The next time you are preparing for a workplace investigation or a difficult conversation, remember that human emotions are universal.

Human Resources professionals are typically brought into the conversation when feelings are at their most intense.  If a team member is accused of sexual harassment, all parties have emotional responses whether the accusation proves to be true or false.  Coworkers may have shared details about their salaries and heated arguments have erupted as to the merits of job functions and individual worthiness.  Conversations must be had because several workers are reporting one employee is lazy and bringing the rest of them down.

When people involved in those examples of workplace conflict have a chance to speak up, there can be heightened emotional energy.  Someone has to enter the conversation and influence how further actions will be handled. We have the responsibility to de-escalate the conflict as a human resource professionals, investigators and direct managers.

If your approach is that of an Empathic Workplace, you bring your authentic stories to the conversation. In a heightened state of mind individuals rarely feel like they are being heard. The fact that an argument gets louder and louder is the only evidence of this required to prove the point.

People don’t start shouting because the other person can’t hear them. They shout because the other person doesn’t hear them.

Many people have had the experience of feeling as though they are saying what we mean, but not being understood. Sometimes that is because the other party is too busy reporting their own position, and also not feeling understood.  There is no empathy at that moment, no trust. As a result, both parties can get equally frustrated and proceed to match each other’s escalating volume.

The ideal way to react in these cases as an Empathic Investigator or manager is to repeat back what you hear. You can start by using the exact same words as the person with whom you wish to build trust. Repeat them back as if the other party is looking in a mirror. No judgement. No analysis. Just say it plainly.  By doing this we let the person know we have heard them, and by repeating it ourselves, we can begin the process of empathy.

If we need to demonstrate understanding, we tell a story about a similar event in our own life.  We tell a true story from our personal experience. We reveal a situation where we felt a similar emotion to the one we are hearing in the rant of the individual in front of us.

The story does not need to be identical to the one we heard, and rarely is. If you are having a conversation with a team member who has been accused of stealing from the cash register, this is presumably not a tale you can respond to by saying you once stole from the cash register as well. Instead, if you have felt stressed about money and led to arguments with loved ones, or impulsive decisions, we share that story.  This demonstrates understanding emotions, and can will move the conversation or investigation forward because a path toward trust is being paved.

When we can recall the times you experienced those same heightened emotions and tell our story, we are connecting authentically in the workplace. The emotional reflection can serve to calm the parties involved. The earnest expression that we have an understanding, at any level, of how they are feeling is critical. We calm when we feel understood.

The emotional complexity of sharing our story is enough to trigger an empathic bond.


Empathic Workplace offers an applied improv approach to team building, communication, creativity and learning emotional intelligence for executives, managers and employees.

A few example modules include:

  • Magic Words: Communication and “Yes, And”
  • On the Spot: Public Speaking and Performance Anxiety/Stage Fright
  • Heal Thyself: Humor and Self Care
  • Let Go: Stress Reduction Through Improv
  • Us is More: Group Mind and Team-Building
  • Feelin’ It: Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
  • and many more . . .