It's not personal, it's just business: understanding the value of empathy on teams by Sarah Wall

Automatic Summary

The Art of Empathy in Business: Enhancing Team Performance

Being empathic in business environments is not just a show of good manners – it's fundamental for enhanced team performance and satisfaction. Today, join me, Sarah, a senior program manager with over 22 years of experience under her belt as I share insights into using empathy to lead, inspire and manage teams, based on my unique blend of corporate and yoga teaching experiences.

Why Empathy Matters in the Workplace

Empathy can play a transformative role in the corporate world. It allows leaders to understand and feel their team's experiences and emotions, thereby fostering stronger relationships and trust. With trust, teams can create a safe space to openly collaborate, share ideas and take risks without fear of undue criticism. Consequently, the team's productivity increases, and the organization thrives.

Furthermore, empathy extends beyond internal interactions – it also significantly influences customer relationships. Understanding and sharing the feelings of customers can lead to improved customer experiences and satisfaction – an essential driver for business success.

What is Empathy?

Put simply, empathy is the understanding and feeling of another person's emotions. You might not be able to feel exactly the same, but being empathetic involves identifying with their feelings and imagining what it would be like in their shoes. But what does empathy look like in action, and how does it differ from other emotions like sympathy or attempting to 'fix' the problem for the other person?

Showing Empathy: Do's and Don'ts

Show empathy by:

  • Actively listening: Be present. Close your laptop, silence your phone, and give the other person your undivided attention.
  • Being open and curious: Maintain an open mind. Seek to understand their perspective.


  • Making it about you: Jumping in with your experiences will shift the focus from them to you.
  • Rushing to fix the problem: They may just need someone to listen, not necessarily offer a solution.
  • Minimizing their experience: Avoid offering a 'silver lining' that cuts off their sharing or undermines their feelings.

Cultivating Empathy as a Leader

Contrary to popular belief, leading with empathy is not just for those with grand titles – anyone can be a leader. It's about what you bring to the table, including your ability to empathize with others' experiences. Listen actively, be open, understand, and show curiosity. Look at yourself and examine any biases you may unknowingly bring to the conversation.

Understanding Empathy Burnout

While essential, empathy can also be emotionally exhausting if you constantly take on the problems of others. It's crucial to establish boundaries: prioritize self-care and seek support as and when required. Remember, while it's helpful to empathize, you don't have to carry the weight of everyone's problems.

By embracing empathy in the workplace, you not only foster a harmonious environment but build a foundation for team and business success. Empathy is not "just business," – it's personal, potent, and powerful.

Video Transcription

Thank you all for, for joining me. I appreciate you making the time to join the session. It's not personal, it's just business and understanding the value of empathy on teams. And my name is Sarah. I'm uh currently a senior program manager at uh Amazon.And um I've been working in technology now for about 22 years and all. But one of those years, my first year I've been managing and leading teams. And the reason I, I brought this presentation together, I've actually given this talk before. Uh However, it was an hour long and it was an interesting experience to distill it down to uh 20 minutes or maybe even 15. We want to squeeze in some questions at the end, but it's a combination of my experience in the workplace and also uh what I've been doing for a number of years, about 15 years now is teaching yoga in underserved populations. I volunteered for many years with a group called yoga Outreach in Vancouver BC. And in that, uh I worked with many vulnerable people. So for example, at a women's shelter or women's safe houses and also uh mental health and addiction recovery centers. So combining all of that experience from, from practicing yoga, from teaching yoga and being a manager in, for a number of years, I've learned a lot about what it means to lead and inspire a team. And I've also had many different managers in my career as well.

