Empathy can help make connections at work, HR specialist says


“People are really hungering for information and connection” in this age of screens, says Laura Ainsley, learning and development specialist in Human Resources, and that’s the impetus behind three new classes from the Faculty and Staff Development Program — Empathy at Work, Vibrant Virtual Meetings and Leading from Where You Are.


  • Empathy at Work: 1-3 p.m. April 27

  • Vibrant Virtual Meetings: 1-3 p.m. May 11

  • Leading from Where You Are: 1-3 p.m. May 25

Find details and registration information for all Faculty and Staff Development Programs on the Human Resources website.

While solution-focused people may clash with the empathy-oriented, Ainsley says empathy is a first step toward finding a solution to a workplace issue: “Acknowledging that the feeling exists … becomes a tool to connect you to another person,” she says. “You start with empathy … then you can go into trying to help the person with whatever situation they are dealing with.

“I think it’s obvious that I care — I forget to express it,” she says. Expressing empathy “helps people feel heard and understood. We don’t necessarily have to understand where that person is coming from to express empathy for the person.

“That acknowledgement that feelings exist,” she adds, “can be a bridge to getting to the connection — a gateway to good communications.”

Most of us seem to think that empathizing with someone is helpful only to the other person. “People don’t realize actually how valuable it is to the person expressing empathy as well,” Ainsley says. “If you meet someone where they are, that allows you to communicate more effectively.”

Empathy works at work, she explains. We may wonder: Why is our colleague emailing everyone at 10 o’clock at night? If we only believe this coworker is trying to demonstrate dedication, we may feel angry. But empathy can push aside those assumptions and offer other reasons — 10 p.m. may be the only time they had to send this email, given all that is going on in life.

The new Vibrant Virtual Meetings class focuses on thoughtful meeting planning, asking “Should this even be a meeting?” and promoting the use of the right virtual meeting tools.

The class urges participants to “connect authentically” by “bringing a degree of our whole selves to a [meeting] and inviting that level of interaction,” Ainsley says. “People want to deal with real people. In a virtual setting, that can be a bit stunted.”

The class also instructs meeting hosts and presenters on ways to capture attention, including asking participants for, well, participation. This can be inspired by providing short, assigned reading materials before the gathering or devising a brief list of pre-meeting questions to ponder.

“People benefit from participating,” Ainsley says. “It also cuts down on Zoom fatigue.” Some meetings may even require a “parking lot” — a spot to write down all the meeting topics that couldn’t be reached during the designated hour.

Meaningful meeting conversations don’t always mean tackling sensitive topics, she says. In fact, getting people to open up remotely may require even more of the casual and less consequential engagement than the normal “Hello” and “How are you?”

Ainsley understands that not everyone may be ready for the easiest connection — an active video presence — during a meeting. “Maybe you can introduce a thought in the chat that people can build on,” she offers as an alternative. “We want people to feel comfortable. We don’t want people to be put on the spot.”

In the Leading from Where You Are class, Ainsley teaches that we’re all leaders, no matter what our spot in the organization, and that we even need to lead ourselves.

“We all think that a leader is somebody else, not us,” she says. “But we are a leader to someone (in our work team) all the time. It’s important for us to acknowledge that we can contribute.

We can practice self-leadership — providing support for ourselves as we do for others “so we can become the person we want to be — just as we’d lead a team,” she says.

It’s even possible to “lead from the middle,” she says, by interpreting the directions received from above and demonstrating their goals and values to others. “They become tactile for people and engaging, and so people can connect with the ideas in their own work lives,” she explains.

“Bloom where you’re planted, they say,” Ainsley concludes. “In small ways, sharing leadership wherever you are leads to leadership down the road.

“There’s a lot of change that we’ve been dealing with this year. So it’s really valuable to remember what keeps us going as leaders and how we can support one another, and how we can lead in any way we can.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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