In Dr. Judith Orloff's book, Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life, she discusses the benefits – and dangers -- of being empathic in the workplace. Here, we talk with her about how to best harness empathy for personal and professional success.
Why does empathy belong in the workplace?
In the book Emotional Freedom, my message is that empathy is the most beautiful quality in human nature. It means that you can put yourself in someone else's shoes. It's about having a gut feeling and intuition for how to communicate with others.
With empathy you can show a deep respect for coworkers and show that you care, as opposed to just going by rules and regulations. An empathic leadership style can make everyone feel like a team and increase productivity, morale, and loyalty. When it comes to resolving conflict, a boss can say to employees, "I respect how you're feeling. Let's try to work it out." This statement alone will give employees the sense that they are heard, which makes it easier to reach a compromise.
Similarly, empathy facilitates better brainstorming sessions, as those in the discussion will feel listened to, instead of written off.
Human beings want three basic things: respect, empathy and love. When they have these, everything is better in the workplace and home.
How can those of us who aren't naturally empathetic cultivate this quality so that we, too, can harness the benefits?
Take time out to ask yourself, "How is the other person feeling?" Try to see things from their point of view, even if you disagree. Take a few minutes to intuit the other person's perspective, not just from your head, but from your heart. Try to feel what they feel. Then you will know how to communicate with them in a language that they can hear.
Empathy comes from the heart, not the head. So it is important to mindfully cultivate this sense of unconditional respect from the heart and proceed from there.
How can we maintain the awareness and perception that comes with being empathic, while protecting ourselves from being overly sensitive? Are there any exercises or strategies that you would recommend?
The downside to empathy is that sensitive people tend to get overwhelmed and exhausted, and tend to take on other people's negative emotions and stress. In Emotional Freedom I discuss 4 Emotional Types, one of which is The Empath. This type can be an emotional sponge. To attain emotional freedom it's important to nurture empathy but also learn strategies to protect yourself and not absorb the stress of the world.
Setting limits and boundaries with people is essential. For instance, when a coworker calls and complains for hours in a "poor me" mode, not being open to solutions--you must learn to say in a kind but firm tone, "I understand the stress you're under. I can only talk for 5 minutes now, but I'd be happy to discuss solutions when you are ready."
Also realize that "no" is a complete sentence. It's one thing to be empathic -- quite another to let a person dump on you. In Emotional Freedom I also present a 3 Minute Meditation to learn how to calm stress down and focus on the positive in order to regroup when you feel drained or upset. Basically you turn off the phones, shut the door and focus on your breath and a very positive image that makes you happy, such as a sunset, a child's face, a flower. These 3 minutes give you a mini-tune up and bring you back to your center again.
To experience the benefits of emotional freedom, it’s important to learn how to be empathic with others, but it's also important to set healthy limits and boundaries so that you are comfortable in your relationships. You want to keep an open heart, but you also want to be smart about self care.