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How bringing empathy to work can be the greatest thing you ever do as a boss14 min read

Recognising emotions isn’t always easy – even (or especially) when you’re an empath.

Being empathetic doesn’t automatically mean that you’re good at accurately identifying emotions in others or good at helping them deal with those emotions.

Where being empathic is more of a personality trait, emotional intelligence is a set of skills that help you recognise and manage emotions. Emotional intelligence enables you to help other people manage their emotions.

Having emotional intelligence means that you are capable of putting your own feelings aside so that you can pause, breathe and check-in.

Without developing your emotional intelligence, you end up using your empathy in a misguided way and becoming overwhelmed in the process.

What is the difference between empathy and emotional intelligence?

Being empathetic means that you can share and understand the emotional experience of someone else. If someone else feels remorse and you’ve felt remorse, you can understand how that feels for someone else even if they’re feeling is in a different context than your own.

Where empathy is strictly about our shared experience, emotional intelligence is about using your emotions and feelings wisely – and supporting others to navigate their emotions.

Without emotional intelligence you may misread emotional cues or end up projecting your own feelings onto a person or a situation.

For instance, when you’re feeling stressed you may look at another person’s facial expression or something they say, and think that they’re feeling stressed when in reality you’re projecting your own emotions onto them.

We also tend to attribute emotions to people rather than find out how they’re truly feeling, further distancing ourselves from the reality of the situation.

Where does emotional intelligence training begin?

Whatever you’re putting out there, is what you’re going to see people reflect back at you.

If you’ve ever had a boss tell you “My door is always open”, but didn’t believe them, you’ll be familiar with a phenomenon called false connection.

If you’re uncomfortable dealing with your own feelings, odds are you’re going to be more closed off, suppressed and get easily agitated. The people around you will respond by withdrawing and starting to give you the kind of answers they think you want to hear, rather than the truth.

When you’re comfortable with who you are and skilled at regulating your own feelings, you’re going to be more open to dealing with other people’s feelings too. People will more readily trust you, even with an uncomfortable truth, because they’re confident that you can handle it and give them space to express themselves without being judged.

To have an emotionally healthy workplace we need to break away from disingenuous attempts at connecting, lip service and the overall lack of psychological safety that’s so common at work today.

A true leader is one who listens and stays out of judgement by keeping a learning mindset.

The deeper work that we have to do as a society, is to recognise that how people feel matters.

The culture of unfettered capitalism, that permeates most of modern life, has commoditised everything – including people – and cast us as expendable.

We work ourselves to the point of exhaustion, in order to buy things we don’t need and impress people we don’t like.

That exhaustion and being stressed from overwork are status symbols in contemporary culture speaks to how we have allowed this perpetual hunger for growth at any cost to dictate the quality of our existence.

In reality, we are anything but expendable. True creativity comes from a place of safety and without it, an organisation can never truly flourish.

Unless the leadership buys into it, it doesn’t have long-term sustainability

When you want to be more open with your emotions and have better, richer discussions at work, but the person you report to doesn’t want to hear any of it, the goin’ gets ugly real quick-like.

A change in culture really has to come with the full buy-in of the leadership because how things are done at the top always trickles down into the rest of the organisation. You’ll never succeed at enacting change if every attempt you make is dismissed by those who call the shots.

It is literally a question of leading by example and coaching everyone on every level of the organisation to adopt these new, emotionally intelligent ways of working.

When there isn’t a commitment from the leadership of the organisation, these changes will not be viable in the long run because after the initial hype, they will gradually be dismissed as less important than things that are directly and visibly affecting output and profitability.

Organisations with leaders who have higher emotional intelligence have a workforce that experiences a lot more positive emotions and is more productive.

Our disregard for emotional intelligence goes back to our educational system: how much time in school is dedicated to helping students learn about their inner lives?

When it is taught in school, it can often be just a few minutes here and there, and the teaching isn’t necessarily done very well.

Even in HR, which I studied at uni for a while, the focus was on how to measure and optimise the productivity of the workers, rather than employing emotional intelligence to find the best ways to inspire people to do great work and support them to take responsibility for their own productivity.

