In today’s workplace, there are protective regulatory and normative efforts to make sure that behaviors and relationships are appropriate and guard against infringement. We are increasingly sensitive to power relationships, violations and confidentiality, and infringement of private space. While this has enhanced the psychological safety of individuals in the workplace, there is, at times, that a certain austerity that has settled in on the workplace that is manifested by a sense of distance and a bit of paranoia. By keeping our distance, we ensure that we’re not intrusive and show our paranoid concern of not stepping beyond the formality of the workplace. This indeed is totally appropriate. The workplace is an arena for role-specified interaction where the primary relationship is defined by what we do and our competence, not by the externalities that make up the rest of our lives. What exchanges there are, whether coaching or giving feedback, are often regimented and prescribed.
But the question remains: where does that leave true friendship and empathy?
The other day, I was working with a colleague and overheard a fragment of a conversation he had on the phone discussing an argument that he had had outside of work. Do I feign that I didn’t hear it? Do I inquire? I was suddenly caught in a bit of a quagmire. What are the boundaries of my activities?
In this instance, I chose to do nothing. We were colleagues at best, but certainly not companions, and definitely not friends. Until that moment, the I had not reflected on the restricted nature of our relationship.
I was not comfortable making an inquiry, but neither was I comfortable with not making it. There is the Catch-22. Make an inquiry and be in danger of overreaching and leave it alone, and be in danger of indifference.
Well within the parameters of what is acceptable, legal, and appropriate, the workplace is a nuanced arena in which we need to know how to balance our role specific activities with genuine acts of friendship. This becomes especially an issue in the entrepreneurial setting, where often we make a mutual commitment to others not simply on the basis of an instrumental exchange but on a common emotional bond.
Within this context, what would happen if I feigned total disinterest in anything that was non-work related? Smart managers and clever entrepreneurs understand the subtle balance of these two expectations. They deal with it through what we refer to as “bracketed empathy.” That is, empathic inquiries that are non-intrusive but reflect human concern.
Here are some suggestions on how to make an empathic inquiry:
1. Make sure that the history of the relationship give you the legitimacy of making such an inquiry. That is, it is essential that that you and the other person have worked together long enough that the inquiry will not come out of left field.
2. Apologize for the inquiry. Couch the inquiry with such a statement as, “I hope I’m not being intrusive, but you seem there is something on your mind.” By bracketing the inquiry, you are offering the person the opportunity to cut off the discussion without risking offense.
3. Listen to the initial response. If the reply is formal and dismissive and not welcoming, don’t press the issue.
4. Share from your experience. Take in what you hear and engage from a human place. Share from your experience and your struggle without overburdening them with your headaches, but at the same time show that you understand where they’re coming from.
5. Show appreciation. When others share, they do so with openness and vulnerability. Welcome and celebrate that there is a core of trust in your relationship that permits this conversation to happen.
6. Bring the conversation to closure. Remember you are having a discussion in the context of the workplace and empathic sessions, no matter how well bracketed, need to be brought to a close.
The point here is simple. Empathy in the workplace is essential and cannot be dismissed or shunted aside simply because we happen to be in the workplace. In any social setting, we need to share a bit of common humanity. The workplace is layered with complexity and can be dominated by power relationships, but by bracketing the empathic discussion you give room for a conversation without violating propriety.