Julie complained that while she was good at being positive and showing empathy with difficult customers, she found it more challenging to do the same with her co-worker Susan who really got on her nerves. She had seen the following definition of empathy and while believing it to be true, she couldn’t quite take the next step.

Empathy, in general, makes people who receive it feel seen,
giving them the sense that they matter;
that how they feel makes a difference to the empathiser.

In fact, Julie was continually annoyed by her co-worker Susan. She didn’t like anything about her. She certainly didn’t want to show Susan that what she was feeling mattered.

Woman looking frazzled and worried

As Julie talked, the story that she was telling herself about Susan emerged. She said Susan was lazy, distracted, unfocused and emotionally distant. Julie’s tone was judgemental and critical as she listed all the ways that Susan didn’t meet what Julie considered normal workplace standards.

I acknowledged to Julie that she was having a hard time working with Susan (I showed empathy). I then encouraged her to examine the story she was telling herself. Was Susan really lazy or might there be something else behind her behaviour? What might happen if she let go of that story for a bit and listened for a new story? She could consider that Susan might be distressed for some, as yet unknown reason. Such distress could lead to unfocused work, being distant and not working as hard as Julie herself.

Julie agreed to give it a go. She would let go of the old story she was telling herself and be open to what really was happening to Susan. 

Together we considered examples of non-judgemental statements to open the conversation:

  • You look as though you’ve got lots on your mind at the moment.
  • This work looks hard going for you.
  • You seem a bit quiet or distracted.

I encouraged her to say these things without judging Susan. Julie’s challenge was to enter Susan’s world, even though her story may be uncomfortable and even distressing to hear.

Two female friends having coffee. One looks like she is sharing a problem.
Just being there and listening can be a very powerful

Over coffee, Julie was surprised to find out what was going on in Susan’s life. Her elderly mother had contracted Covid-19 in England and there was little Susan could do to help. She was feeling caught between her young daughter and the girl’s father who was putting pressure on the girl to perform better at school and on top of all that, the divorce papers had finally come through and needed to be signed.
Sure enough, hearing these things about Susan was distressing. But Julie hung in with her and resisted the temptation to try and fix Susan with unwanted advice. She acknowledged how difficult life was for Susan, without judgement. Some of the time Julie just sat there, nodding, noticing how difficult it was to hear Susan’s story.
She reported that when Susan told her story Julie was able to say things like:

  • You’ve had a really hard time.
  • These things haven’t been easy for you.
  • You have got a lot on your plate right now.

The talk with Julie made a huge difference to Susan. For the first time in a long while, she felt seen by Julie or anyone else for that matter. She felt accepted and not judged. Gradually her mood lightened, and she was able to give more attention to her work.
Showing empathy can be difficult because it may involve you needing to deal with the distress that the other person is experiencing.
It’s easy to tell yourself a negative story and be judgemental about them so that you don’t have to feel their pain. Change your story to a more non-judgemental one and make it easier to show empathy when it’s needed.