2020 was a challenging year for many, and it’s brought forth the need for several difficult conversations in the workplace. Whether it was having to tell someone he or she had been laid off or telling your boss you didn’t complete that report because you had to help your child with virtual school, one thing has become vital in the workplace: compassion.
Last year, we saw adversity, death, job loss, civil unrest, a tumultuous election, and heightened depression and anxiety across the board. We need compassion in our conversations with managers, coworkers, and team members more than ever before.
Naturally, when people approach a difficult conversation, they subconsciously suppress their humanity and emotions to get through it as quickly as possible. The pandemic rapidly shifting the world to remote work only made this harder. Now, many difficult conversations have to be held from afar and through a screen. As more and more companies shift to full-time work-from-home policies, leaders and managers need to not only prioritize empathetic leadership but also learn how to convey it remotely.
I’m a practicing ICU physician, and throughout my medical career, I’ve had to navigate the most difficult of conversations with patients and their families. Over the last few decades, I’ve learned that conveying compassion can make all the difference in the world to a person receiving bad news. Because of this, I spent years developing proven communication techniques that help navigate the most difficult conversations. I’ve also learned that bedside manners aren’t limited to healthcare workers and that compassionate communication is a skill that can be learned by anyone.
Here’s how we can get better at incorporating compassionate communication in the workplace, both in person and virtually:
Actively Listen and Be Present
Active listening might be a buzzword, but when it comes to compassionate communication, it is one of the most essential skills to have. It doesn’t come naturally either—it’s learned and developed with practice. To become a better listener, you need to fully concentrate on a speaker, observe the person’s nonverbal communication, understand what is being said, and thoughtfully respond.
Challenge yourself to avoid interrupting, rushing the conversation, or changing the subject when things get uncomfortable. If you’re meeting virtually, it can be extremely tempting to try and multitask. To make it easier to actively listen, close out of your e-mails and messaging platforms, and turn off notifications before the call. Remote meetings should be treated with just as much respect as in-person or one-on-one meetings.
When you master active listening, you can better understand your coworkers and foster a culture built on trust and rapport. When your team members feel heard in every interaction, you’re one step closer to becoming a more empathetic leader.
A key aspect of active listening is being fully present. Virtual communication is still a barrier to establishing a human connection, so you have to make a real effort to stay focused on the person who is speaking. Avoid communicating with your team only through e-mails or texts. Instead, reach out to your employees, and jump on a call or video to quickly connect about a project or to just say hello. Let them hear your voice, and make it clear that you are available not just as a manager or coworker but also as a human.
Analyze Nonverbal Language
Mastering empathetic leadership means mastering nonverbal cues like body language and tone of voice. In fact research by UCLA Psychology Professor Albert Mehrabian found that only 7% of a message is derived from words, with 38% from the tone and 55% from body language. Even when meeting with your team virtually, play close attention to how members interact, sound, and look. This will help you better understand how they are feeling.
Also, think about your own presence during your next meeting. Are you aware of your facial expressions and posture? Are you making eye contact with those you’re speaking to? If you’re communicating with a mask on, what emotions are your eyebrows and eyes expressing? This is an important aspect of emotional intelligence and, in turn, empathetic leadership. Your team can tell when you’re engaged, even through a computer screen.
Open Lines of Communication by Asking Questions
Taking the time to ask open-ended, intentional questions will go a long way toward not only conveying empathy but also building functional and encouraging relationships with team members. Asking simple questions such as “how are you doing?” or “what can I do to help?” will allow you to better understand your employees’ thoughts and feelings and encourage your team to be transparent with any concerns or challenges they may be facing. Conversations like these carry more weight in today’s environment than ever before and often uncover the emotional insight you need to be an empathetic leader.
Find Common Ground
Once the pandemic struck, our everyday routines faced disruption. This sudden change gave us all the opportunity to relate to others on the struggles and joys we were experiencing. We should continue to do this into the future. Take the time to find common interests and experiences with your team. This will open the lines of communication and position you as an approachable and understanding leader.
Even before this year’s disruptions, companies were beginning to recognize the significant impact empathy has on business performance. Empathetic leaders increase team engagement, boost efficiency and collaboration, fuel inspiration and innovation, and increase employee retention.
The pandemic and the events of this year proved that business leaders need to embed empathy into the DNA of their leadership and that compassion in the workplace will be a business standard now and in the future.
Anthony Orsini, D.O., is a practicing neonatologist and founder of The Orsini Way, a program and digital platform that shows healthcare professionals a way to communicate that enhances patient satisfaction and improves outcomes.