The flipside of treating employees like they’re disposable is that they’ll have no loyalty to the companies employing them. And I know from experience; when you’re constantly on the hunt for a better job, you’re not putting in the effort you could be at your current job.

Since emotional intelligence is such a crucial skill in later life, we need to consider how we can spend more time learning about it continually.

What can I say to a boss that doesn’t think practicing emotional skills or learning emotional intelligence is important?

There is a lot of research showing that how people feel at work impacts their productivity, their creativity and their performance.

An employee who feels disrespected, undervalued, underappreciated, frustrated, dismissed or overwhelmed (or all of the above), at least 50% of the time at work, will be less productive and spend more time off-task.

Research has shown that these feelings correlate strongly to a lack of innovation.

The more you learn about how your employees are feeling, the more you learn about what they’re thinking and you’ll be better equipped to help create a shift in the atmosphere.

How people feel drives their commitment to their own productivity and an employee who feels less respected than they’d like to aren’t going to put in their best work.

That said, if the leadership isn’t interested in committing to making changes and employing emotional intelligence (or learning about why it’s in their benefit to do so), there isn’t much that can be done.

Some effort can be made at a local level, but then you must always be prepared to have it be overridden by instructions from higher up. Typically, these kinds of jobs will have high turnover and may see a mass-exodus of employees who aren’t okay with being treated that way.

How to get out of your head and really listen

As a leader, if you genuinely want to guide the decision-making, you have to find out where your employees are emotionally.

You have to get out of a fixed mindset where you strive to come off as having all the answers in an attempt to seem competent.

Instead, you need to adopt a learning mindset when you want to learn all you can and make the best decisions possible.

Once you’ve done your emotional groundwork and figured out where everyone is emotionally, you can make your suggestions.

One of the things that I have learned over the course of my career is that the listener is actually the leader; the talker is not the leader.

– Marc Brackett, author of Permission to Feel

Having a learning mindset means remaining open and curious about how people are feeling: being in a learning mode rather than a knowing mode.

Having that perspective is so critical to building relationships, getting the help you need and making the best decisions you possibly can.

Quick pointers for being a better listener:

  • Put away phones or computers that might distract you with notifications or make you think about other things.
  • Listen to what the other person is saying without trying to think of how to reply to it; just hear them out.
  • Help them clarify their own feelings by labelling: “It seems like you feel ________.” or “It seems like this is ________ for you.”
  • When in doubt, use mirroring: repeat the last 1-3 words the other person said and take a pause to encourage them to go on.

How do emotions affect our decision-making?

If you’ve ever gone off to work after having had an argument at home, and then found that you’re getting annoyed at your tasks at work, you’ve experienced what it’s like to ruminate in an angry space.

It isn’t the stimulus in front of you that’s changed, it’s that you’re projecting your own negative emotions about the argument onto your task or situation at work.

Without using emotionally intelligent practices, you won’t be able to attribute your feelings to their rootcauses.

We often fail to understand that emotions subconsciously affect our decisions, and if we aren’t clear on what emotions we’re feeling and why we’re basically making decisions while riding on an emotional rollercoaster rather than thinking things through calmly.

By recognising and regulating your emotions, you will be able to correctly attribute your feelings to the corresponding experience. Doing this will stop your emotions about something that happened in the past from bleeding into your future.

To prevent your past from distorting your future, you have to name it to tame it.

Pause, take a breather and check in on your mood.

“I feel ______ because ______.”

Marc Brackett, PhD, is the lead developer of an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning program named RULER.

His goal is for children to learn emotional skills so that they can more accurately recognise emotions and learn what to do with them.

The R, the U, and the L of RULER are all about the experience of emotions: Am I aware of how I’m feeling? And am I aware of how other people are feeling? The E and the R have to do with the strategizing: What are we going to do with these feelings?

Marc Brackett

The program teaches the skills of emotional intelligence, namely recognizingunderstandinglabellingexpressing and regulating emotion.

