Developing a Culture of Active Empathy.

To support victims of Workplace Violence.

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“Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work.” – Daniel Goleman

Image by Lukas Bieri

As human beings, we often demonstrate the ability to be empathetic. Because we understand we are all connected and live in an interconnected world. Unfortunately, thousands of people who experience violence while at work simultaneously endure a lack of empathy. This lack of empathy can add further layers of trauma to individual experiences contributing to additional conflicts that affect an individual’s ability to enhance workplace productivity and build healthy working relationships.

Violence in the workplace can also intersect with family and economic violence, mental and physical health, and well-being while compounding an individual’s existing social realities.

The World Health Organization defines violence as “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

Workplace violence (WPV) is a complex issue that is manifested in a variety of ways and enabled by such things as unequal power relations, unhealthy dominant norms, power and privilege, and structural violence. It negatively affects millions of people every year impacting lives and livelihoods. There is no single surefire solution to preventing and working to eradicate workplace violence. What we can do is implement transformative change approaches in our workplaces as part of our adequate organizational response.

“Every year, nearly two million American workers report being victimized by workplace violence, and many more incidents go unreported. Overall, workplace violence costs employers more than $120 billion a year…” – Neckerman Insurance Services.

Developing transformative change approaches include building a culture of active empathy which can go a long way in reducing the cost and impact of workplace violence. It is said, “Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.” Can we truly feel what another person feels? While we may not be able to feel an individual’s literal pain or experience the original trauma, we do have an emotional response when we see emotions expressed. This emotional response enables us to manifest emotional empathy to provide adequate support. Expressing empathy is not only understanding another person’s feelings; it is also acting on that knowledge.

Some points to consider when working to address workplace violence and cultivating active empathy.

  1. Acknowledge that workplace violence exists. What is hidden cannot be acknowledged. What is not acknowledged cannot be rectified, and what is not rectified remains the same.
  2. Support victims! By establishing a coordinated victim response and hold perpetrators to account.
  3. Develop relevant workplace policies and procedures.
  4. Cultivate compassionate listening, conflict transformation, and peacebuilding as part of the organizational response.
  5. Introduce workplace training using transformative change approaches.

Cultivating a sustainable culture of active empathy is critical for any organization seeking to prevent and ultimately eradicate workplace violence using transformative change processes and understanding the three forms of empathy is key to this process.

  1. “Cognitive Empathy” – is the ability to know how the affected person feels and what they are thinking. However, cognitive empathy on its own can cause one to become detached, cold, and show indifference rather than caring as the person tries to understand another person’s situation without internalizing his or her own emotions.
  2. “Emotional Empathy” – is the ability to physically feel what others feel. When we see emotions expressed, mirror neurons are fired off in our brain, which creates an echo of that state inside our minds. Emotional empathy alone can lead to the inability to manage our own emotions, cause psychological exhaustion and many times paralyze us so that we are unable to act.
  3. “Compassionate Empathy” – is the ability not only to understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but to move into action and help, which will bring some sort of relief, comfort, or confidence that things will get better. Compassion empathy alone can lead to persons feeling guilty or looking negatively upon themselves if they are unable to assist the person in the predicament.

Workplace violence is everyone’s problem. While men and boys experience workplace violence research shows that women and girls are at a higher risk of being victims. Cultivating active empathy alone will not solve the problem we also need to examine and address the cultural assumptions which guide our attitudes and behavior. Workplaces are an extension of selves, how we behave in our families and communities, and how we think about ourselves will manifest in different ways within our places of work. “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” ― C.G. Jung

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