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3/28/2021 - Meet Empathy, a Career Power Tool

Irina Filonova explores how you can use this foundational skill to advance your career and maintain well-being during a job search.

By Irina Filonova

“Learner, Input, Achiever, Analytical, Intellection” read my table tent, proclaiming to the world my talents identified by the Gallup Clifton Strength assessment. I was proud of the outcomes because they correctly characterized me as a neuroscience researcher ready to take action.

Suddenly, a postdoc sitting next to me exclaimed, “Empathy? What is that? How come I have it?” This puzzled my analytical mind, which had been trained for years in my scientific research to value logic over emotion. The facilitator quickly described empathy as a precious talent that helped us understand other people and build strong relationships. However, I was not buying this description as a strength I could use to reach my ultimate goals.

Now, six years later, working as a career coach at an institution in Japan and logging countless hours in one-to-one meetings helping others determine career direction, I wholeheartedly agree with one of my postdoc advisee’s statements: “Empathy! I love it! I would not be here without it.” As a result of this shift, I am writing to share how we can use this foundational skill to advance our careers and maintain well-being during a job search.

First things first, let’s define empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience other people’s feelings, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. More simply, it is the ability to put yourself in another’s person shoes. Neuroscience tells us that when we empathize, a special network of brain cells called mirror neurons is activated, allowing us to “mirror” the others’ experience. For example, when I work with a postdoc who struggles to find a job amid pandemic and Brexit concerns, my mirror neurons are working hard to create an experience of frustration and anxiety mixed with hope, allowing me to understand the state of mind of my advisee. Likewise, I am full of joy and excitement when reading a message from a graduate student who landed a dream position.

To note, empathy is different from sympathy and compassion. Specifically, sympathy expresses an understanding and concern for a situation, and unlike empathy, it lacks the feeling of sharedness and closeness. Compassion, on the other hand, takes empathy to the next level by adding a desire to alleviate suffering and discomfort. With the clarified terminology, let’s explore why it is beneficial to consider empathy skills when managing careers, applying for a job or conducting interviews.

Empathy is often the top skill employers seek in a potential hire. Every year I teach career development workshops where we examine job postings to understand the position requirements. We have yet to encounter the phrase “Empaths are needed” in an advertisement; however, we frequently find reference to “team player,” “cross-cultural communicator,” “adaptable professional” or “skillful problem solver” on company wish lists. It turns out that most employers are looking for candidates who can mind read a funding agency, resolve conflict, build alliances, nurture relationships and manage or work in teams. Upon closer examination, we discover these traits to be rooted in understanding other people’s perspectives to advance projects or common goals. This is, in a nutshell, empathy in disguise.

Empathy provides keen insights during interviews. I love prepping our postdocs and graduate students for upcoming interviews. During those sessions, we practice the most frequently asked questions and develop a “tell me about yourself” elevator pitch. We also exercise our empathy by an “imagine yourself as an interviewer” role play. This activity serves two purposes: to see the hiring manager as a real person with specific needs, and to collect useful data to make the interview experience more relevant, memorable and fun.

For example, I ask a postdoc to imagine a hiring manager on the fifth Zoom call of the day at 4 p.m. on a Friday during a tough week. They are dealing with a lot of uncertainty while keeping the team afloat until the pandemic is over. Once imagined, we explore how this information could affect the interview dynamic.

In this case, we discuss how the postdoc could benefit from acknowledging the unfortunate timing and shortening the answers by getting straight to the point. Moreover, they could provide examples of handling uncertainty to ensure that joining a team in difficult times is a familiar experience. That sounds good, right? But how on earth can one guess these details during the real interview? The answer is to use deep listening, which comes when you empathize with a person on the other side of the conversation. Actively listening, observing and taking on the other person’s perspective shifts the focus from your rehearsed answers to your conversation partners' needs and wants. That leads to mutual understanding and an instant connection, making the interview experience more memorable and effective.

Self-empathy keeps us grounded during the job search. It has been a year since we learned what it means to be under constant pressure due to the pandemic and all the changes in our work and home lives. Some of us are facing uncertainty, anxiety and desperation when sending out application No. 51 to the black hole of HR portals. Experts suggest using self-compassion to treat yourself with kindness and support to handle such stressful situations and relieve suffering. But if you are like me, self-compassion might be a difficult concept to incorporate into your daily routine.

You could try a self-empathy shortcut aimed at observing your situation, collecting evidence and objectively yet open-heartedly analyzing where you are in the present moment. This gentle investigation allows you to look empathetically inward to acknowledge that you are not alone in the quest to obtain a job during these tumultuous times. Taking this perspective, you might find some comfort in reframing highly competitive and unstable job markets as shared learning experiences that bring us all together instead of splitting us apart. You might also realize that facing some type of hardship may build a character and momentum to pivot your career and examine opportunities you would have never considered before.

At this point, you might be curious if empathy is innate or can be acquired. The truth is, some of us, like the postdoc mentioned at the very beginning of this essay, are naturally good at picking up on others’ emotions and thoughts. Meanwhile, some of us, like myself, have to learn “to feel the feels.” Despite your natural abilities, I’d like to offer a few practices to get you started.

Deep listening requires listening with your ears, eyes and body not for what is said, but rather for what is unsaid. You can practice deep listening by setting up a short listening session with a friend or family member. During these sessions, ask, “How are you?” or “Tell me a story about …” Then pay attention to every word, gesture and pause. If you find yourself thinking and preparing the next questions, rather than focusing on what your conversation partner is saying, bring yourself back to the conversation and start over again.

Perspective-taking is aimed at understanding the perspective of the other person. To sharpen this skill, imagine yourself in the shoes of people who surround you -- a fellow researcher, colleague or bank teller. Ask yourself about what they might be thinking, feeling and experiencing. This exercise could be especially useful when facing a difficult conversation, because it creates an opportunity to hear the other side of the story, see yourself from a different point of view and examine your own assumptions about what happened.

Improv classes are for the bravest of us. Initially intimidating, then morphing into pure fun, in-person or online improvisation exercises create a judgment-free environment to practice empathy and connections with others through activities that teach humor and responsiveness. To build up the courage, I’d suggest incorporating some of the activities into your online social or birthday parties, combining silliness with undercover intentionality.

In my experience, developing empathy has been a slow but rewarding process. Over the last six years, developing and improving my own empathy has powered me to navigate complex environments, resolve conflicts and help many researchers to move forward with their goals. Choosing to listen and understand myself and others opened up a world full of sensations, emotions and insights. I am confident that expanding your empathetic repertoire will also bring you precious “aha” moments of support as we journey further into an unpredictable 2021.

Bio - Irina Filonova is a postdoctoral development specialist and a career coach at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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