Recognizing

We can learn to recognise our own emotions by paying attention to our thoughts and how our body feels. We learn to recognise emotion in others by observing their body language, facial expressions, tone and behaviour.

Understanding

By digging deeper and finding the root cause of an emotion that we observe in ourselves or in someone else, we can accurately identify it. You may see that my face looks worried but have no idea why I am worried – or you may misperceive how I’m feeling, which happens quite often. Emotions are always caused by something (anger is a result of injustice and disappointment related to unmet expectations) and by getting to the root of it, we can understand what’s going on.

Labelling

By accurately labelling how we (and others) feel we can gain a lot of clarity. Brackett recommends asking: I feel angry, but am I enraged? Am I livid? Or am I feeling annoyed? Frustrated?

Expressing

The context in which we express our emotions defines how we express them. If your workplace culture is more of a “feelings don’t matter here” kind of place, you’re going to learn very quickly to suppress emotion. We also see a lot of rules around race and gender when it comes to emotion; women monitor how they express themselves because they don’t want to be perceived as weak or unlikeable, and men may often use an acceptably masculine way of expression. Instead of saying, “I’m feeling very disappointed,” men may instead opt for a more alpha male “I’m pissed” that’s really unrelated to how they truly feel.

Regulating

With emotional strategies, we can implement a shift in how we feel or maintain a positive feeling for longer. When you’re having a bad day, what can you do to shift how you’re feeling when your emotions are not aligned with what you’re trying to accomplish? After using an emotional regulation strategy, ask yourself: Did it help me achieve my goal? Is it helping me create good relationships? Is it helping me to have greater well-being?

How to regulate your own emotions

We use emotional regulation every day; if you’re tired in the morning, you might have a cup of coffee to energise yourself. When your favourite TV show has it’s last season cancelled, you’ll feel disappointed and sad about it and may talk about it with a friend.

Taking deep breaths, going for a walk, reading a book, watching a show and bitching to your bestie are all ways to regulate your emotions.

It’s when you’re feeling tired, hungry, stressed or triggered by other people that it becomes extra difficult to regulate your own emotions.

Especially, when you’re feeling less than optimal, hitting pause for just a moment before responding, can make all the difference in the world.

  1. Become aware that you have been triggered. Just admit and accept that something has caused you to have a heightened emotional response.
  2. Breathe immediately. Create a pause by taking deep, intentional breaths. This allows you to take a break by focusing on something other than the person who’s hair you want to rip out.
  3. Think about how this moment will be remembered 10 years from now. Is it really worth making a big stink about? When the other person looks back at this moment, what will they say about your behaviour? Think about how you want to be seen, talked about and experienced. What kind of partner/parent/sibling/friend etc. do you want to be? Bring your values and morals back into play by triggering your prefrontal cortex (your brain police) to come in and calm down the amygdala (emotional response & survival).
  4. Once you feel that you’ve calmed down and backed away from a highly emotional response, make a calm and considered response. This will help you to make better decisions going forward.

Why simply listening is more impactful than giving advice

The key to a more empathetic workplace (and life) is to give ourselves and other people permission to feel. To feel all emotions.

We have to let everyone experience and express their feelings because they are real. And the only way to get to the other side of an emotion, is to go through it.

We need to learn how to step out of judgement and how to hold space for someone else to sit with their own emotions.

These are critical life skills that need continuous practice and refinement. Becoming more emotionally intelligent is a continuous process.

And we have to learn how to give ourselves permission to fail because quality output and continuous output are not the same thing.

We need to stop holding ourselves up to an ideal that isn’t sustainable: people make mistakes. Making mistakes is a crucial part of our learning process, and without a safe environment to fail in we will never achieve the kind of learning that changes lives.

And we need to remember that it isn’t the failure that defines us, but how we recover from it.

When we are truly allowed to be ourselves we can tap into creativity, which makes us so unique, and apply that to come up with new ways of working, increase productivity and feel more fulfilled.

And finally, we need to move away from self-focused models of interacting with each other and create permission to feel everywhere. This is the only way we can transform the relationships we create at work and in life.


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