Elaheh Nazari

Posted on 13th September 2021

Practical Empathy

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Having empathy in work means that you can understand how your co-workers think and if you have different ideas and points, you acknowledge their reasoning and emotions. Curiosity is what drives people to be more empathetic; if you try to listen to and understand your co-worker, you will become a better empath and have better collaborations with people around you at work.

Business Is Out of Balance

Sometimes, even when you hire experts, things will not go as you had hoped for. It all comes down to the communications in the office. Each person has his motivations and ideas and wants to talk about them; but if you want to make better solutions together, you must learn how to understand other people’s perspectives and work together.

Most people in an organization want to prove their worth and contribute their ideas and impress others. No one listens because everyone thinks that others must hear what they have to say.

Some organizations make their decisions solely on the data they receive from users. Like when a customer buys a certain product. They call themselves “data-driven” but they do not know how to analyze this data. Knowing when a person buys what products is useless unless you try to understand why he made that purchase. You can even use surveys to do that and it will help you find the person’s purpose and needs which can lead to making better decisions.

Empathy Brings Balance

People think that empathy is the kindness you show to others. But that is not the kind of empathy we are looking for. By empathy, we mean the willingness to understand a person and the way they think, what their motives are, and how their reasoning works. It cannot be done unless you listen deeply.

The problem that we have is that we make assumptions without considering what the other means by what he said. Even some companies had failed projects because they thought that every user wants the same experience. After all, the data had shown so.

When you try to listen to another person, you must always have a neutral stance and avoid taking guesses or adding your thoughts on what they meant with what they said. You must try to get your preferences and opinions to understand the reasoning of that other person.

For some people, being empathetic is intuitive and has roots in their childhood and experiences. But some adults  are not as empathetic and for them, it is not about “learning” empathy but rather “adopting an empathetic mindset.”

Put Empathy to Work

Every project and plan go through some cycles. A common one is the Think-Make-Check cycle. In the Think stage, you come up with as many ideas as you can. In the Make stage, you add details to the ideas and in the Check stage, the ideas get tested to see how they will work. This is called a development cycle.

Companies mainly focus on these development cycles which revolve around ideas but they don’t try to get deep and understand the whys and needs of people. Thus another cycle got introduced called the empathy cycle which focuses on understanding people and their purposes.

The empathy cycle is not worthy on its own but if you use its results, you will have better ideas and solutions for the Think stage. Here is an empathy cycles steps:

  1. Listening: This is the most important part where you try to understand the reasons and needs.
  2. Simmer and Finding Pattern: You read the information that you got from listening, again and summarize them and try to connect them, and find patterns in them.
  3. Walk in Shoes: You try to see from another person’s perspective and try his way of thinking.

Please consider that“listening” is not exclusive to us using our ears. We can listen to people via their written words as long as we ask questions about what is written and try to dig deeper and have a better understanding. Sometimes people feel more comfortable talking this way than talking face to face, so you are more likely to get honest feedback.

Keep in mind that you should only listen to one person at a time and concentrate on what he has to say. Also, you should not prepare a list of questions to ask; listening is not an interview! You should develop being empathetic and try to understand that person’s reasons. You may only ask questions to dig deeper into what they are saying.

A New Way to Listen

When listening, you are searching for that person’s inner thoughts (her decisions and reactions to certain events). Not what happened at the event but what was her thought process then. Also, you are not looking for feedback! 

To become a true listener, you must fall into another mindset and brain state called “the flow”. You give your full attention to the speaker and do not allow stray thoughts to wander in your mind. You may even lose track of time if you enter the flow state!

The listening session is about finding the speaker’s thought process, so when you are listening, do not try to ask for solutions or suggestions. You can ask questions such as below to understand their reasoning better:

  • What came to your mind?
  • What were you thinking then?
  • What was your reaction?

Try not to ask “What were you feeling?” because the person might feel that he is having a therapy session! But sometimes this question can also help which depends on the context.

While you are listening, look for three things in the speaker: 

  1. The Reasoning is the thought process that a person, faced with an event, will do to make a decision. If you understand the speaker’s story well but none of his reasonings, then you do not understand that person at all.
  2. The Reactions go hand in hand with reasoning. Those are the person’s (emotional) response to a matter and go deeper than thinking and are related to feelings such as anger, hopefulness, and so on.
  3. The Guiding Principles are the subconscious philosophies that each person has and shape the standard of their decisions like “I must not bother anyone around me”.

In a session, you must try not to direct the conversation to where you want. Let the person talk about what he wants freely. Also do not ask questions that will lead the topic to your personal assumptions. When asking a question, do not use vocabulary that the speaker has not used because it will make him lose his train of thought and also do not use too much “I” in your words because you are the listener and this conversation is not about you; you are simply trying to be more empathetic and understand that person.

Being supportive and adapting yourself to the mood of the speaker, will help the other person open up more comfortably. For the speaker to trust you, you must be respectful and not show harsh reactions; remember you are not listening to judge but to understand.

