Empathy by Zoom

Managers and colleagues looking to reach out to workers over this week’s rising protests may struggle with “virtual empathy.”

It seemed like the most appropriate thing to do. Recognizing that his African American colleagues may be upset over recent events, the manager wanted to check in to see how they are coping. But then he paused. The most obvious option to reach out in these times—a video call—could turn out awkward.

Scenes like this are playing out across the country as companies and their managers try to reckon with their own lack of diversity and inclusion. Amid all the racial tensions of the day, many D&I experts are encouraging leaders and colleagues to hold conversations about systemic inequities. But as hard as such talks are face-to-face, they become a whole new challenge when done remotely. Experts worry: Does empathy get lost across the digital divide?

“In person, we use all of our senses, but when we’re on video, we only rely on sight and hearing to really understand what’s going on,” says Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of the Korn Ferry Institute. And without those other senses in play, Laouchez says, colleagues may not be able to connect as deeply as they would if they were in the same room. This can hamstring particularly tough conversations, such as ones around diversity and inclusion. “You can’t use touch for comfort when someone becomes emotional,” he says.

Indeed, research shows that when it comes to communication, touch is one powerful sense. One university experiment, for example, discovered that shaking hands led to more open and honest conversations—and thus, better outcomes. This is because, as science shows, touch increases the release of oxytocin, aka the cuddle hormone, which, in turn, builds trust among people.

But these discussions around racism and diversity are happening during a global pandemic that has all but ruled out physical contact, leading companies to rely heavily on email, phone calls, and video chats to maintain some semblance of connection. Yet, experts note, a lot of those behaviors that foster bonding in person—mutual gaze, interpreting body language, mirroring emotions—become lost during virtual conversations. And even visual contact is affected: in one recent study of 173 participants, researchers found that, during virtual calls, people spend less time fixated on a speaker’s mouth, which is considered optimal for encoding speech, and more of their whole face when they think the person is looking at them. “All of this leads to awkward interactions,” says Leigh Thompson, a professor at Kellogg School of Management and the author of Negotiating the Sweet Spot: The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table. “The whole cadence and rhythm of conversations are thrown off.”

But experts say the rhythm doesn’t have to be so off-kilter. Some suggest a more intentional and thoughtful approach to interacting, such as making sure the tone of voice, pace, and choice of words convey as much emotion and understanding as possible. Another step: paying attention to pronouns. “People use ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ and center themselves,” Thompson says. “Change these pronouns to ‘we,’ ‘us,’ ‘our,’ and that’s an automatic empathy builder.”

Still, it’s important to recognize that these conversations are also occurring while protests across the country continue to rage, sparked by the recent deaths of unarmed black civilians—most notably George Floyd, who died last week on a Minneapolis street. In many ways, experts say, discussions around racism and diversity right now are suffering from a double whammy of discomfiture and difficulty. “People are stuck at home, stressed, on top of coping with social unrest,” says Andrés Tapia, global diversity and inclusion strategist and thought leader at Korn Ferry.

For his part, Tapia says one way leaders can show empathy toward their black American colleagues is by centering on their peers’ needs rather than their own intentions. In other words, reach out to black colleagues first through email and ask how they would like to communicate, whether it’s by phone, using video conferencing, or through instant messaging. This will allow leaders to tailor their outreach to those around them. “Zoom is a great tool, but it has to be used situationally—and appropriately,” Tapia says. If their colleagues are not in a place where they want to talk to anyone, then back off, he adds. “We’re in that moment where we have to listen to people’s feelings.”

Listening is critical to conveying empathy. In fact, research shows that the most empathetic leaders are those who are able to sense others’ emotions and who listen attentively to understand their perspectives. And, experts say, given the limitations of virtual conversations, it is even more crucial for business leaders to practice active listening when talking with their black American colleagues, whether through one-on-one meetings or during big town halls. This means not only acknowledging and understanding their feelings, but also allowing black colleagues to take their time opening up or engaging in dialogue. “There are a lot of emotions right now, and dealing with these emotions requires a little bit of time,” Laouchez says. “Emotions need to be processed.”