January 15, 2024

Empathy, an indispensable connector in the workplace

Why is empathy important and how do you apply an empathetic approach? Find out more about Deep Democracy and The Empathy Game.

Picture: Co-Design Studio students work on an exercise to really listen to each other

Imagine this: you've been working hard on a project for weeks, and you're in a meeting to discuss the progress. The energy is low, and it's unclear where the process stands. Your usually beloved colleagues seem distracted, and you feel like you're pulling a dead weight. Recognizable? Something in you wants to sternly address your colleagues because you are here despite a family member being in the hospital. Additionally, your home is a mess now that the holidays are over. How do you apply an empathetic approach in this situation?

People seem to find it increasingly challenging to connect with those who have different opinions. According to the Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, a significant majority of the Dutch population is concerned about polarization (2022). In the midst of these challenges, empathy is a powerful tool that enables us to build bridges, cultivate understanding, and establish a deeper connection with others. Let's delve deeper into the meaning of empathy and explore how Minke van Tol and Jorik Elferink place empathy at the center of their work.

What is empathy?
According to researcher Brene Brown, we can only create a true empathetic connection when we are brave enough to connect with our emotions (Brown, 2013). Van Dale defines empathy as "the ability to empathize with the feelings of others" (2023).

Why is it important?
Empathy contributes to more openness, understanding, and connection. From a business perspective, empathy can improve team communication and enhance results. Additionally, empathy strengthens relationships, resolves conflicts, fosters more connection and inclusivity, and promotes effective collaboration. Below are examples of how empathy can contribute to these aspects.

How to be more empathetic yourself?
There are ways and activities to cultivate more empathy. According to Brené Brown, we apply empathy through the following actions:

Avoiding judgment

Understanding the perspective of others

Acknowledging the perspective of others as their truth

Communicating the emotions you observe in others

How to foster more empathy in groups?
Apart from what you can do individually to respond empathetically, you can strengthen empathy in groups by consciously choosing activities that cultivate more empathy. At Fundamentals, they believe in human-centered work and strive for empathy in teams. Minke van Tol and Jorik Elferink, coaches at Fundamentals, share their inspiring approaches.

Deep Democracy

Minke van Tol, a design thinker and coach with over 20 years of experience in training in social performance, emphasizes the importance of empathy in our society. She facilitates conversations between groups that do not interact in daily life, promoting empathy in her work with teams. Minke utilizes Deep Democracy, a method for making decisions with attention and appreciation for different perspectives. The technique makes underlying tensions discussable and relies on the strength of making decisions together. Some examples of how Minke applies this in her team training:

• Check-in round: Start a meeting with a check-in question, creating space for things not usually said. For example, asking, "How is everyone? What part of yourself doesn't want to be here?" This allows for a personal sharing without immediate reactions or follow-up questions.

• Listening to Those Who Say 'No': In decision-making, it is valuable to listen to the input of people who say 'no.' Don't immediately go along with the majority decision without hearing the minority. You might miss valuable input and create resistance.

An example of this is when an international leadership team of 5 people needs to decide on the meeting agenda for the coming year for the entire team of 40 people. Four people vote for quarterly meetings with 2 sessions, the first at 9:00 AM and the second at 4:00 PM, so that everyone in different time zones can participate during working hours. The Asia manager votes against because he can only attend the first session, and the second session is in the middle of the night. He is then asked, "What do you need to go along with the majority?" His answer is that he wants the second session recorded so he can hear what is happening in other regions, and they will evaluate if this works after six months. This way, everyone feels heard and part of the group.

• Create Space for Alternative Ideas and Allow People to Think and Feel: In a group, if there is discomfort, it will surface. Someone might say, "I don't know where this is going anymore." Ask who can relate to this. This is called spreading the "no" or the alternative. Also, be attentive to other behaviors. For example, if you're in a group, and you see people on their phones, ask what's going on, and then ask the rest of the group who can relate to it. Perhaps team members need a break or there are personal issues. These questions can create more openness and bring new energy to the group. You give people the opportunity to tell what is really going on, and this can prevent people from disengaging in a group process.

The Empathy Game

Jorik Elferink designs and facilitates learning experiences and has been involved with Fundamentals since the very first beginning. Empathy, for him, means understanding that other people have different perspectives and accepting that. It is fundamentally recognizing that others have different perspectives. Empathy is an important theme in Jorik's way of coaching.

Jorik developed The Empathy Game together with Saskia H. Hermann. The goal of The Empathy Game is to facilitate a deeper connection between people. Jorik observed that there is often an assumption that there is more connection when talking, as seen in a conversation starter kit or team-building activities. These examples focus only on half of the dialogue, the talking part, and not the listening part. According to Jorik, it is precisely the listening and being open to each other's perspectives that create connection.

The Empathy Game consists of different categories of cards with questions and two dice. One of the two dice determines which card can be drawn, and the other die determines the interactions of the players, such as 'color.' The listeners reflect on the story they’ve just heard. What colour comes to mind listening to this story and why? One by one the listeners share their perspectives with the group. Creating a loop of continuous perspective sharing. While it was sometimes challenging to play the game in English in educational or Dutch business settings, it is now also available in Dutch and German. It is easier for people to express themselves in the language they are more comfortable with.

Picture: The Empathy Game

What is the effect of The Empathy Game?
The effect varies for each group. You can play the game with friends who know each other well or in a team that has just met. Jorik mentioned, "I always like to see what it does to a group that doesn't know each other. In the beginning, it can be a bit awkward, but soon you see people laughing together."

The value of The Empathy Game in professional settings became clear when it was tested at an engineering firm. During the game, colleagues started seeing each other more as individuals with personal lives rather than just job functions. It can be small things that have an effect. For example the realisation that you and a colleague both have children who play hockey. This creates a shared experience and something to talk about other than work. This helped them to see each other as human beings again, rather than just a cog in the wheel. Playing the game had an effect in the team, collaboration and quality of work improved.

This is an example of why it's worthwhile for a company to work on that connection. But according to Jorik, the most important effect was, "People saw each other as human beings again."

In conclusion, empathy is not just a social tool; it is the key to more effective collaboration and increased connectedness and inclusivity in our society. By consciously striving for a deeper understanding of the people around us, we can transform the world into a place where the power of empathy and connection forms the foundation of our humanity.

For more information, you may find these links interesting:

Read more about The Empathy Game www.theempathygame.com

Article about Inclusive Design www.wearefundamentals.com/blog-posts/inclusive-society-design

Video from Brene Brown about the difference between empathy and sympathy www.brenebrown.com/videos/rsa-short-empathy

Text: Sira Bongers


Brown, B. (2013). RSA Short: Empathy - Brené Brown. Brené Brown. https://brenebrown.com/videos/rsa-short-empathy/
Brown, B. (2022). Atlas of the Heart Empathy Misses. Brené Brown. https://brenebrown.com/resources/atlas-of-the-heart-empathy-misses/
Van Dale. (2023). Van Dale NEDERLAND. https://www.vandale.nl/gratis-woordenboek/nederlands/betekenis/EMPATHIE
SCP. (2022, 20 december). Driekwart van de Nederlanders denkt dat polarisatie toeneemt. Nieuwsbericht | Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau. https://www.scp.nl/actueel/nieuws/2022/12/29/ergernis-over-harde-toon-en-extreme-uitingen-in-politieke-en-publieke-debat
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