leader who can read the emotions of their team members and respond empathetically can better communicate and collaborate.
How to communicate with empathy
Learning and practicing empathy through your communication is essential for a leader. So here are a few tips for communicating with empathy daily:
Show nonverbal cues
Actions speak louder than words. It’s not just about what you say that makes you empathetic — it’s how you say it. Body language can be a window into what you truly think.
“Nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions and body language, help me convey empathy and understanding,” says Sakhavat Ismayilov, founder of Planly, a social media scheduling tool. “I like to maintain eye contact, nod, and use appropriate facial expressions to show that I’m fully engaged and empathetic.”
Using eye contact and occasional nodding as someone speaks shows you’re engaged and listening. You can also use facial expressions to convey empathy and understanding, such as a concerned or thoughtful expression.
To improve nonverbal cues, you must first build self-awareness to understand your reactions and why they happen. Then learn to reset your mindset and emotions, so you can react with genuine empathy.
Ask for clarification vs. making assumptions
Don’t assume you know what someone means or why they’re saying something.To ensure that the conversation is productive, ask for clarification instead of making assumptions. Clarifying questions can help you better understand someone else’s perspective and ensure everyone’s on the same page.
For instance, if a worker asks to work from home full time, don’t assume they’re trying to be lazy. Ask why they made that decision. Maybe they have to take care of a small child and can’t afford day care, or have a health concern that makes driving or managing symptoms in the office difficult.
Keep an open mind vs. judging
Rather than writing off the other person’s views and opinions when it misaligns with your personal beliefs, try to see things from their angle.
Maybe you, too, have a health condition, but come to the office anyway and think staying home isn’t the right choice. But not everyone deals with personal issues the same, and some are more private than others.
“When we judge or criticize someone internally, we tend to create a hostile and tense environment,” says Ben Kuhl, CEO of Shelf Expression, a custom shelf builder.
“Instead, go into each conversation with an open mind and be willing to find common ground with the person you're speaking with.”
Use assertive communication
Assertive communication is a way of communicating that expresses your thoughts and feelings, clearly, confidently, and directly, without being aggressive or passive. It empowers you to be honest, without appearing disrespectful.
“Assertive communication can prevent defensiveness or conflict and promote more constructive dialogue,” says Ismayilov. “Non-judgmental or assertive communication allows you to express empathy without judgment or criticism.”
Ismayilov suggests using “I” statements to express your feelings and perspectives instead of making accusatory or judgmental “you” statements. Rather than saying, “You’re not meeting your deadlines,” you might say, “I’m concerned about the missed deadlines and how they impact the project.”
Practice active listening and patience
Listening with the intent to respond is something many struggle with in disagreements. To improve empathetic communication, exercise patience and allow the other person to speak.
At the same time, actively listen to ensure you understand what they’re saying.
Practice self-awareness to notice when you’re thinking of defenses and replies instead of paying attention to what’s being said. Make a mental note and “turn off” your thoughts to focus on the other person.
Some tips for improving active listening:
- Make eye contact
- Ask questions if you don’t understand something
- Paraphrase or summarize the other person’s words to ensure you understood them correctly
- Avoid multitasking, such as checking your phone or writing an email while someone is speaking
- Validate the other person’s emotions — this can be done without agreeing with them
Empathic communication is a powerful tool to create a happier workplace and brand image. It can build better relationships, ensure respect and understanding, and lead to more constructive conversations.
Just keep an open mind and be more attentive to the thoughts and feelings of others. With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to foster trust and create a more productive environment for everyone.