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Ethan Ohs

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Soft skills: Learning empathy from the voluntary sector


Ethan Ohs looks at the emerging field of empathy training in the workplace.

As a leadership development trainer with over 15 years’ experience working for exceptional public, private and voluntary sector organisations, it can feel a little frustrating when private sector corporate responsibility programmes focus entirely on what they can offer the voluntary sector, expecting only a 'feelgood' factor or some team-building points in return.

Make no mistake, corporate volunteering hours, skills-sharing, pro bono expertise and of course funding, are integral to running a successful and engaged charity. We appreciate this investment and we value these relationships. But the assumption from some that there is no scope for the voluntary sector to reciprocate with skills and learning that are relevant and applicable in the corporate world does our sector a disservice.

So what can the voluntary sector offer our corporate colleagues? I will save the conversation about the ability to thrive on economy, innovation and outside the box thinking developed from limited resources and tight budgets. Instead I would like to focus on where the 'feelgood' and 'do good' factor comes from and how it can be packaged and taught in a way that benefits employee wellbeing, retention and output. The reason people feel good is about more than a sense of accomplishment, it is about the connections they are making and it is about the opportunity to feel and practice empathy.

Empathy is more than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is about understanding someone’s emotional state and responding appropriately. When we are able to do these two things we connect with others. This connection is valuable and positive for both parties involved.

"It might not seem so on the surface, but companies of all sizes need to teach their people how to actively practice empathy in the workplace."

Think about a really bad day at work. You come home and start to speak to your partner about what happened, and then what do they do? For many years this was the point where my partner and I would get into a fight. Immediately my partner would give advice, suggest I was in the wrong, be angry on my behalf, or offer a solution. I would be tired and irritable so those were the last things I wanted to hear. What I needed was someone to listen and sit with me and recognise what my feelings were – an empathetic ear. That would allow my own resilience to kick in and I would be able to enjoy the rest of my day.

That is just one instance of applying empathy, but it is one that many of us can relate to. The power of empathy is that we can use it to think outside of space and time. It is why the Fair Trade Movement started and it is behind countless other environmental and human-rights movements. These movements ask us to have empathy with people in other countries and who may not have even been born yet.

Successful businesses can’t exist and thrive without their people and the power of the relationships that they form. Seen from the other angle, failure to connect with colleagues and clients is responsible for many of the challenges that businesses face. Think about all of the misunderstandings, disagreements and missed opportunities because people simply didn’t 'click'. How often are short-sighted decisions made because people don’t bother to consider the impact of their work on current and future colleagues, even generations? Human resources and the connections between them are the most valuable resources of all. An apathetic, indifferent team is never going to generate the energy and enthusiasm needed to grow, or even adequately maintain a business.

With soft skills becoming increasingly valued and desirable attributes in corporate workforces, it is time to add empathy to that list and to think about training in this area. It might not seem so on the surface, but companies of all sizes need to teach their people how to actively practice empathy in the workplace. Not for a moment am I suggesting that managers in the private sector need to get together to talk about their feelings or that the entire workforce is devoid of empathetic feeling but I believe that because we aren’t encouraged to bring this skill to work, we don’t.

Empathy takes work. But anyone who manages others, anyone who sells, pitches or markets ideas and products or interacts with clients or the public (so most of the workforce) will be more successful if they are trained in applying empathy at work. Empathy improves client relationships, creates highly functional team environments and provides the basis for thoughtful, long-term decision making. Empathy is crucial to identifying and understanding the needs of others and encourages imagination and creativity. What’s more, empathy is a naturally-occurring commodity. All of us have the capacity to practice empathy, we just need to hone it so it benefits us professionally. Empathy is in all our natures, it just needs a little nurture.

Ethan Ohs is business development manager at Body & Soul , the leading UK charity supporting children, young people and families affected by HIV. Body & Soul’s social enterprise Brave capitalises on the charity’s 18 years’ working with vulnerable people and the wider community, delivering training to corporate, voluntary, health and social care sector professionals around empathy, emotional intelligence and compassionate care.


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