Make Sense of What You Heard

Writing a summary of what you heard after a listening session, will help you study what was said better. You can also listen to the recording of the conversation and take notes from that. Writing summaries have 3 benefits:

  1. It is a written document that you can go back and read anytime and serves as evidence.
  2.  If you summarize well enough, any complicated sentence will become easier to understand just with a short review even after some months.
  3. If you summarize quotes of other people more clearly, comparing and looking for patterns in them will be easier.

When it comes to writing summaries you must remember:

  • Make Sense of Each Concept: In the summary, you should black out the extra and excess words the speaker said and only keep the vital parts as they will make the summary shorter, cleaner, and easier to understand the concept.
  • What to skip: Opinions, facts, preferences, descriptions of events, conjectures and assumptions, and all the generalizations are all the things that you want to skip because they will not help you to understand the person better.

Starting a summary with a verb is also recommended; for verbs are closer to the action than nouns, and dividing many summaries that start with a verb is easier. The verb gets more important when you want to reread the summary later as it will cut to the chase and get you straight to the point of that particular conversation.

Apply Empathy to What You Create

By analyzing the summaries from different people, we can figure out the intent of their thinking and the similarities between them on a given subject.

Focus on one summary at a time and look for the important concepts. Then look for the same concepts that other people mentioned too and find the pattern of why they brought that concept up. You can group the people with the same patterns of reasoning.

By using these patterns, you now can collaborate with people better because now you know the way of their thinking. This empathetic mindset will help you let go of “ownership of your ideas” and work together with your co-workers to make the ideas better.

At this point, you might come up with many ideas and talk about them with others so it is a good idea to make notes of the ideas so they won’t get piled up and lost in time. This will help you recall which ideas were worked on and which were not and need more attention.

Apply Empathy for People at Work

You cannot always pick your partners at work. The empathetic mindset will help you connect with your co-workers better and analyze their reactions at different times better. This will help you build trust and make your workplace a more comfortable place to work and collaborate.

Perennial listening means that you spend a fraction of your time listening to your co-workers and getting to know them better. Not about their personal lives but about their ideas and how they see things. This activity must be for when you are alone with the person and not when in groups because then becoming a true listener will be impossible.

A manager is responsible for the creativity of his team. The creativity of a team comes from each member but without coordination of the gathered knowledge and shared ideas and working on them together, it won’t nourish much. A leader’s job is to make an empathetic workplace for the team so they can collaborate easily without each member trying to favor their own idea.

Now imagine a scenario where your boss comes and asks you to do a job. It may seem disrespectful to ask him “why he wants that job done” or any question about his reasoning, but it is not disrespectful at all, because you are trying to apply empathy and see the job from your boss’s perspective.

You are also a member of your company so your reasoning and reactions have impacts on others as well. Knowing yourself is the key. You must be able to categorize what you say: is it reasoning, reaction, your guiding principle, or simply an opinion or conjecture?

Apply Empathy Within Your Organization

When you work for an organization, you must know what is the purpose of the organization as it will help you understand the reasoning of the organization and its members. Sometimes an organization’s job may get complex. To find the motive, you can go back to the history of the organization and find out what the initial purpose of the organization was and why it was created.

It is hard for the members to suggest a change to the leader but it is a necessary thing. When you are making suggestions, try not to emphasize the change but to minimize it and suggest small changes at a time.

With the invention of new technology, some corporations try desperately to be present in the market with that technology, and compete with other organizations and not get “left behind”, that they seem to forget to question if this will be truly supportive of people or not. Using new technologies and innovations is a good thing but you must not forget the demands and needs of people. The empathy you have for the people will help you establish a middle road for your organization to work on both and not sacrifice one for another.

Where Do You Go from Here?

A person that can share and work on ideas with others, without preaching or persuading others to accept only their personal ideas, is valuable to any organization. To be that person, apart from the empathetic skills, you can:

  • Explain to Others: Maybe people wonder why you are listening to them so much and trying to know their reasoning. Explain your purpose to them and enlighten them on the empathy that you use.
  • Go Small: If you set big expectations and fail to reach them, you will ruin your confidence. You must not put all of your time into listening to the people you work with. This should be an ongoing process, so you must start small and not burn yourself.
  • Have The Secret Agenda: To be more empathetic, you must try to be humble and have self-restraint. That is the secret agenda but it does not mean to let go of your ego completely; when you put on the empathetic glasses and mindset, being humble will help people connect better and be more comfortable with you.


Being empathetic towards your co-workers and even customers will help you understand them and their ideas and needs better and allow you to see from their point of view. The most important step to becoming a better empath is the “art of listening”. This will make others more comfortable and open with you and make working with them easier.

Here in Flexiana, we as developers listen to both our teammates and customers, as we want to reach one certain goal, enjoying our time codeveloping Clojure and delivering digital products where the needs of our customers are understood and got relied on.


Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work by Indi Young