And I've learned some great, great tips from them and I've, I've learned also what not to do. So hopefully this session is gonna be short and sweet. Uh Hopefully interactive as well. I'm gonna just flip back to see if you have um uh you know, questions, I will try my best to get to them. I'll try to leave some time at the end. And uh I've also put my linked in uh uh URL there. So if we don't, don't get everything, then we can obviously follow up after the session. So uh key takeaways um throughout this, I, I hope that you will take away that you will understand what role empathy plays in the workplace and why it's important, understand how leaders and you'll find out what my definition of a leader is later. Uh how they can encourage a culture of empathy and know how to manage boundaries with empathy, empathy as well. So why is this important? Like, why are we here talking about this? Well, I believe in my experience, the root of all successful organizations are its people. Uh We coined a phrase at my last uh place of work called our people make the difference and, and boy, was that true? So, healthy relationships are the foundation of successful organizations and to build healthy relationships.

Um A big part of that is being empathetic towards your, your colleagues and your customers. So as we have uh improve our skills for listening, we'll be talking a little bit more about that coming up. Um Being empathetic towards each other, essentially builds trust within teams.

As you're building trust within teams, you're providing a more safe space to collaborate together, which means people feel more safe to share. People, feel more safe to fail uh because they know they're not going to be punished or criticized. So most successful executives realize that their people are at the root of the success of their business. It's not solely about reaching sales targets. Uh Of course, that is important, but it's the interpersonal relationships and how people interact that really um I believe is a success to um organization success. So I wanted to take a moment maybe 30 seconds and um think about a time when you felt truly listened to and supported, whether this was at work or in, in your personal life, just close your eyes and go inwards and just think about that person or people you are sharing maybe a problem with and what that meant to you to feel supported.

Now tap into those feelings. If you're reflecting back to that time, if you do wanna share in the chat. Please go ahead. You don't have to give names, but you can maybe share some of the things that you were recalling. So why is this important? We're gonna be talking exactly what empathy is and how you can cultivate empathy. And also just thinking back to that reflection a moment ago, how you felt when others have been empathetic towards you. Now, this may be new content to you. This may be something you've heard before.

No matter where you're at in your journey for cultivating your own leadership skills. I do encourage you to be uh compassionate towards yourself. And I'm hoping by the end of this, you'll have some tips to take away that you can actually apply today. So what is empathy? It's the understanding and the feeling of another person's feelings. So think about that for a moment, the understanding and feeling of another person's feelings while it's true, we cannot feel exactly what another person is feeling, but we can imagine and we can identify and you might have heard the saying, it's about putting yourself into somebody else's shoes.

And I'm gonna talk a little bit about what empathy is not because that might help understand uh the opposite and, and noticing when you've been sharing a problem with someone or even you've been on the receiving end of, of listening to someone who's sharing a, a problem or a challenging day and you might have even done these things and again, that's OK.

Just give yourself compassion. We're all learning here together. So what empathy is not, is feeling sorry for someone quite often empathy and, and sympathy and compassion are intertwined and the definitions can get easily confused. So, while empathy is the feeling of another person's feelings as best as we can identify. Um sympathy is your understanding at a logical level. However, there's often an element of feeling sorry for that person as well. So that's the clear line of delineation. And if we take it even further, uh we're talking about compassion, it's the ability to take empathy and then act to relieve the suffering of other people. So let's talk a minute about what empathy is not. And I know I've experienced uh this, I've even done these things myself and I've had to stop and catch myself. So can you think about a time? And maybe if you had a, a challenge in that prior reflection of, of thinking about a time when you truly felt supported, you might have experienced some of these things. So what empathy is not is if, if you're listening to someone who's come to you with, with a challenge and you immediately jump in and say, oh I experienced that ha has anyone uh maybe thumbs up if you have um experienced that for sure. Yeah.

