My grandfather died three days ago. Through the fog of grief and heartache, one thing has stood out to me, empathy. Especially at work, the outpouring of support and understanding from my coworkers, bosses, and direct supports has been a light in the dark. Their support made me realize how crucial empathy is and how quickly a relationship can be soured when empathy is lacking. If empathy is lacking on an entire team, disaster. So how can we promote empathy on our teams and in our labs? 3 steps, listen, question, and take action.
When someone is talking, how often do you truly listen? Taking in their words, hearing the meaning, without typing on a keyboard, thinking of your own answer, or distracted by your to do list? Being mindful and present when someone else is speaking is difficult, in the lab we often have so many distractions. However, listening is a key component of empathy. We need to know what the other person is feeling or thinking in order to empathize with them. Listening also validates the other person and makes them feel heard. It opens you both up for honest communication.
Follow up the listening with a relevant and pointed question about the what the person just told you. This demonstrates that you truly listened and that you are invested in what they have to say. Lecturing them, changing the subject, or talking about your similar experience moves the focus of the conversation away from the person and on to you. This can interrupt the other person feeling your empathy. To ensure the other person feels your empathy, keep the focus on them. Ask them about how they are feeling, what they are thinking of doing next, or if they need support. Asking relevant questions shows that the speaker’s words didn’t go in one ear and out the other.
You’ve listened, you’ve questioned, now you need to take action. Empathy with out action is indifference. Even worse, it can be disingenuous, which destroys trust and causes other problems. Often something actionable will come up in your questions. Perhaps the person asked for some time off, a re-assignment, or maybe they just needed to feel heard. If an action doesn’t come up, ask directly, “I hear you and deeply empathize. What can I do to help?” Then work with the person to make that action happen. Sometimes the action may not be plausible, but just asking can lead to changes and a positive impact.
How many times have each of us wanted to be heard? To have some ask how we are or how they can help? The desire for empathy is universal. It can improve work environments and relationships, leading to increased productivity. Additionally, empathy can be practiced by anyone and anyone can make an impact in the lab. It’s not just up to the PI or the post-doc. Any member of the lab can improve the lab by listening, questioning, and taking action. If we want our labs to be happier, more supportive, and more productive, then practicing empathy is one way to make it happen.
Have you had moments where an empathetic person made a big impact in your lab or in your life? I’d like to hear about it in the comments.