You don’t need to be convinced that empathy is a good thing–not just for ethical reasons but for practical ones, too. While we’re still often cautioned to “leave emotions out of it,” being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is a hallmark of emotionally intelligent leadership, not to mention just being a good coworker. It can open up new lines of communication, create understanding, and help everyone achieve common goals.
Of course, none of that means it’s easy. There are always going to be times when empathy is uniquely difficult to summon and sustain. When the going gets tough, your patience wears thin, and you can feel your frustration rising, it’s enormously difficult to take a deep breath and continue to listen with an open mind. Still, these four empathetic questions I’ve learned to ask in difficult situations have helped me keep my cool and get to the bottom of whatever the trouble might be.
1. “HOW IS THIS SITUATION AFFECTING YOU?”
No matter how they answer, thank them for sharing their thoughts and let them know you’re going to take their point of view seriously. And as you listen to your direct report or colleague’s answer, take note of their body language, too. Then encourage the other person to share more specifics about the context or circumstances of their frustration or concern: “You seem upset about this. Could you tell me what initially happened that led to you feeling that way?” Then listen attentively to their feedback so you can try to piece together a causal timeline of events from their own point of view.
2. “HOW IS THIS KEEPING YOU FROM SUCCEEDING?”
When employees, coworkers, or business partners know they can open up to you about their challenges, it’s easer to resolve those conflicts early and avoid losing your patience over a much bigger blow-up later. You’ll also help build an open work environment that maximizes everyone’s talents, rather than one suffused by complaints and paranoia. So if you’re feeling irritated by a coworker during a tough predicament, ask what roadblocks are standing in their way. When people feel valued for their contributions, they’ll also feel more comfortable explaining–without blame or anger–what’s preventing from them contributing.
3. WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD BE THE IDEAL OUTCOME?
Even when an entire team or organization is working toward common ends, individuals still tend to nurture their own goals and aspirations–and that’s usually fine! One manager might have her eye on a more advanced leadership position, for example, while a top salesperson may be trying to work his way toward managing a huge account. When tensions run high, reconnecting with individuals’ separate goals can help you tap back into the empathy needed to keep everyone pulling together. Asking your colleagues how and why they would each prefer a certain outcome from the predicament you’re all in is a great way to do that.
4. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THE LAST BIG HURDLE YOU CLEARED?
Job interviewers love to ask this question, and for good reason–it helps them understand at least one obstacle that has stood in the candidate’s way, and how or she worked through it. You can adapt that same question to navigate stressful workplace scenarios, too. It’s a great way to keep your own emotions in check while asking somebody to reconnect with their own problem-solving skills.
Rather than wallowing in the hazards of the present situation, you can make room for your coworker or team member to vent a bit–creating an outlet for their anxiety at the same time that you help them recall a template for solving the problem at hand. Here, too, tune into both their verbal and nonverbal cues so you can get a feel for how they’ve managed adversity in the past–this way you can coax them into re-adopting the best of those habits and leaving aside the not-so-productive ones.
Empathetic listeners are quiet and patient–particularly when that’s hardest–and they avoid jumping in to fill gaps in the conversation or impose their own assumptions. It takes real effort not to let your own negative feelings overwhelm you in the process, but sometimes the best strategy is the simplest one: Just ask a question.