The Power of Empathy at the Workplace

You’ve been working in a team of five people for over two years. Fortunately, the team dynamics are smooth as members seem to click with each other. Recently, a sixth member has joined the team, and for some reason, the team is not functioning as cohesively. For one, Rishi, the latest entrant, is a fairly dominant voice in the group. Worse, the old team seems to be splitting into factions, with two members siding with Rishi more often than not. While the other two members don’t explicitly challenge Rishi, they don’t seem to be pleased by the goings-on. Due to these developments, the team’s productivity is also slacking. Being the team leader, what can you do to get the team rolling again? 

The obvious thing would be to have a conversation with Rishi. But telling him that he’s overbearing may backfire. In all likelihood, Rishi, who doesn’t mince words, is likely to get defensive. Further, you don’t want to stifle Rishi as he does contribute original and valuable ideas. Rishi also has the backing of two other members and this conversation may only deepen the schism in the group. 

According to famed psychiatrist and author, Mark Goulston, the first step in changing the dynamics of any relationship is to make the other person “feel felt.” Empathy or the ability to view a situation from another person’s perspective is an invaluable life skill that can be deployed in the workplace to goo defect. In his bestselling book, Just Listen, Goulston explains that the need to feel understood is a fundamental human need. Further, when people “feel seen, understood, and felt,” they are more likely to consider your point of view.  

So, instead of confronting Rishi with his domineering attitude, start off the conversation by asking him how he feels during group meetings. Much to your surprise, you discover that Rishi feels insecure as the newest entrant. Anxious that the other members already have a connect with each other, Rishi doesn’t want to be sidelined during meetings. 

The moment you say, “I understand that it must be quite unnerving to be the newbie on the team,” you see his body language relax. Further, when you ask him what you and the other team members can do to make him feel more comfortable, Rishi, for the first time you’ve observed, is at a loss for words. 

But what if the conversation doesn’t go this way? Instead, when you broach the topic with Rishi by asking him how he feels about the meetings, he boasts, “I think the meetings are great. Everyone has a chance to speak and the best ideas win the day,” obviously referring to his contributions. 

Again, it’s better to let Rishi know that he has been heard. So, you may mirror back what he has just stated. “I’m glad you think the meetings are going well and that great ideas are being put forth.”  

Then, you may follow up with a question, “Do you think all team members feel this way?” 

Again, Rishi is likely to quote his two allies in the group. At this point, you may ask, “What about the other two members?” referring to the two who feel ignored. 

“I don’t know. They don’t contribute much,” Rishi may say. “I guess you should talk to them.” 

“I will. In the meantime, what can we do to optimize the team dynamics? Do you have any suggestions?” 

By throwing the ball back to Rishi, you are trying to get him to generate possible solutions. Also, by not directly confronting him, you get him to problem-solve along with you. You end the conversation by asking for his support. “Perhaps, you can help me draw them into the discussions. Can you do that at the next meeting?” 

If you continue to mirror Rishi’s responses, even when they run counter to your views, at some point, he’s likely to reciprocate by mirroring you. Based on his clinical work, Goulston finds that people “constantly mirror the world.” And, when we “mirror the world, it creates a little reciprocal hunger to be mirrored back.” And, when that doesn’t happen, it creates a “mirror neuron gap.” And, this is what causes people to feel misunderstood, overwhelmed and alienated.  

And, if people have felt unheard or misunderstood for extended periods of time, then it may take a while to thaw the ice. But even with “difficult people” if we persist in trying to see the world through their lens, however distorted that might be, with time, their defensiveness and resistance are likely to cave in. 

Making every team member “feel felt” may be the magic potion that leads to a cohesive and effective team. 

About the Author

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is a psychologist & writer. She is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at

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