Kind Words at Work

16 Ways to Communicate with Empathy at Work

By May Habib, co-founder and CEO of Writer, an AI writing assistant for teams

The pandemic turned work-life on its head. We’re caught in the tumbling load of a never-ending workday, pinballing between Zoom and Slack, duking it out with the family for WiFi, dishes piling up around us in our office…er…kitchen, and just trying to hold it together while we just. take. a. minute. to. remember. what. day. it. is.

It’s a high-stress moment. That stress shows up at work, especially in how we talk to each other. Indeed, more than one-third of us has been on the receiving end of toxic workplace communication since the lockdown started, with almost 20 percent experiencing hostility related to how we’re balancing work and life at the moment.

If there were ever a time for us to pull together and be more empathetic, it’s now. Here’s your checklist for how you can get started in your next email, chat message, or video conversation.

Be clear

The most empathetic thing you can do for your colleagues is to communicate clearly. Be short, sweet, and very clear. Really knock it out of the park with a “TL;DR” (a quick summary) at the beginning of every message. Your co-workers will want to hug you (in a socially-distanced way, of course).

Get visual

Get visual in your communication. Write with headers, bullets, and tables, or speak in 1-2-3 frameworks. Just like the “you are here” indicators on trail maps, these markers will make your message easier for colleagues to understand.

Lighten up, Francis

Co-worker not delivering? Don’t read them the riot act just yet. For all you know, they may have pulled a work all-nighter so they can supervise a child’s Zoom school in the morning. Acknowledge the craziness of the moment and adjust your expectations. Your patience will pay off.

Respect “off hours”

Hold back on sending emails and chats at night and on weekends, especially if you’re in a senior position. It wigs people out. If you can’t help yourself, start with, “Don’t respond until tomorrow.” And I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t schedule meetings that go past 5pm.

Check in

Show empathy by checking in with colleagues. Whether you’re doing so to assure them the work you promised is on the way, make sure they are feeling OK after a heated debate, or ask if they’re back on track following a set-back, checking in shows you care.

Tell a joke

Defuse tension with humor. Be careful with sarcasm or jokes that don’t translate if you’re part of a global team. Safe (and funny!) topics are terrible puns, movie lines, animal memes, Dad (or Mom!) jokes, and self-deprecation. Nothing brings a team together like an epic Slack thread of escalating puns.

Write inclusively

Write inclusively and check your messages for bias against race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and more. Even a “years of experience” requirement in your job description can turn off otherwise great female candidates or candidates of color. Check out our diversity and inclusion glossary.

Mind your words

Be mindful of the words you say and write. Healthy communication is empathetic communication. Avoid passive-aggressive, disrespectful, or unkind statements. And when you do confront a colleague, use an “I” statement (and, no, “I feel like you’re a big jerk” doesn’t count!).

Absorb the shock

When nastiness comes your way, don’t pass it to the next guy. Meditate, do yoga, go for a run, or call a friend if you have to, but absorb the shock so it stops with you. And make sure your messages are positive and full of good karma.

Assume the best

When you’re not face-to-face, it’s easy to misinterpret someone’s tone and even feel attacked. Resist the urge to clap back, and instead assume the person has the best intentions. Respond from the standpoint that you both want the same things and are working toward a common goal.

Pick up the damn phone

If you’re unsure about someone’s written tone, pick up the phone and ask what’s going on. Listen and ask questions. Try to put yourself in their shoes, even if they’re being critical of you. When you’re “live” (either face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice), it’s hard to stay angry.

Figure out the “meta”

When someone questions or challenges you, figure out the “meta”, or what’s behind their resistance. Simply saying, “I hear you that [summary of what they said]. Is your concern that [possible meta-issue]?” can disarm them and get them to share what’s really on their mind.

Say why

Don’t underestimate the importance of saying why. When sharing an idea, asking for help with a project, or answering a question, give the “why” behind it. For example, if you’re recommending the company pursue a new market, hearken to the broader company goal that course of action will achieve.

Give credit

Show empathy by really seeing the work your colleagues do. Use your voice to elevate their contributions. There is a strong tie between gratitude and happiness, so you will not only give them the kudos they deserve, but you’ll make yourself more joyful in the process – a win-win! 🙂

Be vulnerable

Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable in the service of building empathy. Exposing your own weakness helps to build trust, making others more open to your message and willing to share their own thoughts.

Codify empathy

Don’t just be one-off empathetic. Work with your colleagues to codify it in your company culture. Get on the same page about voice, tone, and behavior norms. Then, make them stick by codifying them in your employee guidelines and brand style guide.