3 science-backed strategies to help you communicate with more empathy

By Rajkumari Neogy

April 09, 2021

Our meetings cover a variety of critical workplace topics: toxic work culture, how to deal with burnout and depression, team dysfunction due to bullying, lack of psychological safety, harassment, attrition, how to keep BIPOC employees, and create inclusive workspaces, and more.

But if we boiled every single conversation down to one topic, it would seem simple: empathy.

The leaders I typically work with have, in some capacity, experienced a lack of trust. Through a series of exclusionary experiences, they or their employees have been left feeling unsafe and stressed. They’ve noticed within themselves or within their managers a lack of inclusionary behavior. Instead, they are exhibiting or experiencing consistent exclusionary behavior—a reflection of a strict resistance to feeling vulnerable with anyone at any time, including themselves. Those unwilling to address their aversions to vulnerability will spiral down a path of entitlement, victimhood, neediness, and righteousness. At the most extreme levels of exclusionary behavior, it is nearly impossible to access empathy.

Over time, repeated exclusionary experiences may even register to the recipient as trauma, which leaves in its wake anger, sadness, guilt, anxiety, burnout, and depression. When your nervous system is intensely overwhelmed by a daily barrage of lies, dismissals, shrugs, and blame, you are forced into a state of hopelessness, exhaustion, and uncertainty.

Luckily, many of the leaders I work with are looking for change.

In my epigenetic coaching sessions focused on the biology of belonging, we rewire narcissistic tendencies, unlock new relational capabilities and learn to self-regulate while experiencing anxiety, uncertainty, and trauma. Here are a few of my most effective self-regulation tactics that will help you and your teams communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Practice psychological safety through personal resonance

Psychological safety is defined as people and their team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. When people feel safe expressing their ideas, their trust levels skyrocket. In Paul Zak’s article, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” he notes that “people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives [and] 40% less burnout.”

The easiest and most expeditious way to create psychological safety is to master the languages of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left acknowledges the “doing” aspect of the employee while the right honors the “being” aspect. When leaders understand the value of masterfully recognizing the employee (what they have accomplished) while appreciating their strengths (e.g. communication, cooperation, contribution, collaboration), they are now able to speak to multiple facets of the employee. Not all employees are motivated by monetary compensation, so finding that tailored balance for each individual is crucial and highly impactful.

Access your care circuit in traumatizing scenarios

Epigenetic coaching focuses primarily on the rewiring of care circuitry in order to access greater depths of empathy. Resilience is widely defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or more simply, to bounce back. But there is a very distinct difference between so-called mental toughness—a personality trait that determines in large part how individuals deal with stress, pressure, and challenge irrespective of circumstances—and authentic resilience.

Resilience comes from the care circuit, which accesses empathy and therefore secretes oxytocin. Rewiring your care circuit becomes the single most effective tool in overcoming burnout, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and a host of other psychosomatic illnesses. Like a muscle, as we exercise our care circuit, we can hold greater levels of empathy for longer periods of time. This, in turn, creates increased levels of resilience which allow us to self-regulate seamlessly in more and more challenging situations in all dimensions of our lives.

I was recently asked to coach an executive team for six weeks on the ROI of emotional intelligence. During the first training session, about two-and-a-half hours into the training, after talking extensively about how exclusion is so painful it lights up in the brain as physical injury, one of the executives raised his hand to ask a question. What initially started as an innocent question, turned very quickly into public humiliation and bullying directed toward me.

I remember the entire experience as follows: When the question began, I was excited and open to hearing the feedback and concern. As the person moved into bullying and insults, I quickly started noticing my stomach sinking and I felt nauseous. Nausea is often a psycho-somatic sensation that accompanies shame. When he began to publicly humiliate me, I noticed I started to dissociate. All of the following were happening simultaneously: I was trying to show up professionally, pay attention to the executive, hold space for the rest of the team and observe how others might be reacting—all while I am totally panicking and feeling incredible shame.

When the person finished speaking, I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you for letting me know.” I took another breath and then pulled back a bit from the camera, and asked the larger group, “Does anyone else here feel the same?”

Self-regulation during a stressful moment requires that we are fully present to the experience while the care circuit is present. My ability to say, “Thank you for letting me know,” and staying present enough with the group to ask, “Does anyone else feel the same?” is an illustration of how I effectively accessed my care circuit while experiencing trauma.

Embrace the power of diaphragmatic breathing

Richie Bostock, author of Exhale: The Science and Art of Breathwork, claims that “breathing is the body’s number one biochemical reaction.” He defines breathwork as “when you intentionally become aware of your breath and use it to improve your physical and mental health, performance and emotional well-being.”

Stress changes the way we breathe. The more stress we experience, the more shallow our breathing becomes. During overwhelming moments or moments of high anger or anxiety, our nervous system may kick into a protective state, preparing us for a fight, flight, or freeze response. A huge work-related stress factor is the simple fact that we have taken being conscious of our breathing out of our awareness.

If during moments of stress, we are able to apply diaphragmatic breathing, we can immediately gain greater resilience. This in turn gives us space and time to step into our care circuitry to get curious about the situation rather than become defensive. I encouraged my colleagues, clients, and network to embrace diaphragmatic breathing throughout election week.

As organizations worldwide normalize bullying, gaslighting employees, and allowing leaders to exhibit exclusionary behavior, they will continue creating trauma-inducing environments, casually labeled as toxic culture. As leaders, you must start asking two questions:

    Where are we permitting exclusion?

    Where are we rewarding exclusion?

If you are allowing trauma-inducing behavior at any level of your company, you are saliently advocating for and welcoming abusive culture in your workplace. And that is not okay.

Rajkumari Neogy is an epigenetic coach and executive consultant focused on the intersection of neurobiology, culture, and empathy in today’s business world.

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