Why We Need More Love At Work: How to Show Empathy Towards Colleagues

I have to report that I found it difficult to work for a couple of days recently. My mind was very preoccupied with some pretty heavy thoughts and the simple task of getting on with my work seemed very unimportant and consequently, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for it.

The cause of this situation was a piece of bad news I received at the end of the week. For a year I hadloveatwork been working with a very impressive lady who I had appointed as my accountant. I originally met her at a networking group meeting and was immediately struck by her warm welcoming manner, professional attitude and smart dress sense – in this case one of her apparently trademark flowery dresses. After talking with her on several occasions at other meetings of the networking group and exchanging a couple of emails we arranged a one-to-one meeting and it was my pleasure to spend an afternoon talking with her over a pot of tea, sharing business knowledge and experience and eventually waxing lyrical over some deep and meaningful stuff.

Having agreed to engage her as my accountant, we kept in touch over the course of the year. I continued to enjoy working with her and was very impressed and grateful when she managed to extract a rather rare and handy tax rebate from HMRC. Bonus! I had expected our working relationship to continue well into the future and was pleased to be supporting her small but growing accountancy practice. In fact, I was very happy when she wrote to me around Summer 2014 to let me know she was taking on extra staff. Not a surprise, given the quality of service she was giving her clients.

So it was with considerable shock and great sadness that around November 2014 I learned that this dynamic young lady had been a cancer patient for the last few years and circumstances had developed such that she was closing her business to spend more time with her family. It is difficult to find appropriate words in response to such information.

I sent her a message expressing my sympathy at hearing her news and wishing her and her family the best, thanking her for handing over my file to a reputable local accountancy firm. She replied, thanking me for my email and stating that “being able to handpick the firm that would look after my clients in the future was very important to me”. Such professionalism and consideration.

That was the last contact I had with her. Although one could guess that it was likely to happen at some point, I was very sad and slightly shocked to receive an email informing me that this warm, endearing, professional person who had much left to give both personally and professionally, had succumbed to her illness aged just 31.

Although I didn’t know her well, hearing of her passing has affected me over the last few days. And it has raised one question in my mind.

What Is Really Important?

You know, every one of us becomes wound up and irritable on a daily basis due to something that happens at work. Just the other night, my wife came home in a blind rage because her manager had asked her how the hole-punch worked one time too many.

Some years ago, when I was still an employee, I had a miniature explosion over the fact that my office colleagues had berated me for not bringing in adequate supplies of cake on my birthday.

And of course, we have all heard about Jeremy Clarkson’s outburst when he discovered that following a long day of filming for Top Gear, the associate producer had failed to ensure that there was a hot steak dinner waiting for him when he returned to the hotel.

The little things get to us on a daily basis. I once managed an admin team where 80% of the team members experienced raised blood pressure whenever a particular colleague stopped working for two minutes to apply her hand cream.

The thing is, all of these little issues that occur at work seem so important to us at the time. But have you ever noticed that when you move jobs, you no longer care about the minute detail of what happened at your previous workplace? Funny, isn’t it?

Well actually, it’s not funny. One of the key causes of tension and stress in the workplace is intolerance. We are all guilty of this. There are certain things that we find difficult to tolerate. Somebody not cleaning their coffee cup to a schedule that satisfies our opinion of what constitutes good hygiene. The noisy typist. The person who doesn’t put the tea towel in the kitchen back in the right place. The person who won’t stop talking about their children. The phantom photocopier jammer. The secret snot depositor. These are the things that make our blood boil. They drive us MAD!

But NONE and I really mean this, NONE of them MATTER.

They are inconsequential.

Every one of us is a human being, which means we are imperfect. We all have irritating traits. When you are in a closed environment with the same people day after day, these little quirks begin to add up and after a while, you start to find them frustrating and annoying. And this is entirely understandable, like I said, we’re all human beings.

But hang on, let’s think about that statement again – we’re all human beings. So if we’re all human beings, then surely we can empathise with each other’s little quirks and behaviours? Because we all have them. Surely we can CHOOSE not to get irritated by the colleague who insists on sitting by the window because they struggle to regulate their temperature and regularly need cold air to keep them comfortable?  Surely we can opt to be more tolerant and understanding?

And were we to choose to be more tolerant and understanding, the benefits would be considerable. We would be less stressed, able to concentrate on our work better. We’d be less likely to dread coming into work on a Monday morning. We’d have better relationships with our colleagues. We’d be happier.

The key skill we need to upgrade is empathy and understanding for others. Here’s a few tips as to how you can demonstrate that and therefore build strong rapport and relationships with your colleagues:

1. Listening skills – paying close attention to the detail of what another person is saying, not just hearing them. What can you pick up?

2. Awareness of values – listening for and appreciating other people’s values and using them to build rapport with the person. What’s important to them? What might be motivating them to behave like they do? What do you have in common?

3. Validation – Make people feel good about themselves by validating what’s important to them in their life.

4. Matching – Observe how other people are behaving and match your behaviour to theirs. This puts you on a level with them and allows you to engage with them more easily on their own terms.

When it comes down to it folks, getting annoyed by the small stuff in the workplace is just not worth it. You’ve probably heard the phrase “life’s too short” far too many times, but it really is true.

I had a sharp reminder of that recently when I received the sad news about my accountant. How would you feel if it was one of your colleagues that had died? Would their irritating habits still matter to you then?

Give yourself and those around you a break and show some empathy for those you work with. Remember you have your own annoying habits and that’s OK because we’re all human.

Let’s all make a vow to be more tolerant within our workplaces – if for no other reason than this:

Life is too short not to be.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Lauren Burgoine. 

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