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7 minute read

Strengthening the Empathy Muscle

Every person is experiencing some degree of stress and operating with a coping deficit. In a brief period of time, individuals have been asked to perform their typical tasks at work (if possible) while simultaneously balancing concern for their safety, health, jobs, economy, and the government and society as a whole. They may also be educating their children, helping an aging parent or living in isolation.

Companies and leaders who are seeking to lead with empathy have a competitive advantage. As with all crises, this chapter can be a time of withering OR a season of growth and opportunity. Those who choose to develop their empathy skills will reap the rewards that extend beyond this challenge when we emerge and live in a new normal.

Empathy is often referred to as the ability to understand the perspectives and emotions of others, but often when we put ourselves in the shoes of another person, we are continuing to look at it through our own lens and may become judgmental, saying “I wouldn’t have handled it that way.” In other situations, we can ignore facts and avoid issues that need to be addressed, or we can shoulder their emotions to such a degree that we experience anxiety, depression, apathy, and/or burnout.


The Empathy Tightrope

So, what do we do? How can we show other people empathy while looking at the facts and needs of the company, and make sure we don’t exhaust ourselves emotionally?

Displaying empathy is a tightrope walk of recognizing the perspective of another, facing the truth, understanding others’ emotions, and avoiding taking on their emotions to such a degree that it impacts our ability to help. To support this balance, many in leadership look to trainings around managing stress, empathy, and emotional intelligence. Leaders may choose to receive support from others in the same position and have co-leaders to assist in watching the group for signs of stress.

Monitoring your own stress is critical. If you are experiencing elevated stress, you will be less able to be empathic and/or you may personalize others’ emotions to an extent that it impacts your well-being.

For some ideas on regulating stress, see part 2 of this series.


Understanding Employee Stress

First, understand that it is normal to experience stress during periods of uncertainty and change. This response to stress can vary from individual to individual. Our bodies respond to stress by experiencing fight, flight or freeze symptoms. Human beings may experience any or all the responses at one time or another. Responses include irritability, anger, avoidance, withdrawal, neediness, sleeplessness, sleepiness, unhealthy behavior, impulsive actions, blaming, irrational behavior, spaciness, and shutting down.

Second, recognize there are varying degrees of stress levels among people. This is based on a variety of factors. Do not assume every one of your teammates are tolerating the stress well just because the majority are thriving.

Lastly, individuals are less vulnerable virtually than in a face-to-face encounter, so it may take some time to understand a person’s experience more fully in a virtual world, especially while on a call with several other people.

See series 1 for more information on how people may experience a crisis.


Empathy in Action

As you develop plans for your team, keep flexing your empathy muscle. Include several techniques for managing stress to account for individual differences and preferences. Ensure that, when you roll out or “show” empathy to a group, no one is “called out” for being the reason a certain leniency or flexibility is needed.


  1. Provide Information. Empathic communication means that you recognize the perspective and emotions that arise from that communication.
    • Communicate using both facts and emotions. During stressful periods, people’s concerns need to be met with emotions, not just facts.
    • Be as transparent and authentic as possible.
    • Provide information regarding other departments and strategies in place. Educate individuals about what others are doing to create stability.
    • As a change arises, validate feelings of frustration or anxiety and provide facts and sources of data you utilized in the decision-making process.
    • Provide resources, links and information for employees to obtain support if they are experiencing stress.


  1. Model Good Coping. Empathic leaders proactively take opportunities to assess the mood of the group and to model and share ways to manage stress.
    • Be aware of mood contagion. Our moods are contagious. Is there a thread of negativity flowing through your team?
      • Re-direct the conversation to adaptive ways managing stress, by having individuals share what is working well for them.
      • Utilize those who are coping well to reach out to others, create an activity, or lead a meeting.
    • Be vulnerable with your struggles. An example would be to say, “I’m finding myself losing motivation working from home, so I’m going to do x, y and z to help energize me.” Ask: “What do you do that works?” or “Are you having the same problem?” Your team will only go as deep as you go.
    • Take advantage of the opportunity to attend a virtual training or watch a talk on stress as a group. Provide opportunities for discussion.


  1. Manage Expectations. Assess what you can and cannot control. Ask yourself if your expectations for self, others, and society are realistic and enforceable. Releasing unenforceable expectations and rules frees us emotionally from anger and resentment.
    • For example, we cannot control which of our employees is having to educate and monitor small children AND work from home, but we can help that person access resources to help make that more manageable. We may be able to control when that individual completes work or when we meet with that individual.


  1. Schedule Extra Group Activities: Group activities are beneficial. Payoffs include breaking up the monotony, socialization, and teambuilding. It also increases resilience, empathy and understanding of others. Socialization is associated with optimism and resilience.
    • Numerous ideas for group activities exist, research virtual games and create themes, such as “hat day” or “band/concert T-Shirt Day”
    • Have a leader your team may not have FaceTime with make an appearance during a meeting to say, “thank you” or share an encouraging message.
    • Engage in “normal” activities you would schedule such as happy hours and morning coffee.
    • Attempt to reach out individually, especially if someone is managing multiple stressors. If someone reports that they are “getting by”, ask for clarification on what that means.

Now is the time for leaders to lean into empathy and to practice and cultivate this skill. Caring about the perceptions and feelings others isn’t a complex skill, but it takes a willingness to be curious and open. Those you lead didn’t choose this challenge, but we can choose how we respond, we can choose empathy.


This is Part 3 of a series adapted from “Managing Stress During times of Crisis” by Riverbend facilitator Lauren S. Hamrick, MS, EdS, LPC, RPT.

Read part 2

She provides years of mental health experience and her advice comes from using techniques and information found in cognitive behavioral therapy, DBT, Emotional Intelligence (Goleman), Play therapy, and Crisis Intervention (Textbook Frances et all). To name a few!

Author Riverbend

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