We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat 

Damian Barr

The quote comes from Damian Barr’s poem that was written in response to the extraordinary world that we have found ourselves in. No two individuals will experience these times in the same way. Even if their material circumstances are identical, for example in the case of redundancy, their ability to respond to and overcome their situation will be determined by too many factors to list.

When everyone is heavily laden with stress and anxiety, interactions become fraught. Empathy won’t cure the root cause, but it will soothe frayed nerves and enable us to communicate despite pervasive external stresses.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to walk in other people’s shoes and to understand how they are feeling. It doesn’t take a communications expert to see how important this ability is in these times.

Empathy helps us in the workplace when we need to motivate people and get the best from them. It’s a valuable skill to have in negotiation and understanding what is going to be of interest to the other person.

Understanding other people’s values is a useful way to empathise with someone or in simpler terms “What is important to them?”

  • Where are you coming from?
  • What can I do to help you?
  • How do I help you be your best?
  • How do I get the best from you in this situation?

Why is empathy important?

Fundamentally, empathy builds connections and relationships with people, enabling you to support them. In this time of uncertainty, ambiguity, stress, and loneliness people need this support more than ever. Empathy is no longer just a nice skill to have.

Also, with greater diversity in the workplace the ability to empathise with lots of people from different backgrounds, experiences, and ages is no longer optional. We are now moving into a period where we will have people from 5 generations employed in the workplace for the first time.

Very few of us work alone. You may work on a presentation or a task by yourself for a couple of hours but eventually, you’ll need to collaborate with someone to progress that piece of work. The research shows us that empathetic people perform better as individuals and amplify the output of their teams.

How to develop empathy in a virtual team?

You’ll be pleased to hear that empathy is a skill that you can develop.

The virtual environment deprives us of many communication avenues and skills we take for granted. And although this makes empathy harder to practice, the awkwardness of virtual meetings and limitations of technology makes it even more important.

As with any skill, empathy is developed through the practice of specific actions. Here are several you can start using today:

1. Be Brave

Pick a person or team that you know least well and have a virtual coffee with them and take time to understand their world and what is happening to them. Phil Gilbert the Director of Transformation at Eon calls it “an appointment for a chat” and ensures that he has a daily virtual coffee with someone outside of his team in order to check-in.

2. The Human Library Concept

Create a human library in your team.

Libraries are where we go to find books in order to learn more about a topic. The Human Library is where we go to talk to a person to learn more about a topic.

It’s an opportunity for individuals to share a list of their skills with the team to make themselves available whenever someone needs help in that area. These lists shouldn’t be limited to work-specific skills, either. Encourage your team to share information about the things they’re passionate about. Video editing, cooking, dog grooming are all fair game. Allowing your team to talk on their terms is a great way to help them blow off steam, build relationships, and effectively use their free time so that they arrive at work with renewed vigour.

3. Show gratitude

Everyone likes to feel valued. Being thankful – to others and yourself- is a simple way to radically transform your mindset.

You can develop a gratitude mindset for yourself by simply at the end of each day just writing down or reflecting on 3 things that you are grateful for that day. It can be the big stuff like a partner, kids, great colleagues that you work with through to the tiny things like the WIFI working well or the Tesco delivery guy arriving on time. It sounds a bit glib, but don’t underestimate it’s effectiveness when applied consistently.

Showing gratitude to other people should be a staple of your day. Doing this at the hardest moments is most important, especially when showing gratitude doesn’t come naturally to you. Remember that your struggles don’t exist in isolation so when you’re up against a deadline, take the time to thank that person who came up with the brilliant suggestion, or the shop assistant that helped you find your favourite sandwich. Your words may well have a transformative effect on their day.

4. Asking questions

When was the last time you asked a question at work where the motivation was to build empathy?

A very simple question to ask is “How are you today?” rather than “How are you?”. Simply adding the word “today” means your question is less likely to be dismissed with a “fine”. We’re all experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, so by asking more specific questions you’re more likely to net a considered answer.

You could start a team meeting and ask each person to give one word which describes their week. If you have some of the group give negative words then the follow-up question might be, “What would it take to make you feel more positive about the week?” or “What as a team can we do to help you?” Then, draw on the combined knowledge and experience of your team to support those who are struggling to overcome their challenges.

Another way to build on this is to get people to draw how they feel about the week ahead. In a virtual meeting, you could do this on a whiteboard, PowerPoint slide, or a piece of paper you can show to the camera.

5. Listening

By this point, we’ve all experienced the joys of e-conferencing. People talking over one another, dropping in and out due to poor connections and the occasional interruption from a wayward child.

This breeds conflict, particularly when the subject matter is contentious or time is short.

You can reduce this conflict through the application of Radical Listening as shared by Marshall Rosenberg.

He suggests that in order to reduce conflict you can show empathy by getting each party to repeat back exactly what the other person said before sharing your point. This forces you to focus more on the other person, concentrate harder on what they have to say, and as a result, empathise with their position.

Aggressive conflict seldom profits either party. Concentrating on listening, and repeating back will show empathy and put the other party at ease. It’s hard to stay angry in a slow conversation with someone who is agreeable and vulnerable. So, most of the time this will result in a painless resolution to your disagreement

Empathy is the key to thriving in the virtual environment

The world has changed at a frightening pace. We all woke up on New Years’ Day, blissfully ignorant to the existence of COVID-19. None of us could have ever predicted the situation we find ourselves in today. In just a few short weeks we fundamentally changed the way we live and work for the foreseeable future.

Deprived of our usual outlets, routines, and coping mechanisms stress and anxiety festers. This in turn adversely impacts our now virtual interactions.

We need empathy for one another now more than ever, and if you want to improve the quality of your virtual interactions developing your empathy skills is the place to start.

Our Working in a Virtual Team workshop is a two-hour session, delivered virtually. You’ll enjoy buoyant discussions and challenging exercises with your team, all guided by an expert facilitator.

The Leading in a Virtual Environment equips leaders with the communication skills they need to drive peak performance in the ever-challenging remote work environment. You’ll explore how the virtual environment disrupts conventional approaches and how to adapt your style to our new world.

Neither of these courses is easy, nor do they represent a quick fix. We’ll tackle sensitive subjects and challenge you and your team to confront how empathy (or lack thereof) impacts on the people you live and work with.

If you’d like to learn more, we’d like to learn more about you. We’ll have a chat over the phone or Zoom to help you decide which course is right for your organisation.

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Additional resources on empathy for virtual teams