People Skills Consulting, Wellington
Articles by Madeleine

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Building a culture of empathy


I was visiting a school community at the end of last term and came head to head with a young person charging out the door – no stepping aside, no acknowledgment that I existed. It was the perfect demonstration of the concerns that the school wanted to address. How to build a school community with empathy at its core?

The ability for our children to practice empathy is all around us and yet society’s ways of being in the world is more and more ego centric and self-serving.

This is no different in our workplaces. Examples of this abound – increased problems with staff behaviour, impacts on customers, fellow staff members, conduct risk and un-resolved conflict. Managers who experience staff and colleagues who are not able to listen, take comments personally and behave badly. The list goes on.

The damage to your staff by those who unable to demonstrate empathy of others is troubling:

It is clear from the research that these adults are more likely to be showing signs of the impact of overindulgence and so face the following risks:

  1. Immediate gratification
  2. Centre of the universe
  3. Disrespectful of people and property
  4. Not know how much is enough – food, drink, recreation, fun, work….
  5. Helpless
  6. Confusing needs and wants
  7. Over blown sense of entitlement
  8. Poor boundaries
  9. Irresponsible
  10. Lacks skills
  11. Poor self-control
  12. Life goals are – wealth, fame and image
  13. Relationship problems.

Clearly we don’t wish this on any member of our community. The good thing is that we can take action to do something different.

What is empathy?

“Empathy means having the ability to sense others’ feelings and how they see things. You take an active interest in their concerns. You pick up cues to what's being felt and thought. With empathy, you sense unspoken emotions. You listen attentively to understand the other person's point of view, the terms in which they think about what's going on.”

Daniel Goleman talks about three kinds of empathy in his article,

  1. Cognitive empathy – the ability to see the world through another’s eyes – being able to understand how another person might think which allows us to understand how to best communicate with this person. It helps us to work with those who are different to us

  2. Emotional empathy – allows us to feel as if we were the other person – we need to tune into our own feelings and notice our body’s reaction – it is how we notice if we are in rapport and building a relationship or damaging it

  3. Empathetic concern - which is the demonstration of a person’s concern of the other – in the class room this is about creating a safe learning space, where students are supported to take risks, admit mistakes

Daniel suggests “Which kind of empathy should a leader, a manager, or a colleague have? All three.”

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