Empathy in the workplace may not sound particularly sexy off the bat. We tend to love TV shows and movies that portray workplace dramas. We like the feeling of being right. Sometimes, it seems like there is no better feeling than to despise a boss, an enemy-co-worker, or an overly demanding client. Having something or someone to rail against can create a sense of purpose.
Ultimately, though, that version of purpose is the kind that can keep us up at night, can increase stress and unhappiness, and lead to health problems. Coming at our work from an empathetic perspective, on the other hand, is a way of bringing meaning to our professional lives that has many positive implications.
Having empathy for the people around us at work—our supervisors, our co-workers, our clients—is a beneficial approach because it reflects reality. The truth is, we are not islands unto ourselves. We are interdependent with the people and the world around us. Our state of mind is impacted by others’ state of mind. The Mahayana Buddhist traditions emphasize that self and other are not as separate as we think, and that to want happiness only for oneself actually brings misery. On the other hand, taking the attitude that we genuinely want the best for others is what brings us the most happiness on an individual level. The individual and the collective are inseparable.
When we approach our work—or our lives, for that matter—in a way that accurately reflects this reality, we actually work more effectively. Think of it as going with the grain as opposed to trying to go against the grain.
Of course, this is much, much easier said than done. How do we even begin thinking about being compassionate at work in a world full of hard deadlines, long hours, high stress, and fierce competition?
We have to start with ourselves. It’s very difficult to have empathy for others if we don’t have it for ourselves. The things that drive us nuts about other people are most often connected to aspects of ourselves that we don’t like or have unconsciously rejected. The journey toward cultivating empathy begins with self-compassion: learning to be kind to ourselves and to embrace who we are fully, including the parts we may find unappealing, unlovable, or even repulsive. It is only through self-acceptance that we can begin to see that others, too, are just like us: doing their best, trying to make a living, wanting to find contentment.
In his book, Awake at Work, Michael Carroll, consultant and founding director of Awake at Work Associates and author of numerous books on approaching work in a conscious way, offers a great analogy from a high school teacher which became a profound personal lesson for him: “Everybody just wants to bounce their ball.” This aphorism, Carroll writes, reminds us to take ourselves less seriously and remember to “respect the gentle enthusiasm that everyone brings to life….We were all children once, wanting to be our best.” He goes on to say that the catch—his version of expressing the inseparability of self and other—is when we forget this important piece of wisdom, “we most likely will find ourselves standing on the outside, imprisoned by the fence of our own logic and correctness, unable to live our lives properly; unable to bounce our ball.” (1)
Remembering that our co-workers and clients are human, and in many ways just like us, fosters a sense of empathy, or being able to imagine what it would be like to be in their position. We are more willing to consider what it would be like to be in the other person’s position. That allow for more flexibility of mind, and opens up a plethora of new possibilities for moving forward with a given situation that were not available before. And empathy for others is what generates a sense of well-being in for ourselves.
1. Remember interdependence: we are deeply intertwined with those around us. To think and act as if we are not is to go against the grain of reality; to approach work, and life, with that as a key operating principle is to actually be in tune with the way things are.
2. Start with self-compassion. We can’t have empathy for others if we don’t have at least some degree of empathy and acceptance for ourselves.
3. From there, we can start to see that others are very much just like us, and become more able and willing to try to see things from others’ point of view.
(1) Carroll, Michael. Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos. Boston: Shambhala Publications (2004). pp. 164-165.