Written by Ellen Scott
Empathy could be your superpower at work, says expert Mimi Nicklin. How can you practise it?
When we say ‘empathy’, you probably don’t associate the word with power or success. Being empathetic is generally considered a ‘softer’ quality, at odds with the super-focused, driven approach we typically link with our careers.
But Mimi Nicklin, an empathy expert, says we’ve got it all wrong. She reckons that if we embraced empathy in the world of work, we’d see all sorts of benefits.
“Empathy is our evolutionary ability to see the world from the perspective of another and to recognise that how they see things is uniquely based on their own viewpoint and experience,” Nicklin tells Stylist. “It is, to use an established adage, the ability to ‘stand in somebody else’s shoes’ and understand their outlook without judgment or prejudice.
“Since 2020, we’ve become very aware of the need to connect with those around us – whether at work, at home or online – and yet there are still significant cultural, workplace and social barriers to achieving this. We see a widespread misconception that people are born with differing levels of empathic ‘ability’ as well as a misunderstanding of empathy as ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’ and therefore positioning this as too soft to be used in the workplace.
“This is regardless of the fact that research has shown that empathy is a skill set that we are all born with and that we can all be more empathetic if we actively choose to do so.
“In the modern workplace, the ability to understand the opinions and experiences of others, and show understanding, sets leaders apart from their peers as well as significantly driving business performance and morale. It drives relationships up and has significant improvements on career and stakeholder success as well as creativity, innovation and competitive edge.
“Empathy has become a superpower skillset for both workplace and community in the last three years.”
Sounds good to us. But how can we start to bring more empathy into work lives? What exactly does using this superpower look like?
Nicklin suggests five habits of empathetic people to pick up.
“The most empathetic people are naturally curious,” says Nicklin. “They ask questions that others wouldn’t and enquire into answers to dive deeper into someone’s insight and experiences more fully to understand their point of view.
“To pick up this habit, push yourself to start conversations by asking questions that encourage those around you to share their stories. Ask ‘why’ more often and encourage people to share their thinking – as well as their journey and rationale for that thinking – more deeply.”
Tune into body language
Think about eye contact, body positioning and posture.
“Empathetic understanding engages the power of body language in conversations and encourages you to use your whole body to show that you are interested and present in the realities of others,” Nicklin says. “Empathetic leaders use eye contact directly and their attention is always focused wholly on whoever is speaking. Their bodies face the speaker, their arms are uncrossed and they remember to smile and nod to encourage sharing.”
Become a great listener
“If you’ve had a conversation with a highly empathetic person, it’s likely that you’ve come away feeling like they really listened to what you had to say,” Nicklin notes. “That’s because empathetic people understand the importance of really ‘listening to’ and ‘seeing’ another beyond simply hearing their words. This skill set not only enables you to better understand how to work – or live – with others, but it creates confidence and calm in those you are connecting with.
“When people feel understood and seen by others, their stress levels decrease and sense of safety and confidence goes up and they are far more likely to share deep, powerful insight as to their outlook and opinion.”
We know, it’s deeply frustrating when someone still doesn’t understand how to use the mute button on video calls or when you can see your coworker taking their sweet time to respond to your message. But make a conscious effort to work on your patience and understanding. Slow down and give people the space to think.
“In the world of Zoom calls and online chats, it’s become far harder to know when to jump into a conversation without speaking over someone else,” Nicklin tells us.” Whether you’re working remotely or in person, it’s important to allow others the opportunity to fully finish their sentences and thoughts. Don’t interrupt and jump in if there’s a moment of silence.
“A pause in the conversation or at the end of a sentence can often encourage people to share more insight or information than they perhaps would have otherwise. This will offer you the opportunity to deepen your knowledge and appreciation of their perspective and opinion and improve both understanding and connection.”
Appreciate the power of saying ‘thank you’
Nicklin adds: “Empathetic leaders and communicators value a gesture of thanks and understanding as something that is far from insignificant. The power of the words ‘thank you’, a well-thought-through face-to-face meeting or personally written feedback all offer a sign that you understand and value the receiver.
“These moments of personal appreciation often prove far deeper connectivity between two people than an exaggerated gesture would.”
Mimi Nicklin is a leading empathy expert, founder and CEO of global branding agency Freedm, and bestselling author of Softening The Edge.
Main image: Getty
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