And I see some questions popping in the chat. I'll try and get back to them and I'm gonna keep going to get to the slides if that's ok. Um But yes, jumping in and I believe people really truly have good intentions. They want to share to say yes, I can identify with you. But if you're interrupting or interjecting and, and uh starting to talk about your own experiences, you're, you're essentially making the conversation all about you. So it's best to and we'll get to some tips as well coming up, but it's best to just listen and do your best to be present to really hear what the person is saying. Next one that is a don't uh is just jumping in and immediately trying to fix the problem. So that might come naturally after you share your own experiences where you could say, well, here's what I did in this situation or this is what you should do. Most of the time, people may not want a solution. They might just want an ear, they just want someone to share the problem with. They wanna know that somebody cares what I used to do um with my, my direct reports and, and I started cultivating this in the last 5 to 7 years was I, I would, you know, when I, I first on boarded a new team member, I would share, you know, how I like to work and I would share my leadership style and, and I'm a trained coach.

So I would say I would, you know, if we're talking over with problems together I, I would essentially ask questions. I, I would, instead of giving a solution, I would be curious, I would listen and then I would try to understand more and what the root cause of the problem is. There were sometimes where, you know, my team members will come to me and say, can you just tell me what to do? And I would say, are you sure because the difference between the coach approach and just going in with a consultant mindset and solving a problem is I believe that you empower people to solve their own problems and to be self sufficient in the, in the future and tend to learn from the conversation.

So I leave that as a last resort. If someone is just asking straight up for, you know, what should I do next or you know, how, how do I fix this then at that point I will offer. Um but it's important to, to remember not to jump in and just start giving solutions another one. And the third one, there's, there's many different ones. I'm distilling this down to three ones that I problems that I have noticed the most. Um One is providing a silver lining and, and that is for example, well, oh well, look, you already have, if someone sharing a problem, you say you already have it so good, like why are you complaining? Or at least you're not as bad as this other person or what I've heard a lot and I've said it a lot. You know, I confess and that's a first world problem. That's a little bit more subtle, but sometimes by providing the silver lining, especially if someone is sharing and they're coming from a place of grieving about something by providing that silver lining. You're essentially cutting off that experience of sharing the grief in the conversation or sharing the problem and, and jumping in to minimize it and saying, well, your problem is not so bad like other people have it worse. So again, those are three top things, sharing your experiences.

Um especially if you're interrupting the conversation and jumping in fixing someone's problem or providing a silver lining. All of those are not empathy. I'm gonna jump over to the chat for a minute. Uh Any other uh key observations that you all have had when you know you're engaging with somebody? No, looks like they want me to join another session um where you are engaging with somebody and you know, something has been offered or a, a specific way of dealing with with as you're sharing it that just really hasn't been helpful and I see some comments coming in. Yeah, Gargi, I speak with my friends or family. Are you speaking with solution or listening shoulder? That is great. That's a really great way to react. Yes, I agree. It is when people center around themselves, it can be irritating and Jennifer. I see your question here. What is the line between listening and trying to improve the situation? Um If I didn't answer that already, I would suggest that um uh just test yourself if you're trying to fix it and, and maybe just confirming with the person that's sharing the problem. Like, what would you like me to do or how can I best help you sometimes just asking those questions to further clarify? All right. Uh Let's continue on. So how can leaders cultivate empathy?

I've already touched on a few of these points and I wanna share that not everyone is, has the same definition of leader. So you might think of a leader as the founder of an organization or someone in the C suite or someone at the mid management level. Well, that is true. They are all leaders. I believe anyone can be a leader in an organization. So it's not just about the title, it's about what you bring to the table. It's about what you bring to the workplace and in life. And I believe you can lead with empathy even if you're in school or just right out of school and you're, you've got your first job. So these are all ways that anyone but really if it comes from the top and that kind of culture is encouraged in the workplace, there's more of a chance that it will be supported and and other people in the workplace will model that behavior as well. And then active listening is a key part about being empathetic and it's, it's being present. So not doing the things that we were talking about a couple of slides back. But active listening is if someone's coming and especially if you're, you're facing and preparing for a difficult conversation, whether you're about to share or whether you're on the receiving end and you know, it's coming is to close the laptop, turn the phone on silent, make sure that you have no distractions, close the office door, if you're in person and just focus again, maintain eye contact, listening is on so many levels.

