24 June 2020

Developing Empathy in the Time of Covid-19

Empathy is a word we mention a lot but how often do we actually practice it? How often have we spoken to a colleague and answered “I understand,” when in fact we have no idea what they is feeling?

Kindness in the workplace is always welcome, but perhaps when things get more difficult, it is important to make an extra effort and step up to the next level. Empathy is much more than kindness and courtesy and, if developed, can be an opportunity for us as individuals as well as for the rest of the ecosystem that we belong to.

Parents and home office: my starting point towards developing empathy

The phrase that I like to hear from a colleague (as well as from a friend or a family member or anyone else close to me) is “if I put myself in your shoes…” I welcome it because, if said sincerely, it marks an extra effort to really try to understand the other person’s current condition.

Father working at home office while the kids are playing. Home office and telecommuting concept

During the lockdown days, I heard many complaints about how difficult the situation is. I have no children and currently live with my parents and I found life at home a bit “tight,” desperately looking for a way to find some isolation and privacy. I did a small survey, with friends and colleagues, and even those I knew less, and I tried to identify with their positions; those who live alone and have suffered from isolation and loneliness, those who live with their partner and see their relationship tested because of forced cohabitation… the cases are many.

Among colleagues, I developed a high respect for parents. The challenge of working in a home-office with children immediately seemed to me practically unbearable – too much coordination is needed from working parents. So, I started observing how they face daily problems in order to look at my own situation with a different eye and push myself to become better and improve my relationships with others. Can I be more efficient at work by learning from those around me? Can I be more supportive to my team?

Develop empathy and make the most of it: Understand your emotions

The basic idea is to turn our empathy into something of value. The first step is to first analyze one’s own emotions and try to fully understand them. If I don’t know how I feel, how can I think and understand others? I found out that for me the biggest challenge during the period of forced home-office was time management. Incredibly, I had lost control of my time: work and private life mixed, giving me a sense of perennial confusion. I was always connected. I felt constantly obliged to “complete” open tasks during the day, even when not necessary.

Listening to the opinions of colleagues and relatives with children, I found myself reflecting on how much, unlike others, I had the opportunity (and the duty) to improve my situation to get back on the track of serenity as well as efficiency.

Colleagues in the office practicing alternative greeting to avoid handshakes during COVID-19 pandemic

Develop empathy and make the most out of it: listening to others and learn, not just understand

None of us need a guidebook to know how important listening is. In reality, however, we are not always able to practice it. In the first few weeks of quarantine I noticed that in one-to-one calls to colleagues many tend to give a brief introduction to their current status – a sort of “Luca in the time of Coronavirus” or “Giulia in the time of Coronavirus.” They were telling a version of themselves that was not the usual “Luca” or the usual “Giulia,” but someone biased by the experience of working during coronavirus pandemic – someone who gets stressed when they hear helicopters flying over a silent and empty Milan, someone who is afraid that anyone could infect them but try to show courage by being reckless on the outside, someone who doesn’t tell you anything at all but you can see the tension in them… all the while you are wondering whether your colleagues can notice your own anxieties.

All these feelings, thoughts, and perspectives are just personality aspects of my colleagues and understanding them is significant to improving our relationship and work together.

Develop empathy and reach the next level: being open-minded with new perspectives

Having become aware that listening to my colleagues’ emotions can make me to get to know them better, the next thing I have to do is to climb up one level and reach another very important goal: develop open-mindedness.

While it is easy to listen to a confession of a colleague we know well, it may be equally important to reflect on the opinions of someone with whom we have little in common, or even better with whom we have yet to know. One of my work tasks has led me to talk on the phone with colleagues I have never met in person before. And from these phone calls I received several “Life in the times of Covid-19” examples that allowed me to re-evaluate my situation and, above all, make improvements to my daily life.

The best thing we can get out of our empathy is that it requires little effort to express. Our small gestures and changes in the way we listen and relate to others will make those around us perceive us as capable and willing to put ourselves in their shoes.

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