A lot of what's being said is often offered up nonverbally through the body language, through tone of voice, uh you know, through facial expressions. So I if we're not actively listening and we're checking our phone or, you know, seeing what time it is or answering emails even worse while you're trying to share a problem. I would just say put those things aside and, and give that person the gift of your presence and the gift of your time. It really is the the greatest gift that you can give to someone who is going through a challenging time. Next, I would say openness. So be curious, openness and curiosity kind of go hand in hand as, as do understanding and and being open to receive again, it, it ties back to being present. So all of these are interconnected. So when you're being open, you are again looking at yourself. If someone's sharing something, it might even be triggering towards you. I I it could be generating a response. So just be open to that, take, take a moment to take a deep breath or even pause the conversation. And you know, once the person's done sharing, if you're encouraging that open and collaborative and, and sharing an honest environment, then, you know, you might feel comfortable sharing with the person. You know what you have said is just really triggered me.

I just need to take a moment to sit with that. And then understanding is seeking to understand by asking questions, you know, how can I help you? Is is there anything you would like me to do or very simple questions to get started notice if you've got any um bias and that's OK if you do, you may not have to bring it up at that moment, but maybe reflecting after the conversation, notice if you have any inherent biases that are maybe directing your feelings as you're having these conversations.

So these are all tied together. So be curious, listen, attentively active listening, seek to understand and give the uh the person that you're interacting with a gift of your presence. I want to talk a little bit about boundaries. Now, coming back to the beginning when I shared about teaching yoga, my first month in my first posting, I've been teaching in the studio and at different places around the world for a number of years before I joined the yoga outreach program. So I was about six or seven years in and I took trauma informed uh yoga teaching. And my first posting was in a women's shelter. And that first few weeks, especially the first two, the women were very comfortable with sharing some of the uh experiences. They, they suffered at the hands of abusive relationships and, and horrible situations. I did my best to listen to understand and then bring them gently into the class. And I found when I got home, I would just, I would be in a pile of tears on the floor because I was just feeling so awful that I felt like powerless. I couldn't do anything to help them wanting to fix the problem again. But realizing that I couldn't and just feeling a bit of sympathy there just feeling so awful for what had happened to them. And I was doing this week after week for the first three or four weeks and noticing that, um, this is gonna burn me out really quickly.

I can't keep taking this on. I was internalizing a lot of the problems that I was hearing about and I came back to my mission and what I was doing there in the first place. Why was I teaching? Because I was offering and wanting to offer a safe space for, for these women in this situation. And that was my job. And I remember that and when I went back the next, you know, fifth, six weeks with that in mind just being more open and being a little bit more joyful with them, more playful and, and in the class itself. And because quite often the Children were there too and running around. So with doing that, I remembered, you know, I'm giving them this hour for all of us to connect together and while I can't say that, you know, I completely switched, switched off my feelings, but I managed to at least come home and reflect and take some time for myself to just decompress.

So boundaries with awareness, um take a moment to give yourself self care, seek support if you need it as well. Can you think of any um professions where they would be more prone to burnout with uh empathy, empathy burnout, I suppose, health care. Yup. For sure. Social work, protective services. All great examples. Yes. So if you're in any of these, I know this is a tech conference but you, you probably know someone that works in these professions or maybe you have yourself uh on the side or in the past uh just be mindful of when you know, people are coming to you with, with some challenges.

It was especially apparent during the pandemic. It's been a difficult couple of years. A lot of people have been struggling so it should take extra time to provide uh extra self care for ourselves. So with one minute to go, I did it in 19 minutes. Uh I wanna thank you very much for joining and uh I'm just gonna hop back over to see if there's any last minute questions I can address in the chat. And if not, um again, I, you my linkedin is uh at the top of the chat or it's also on the bio. So thank you all very much and I see some linkedin request there. I will go through the Q and A as well, but thank you all for joining and uh I really hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.