How to Demonstrate Empathy and Retain Volunteers
If we demonstrate empathy to our volunteers, we are far more likely to retain them longer.
Have you ever had this experience? You tell someone about a problem you’re having, and the person jumps in with something like “Oh, I know how you feel. Once something like that happened to me and…” and off they go with their story, which may or may not have anything to do with yours. How did it make you feel?
Empathy is not sympathy. It’s not even showing that you feel, or have felt, the same as they do. It is demonstrating your concern for their feelings; not feeling sorry for them, not trying to fix things for them, not even saying that you understand – because you may not.
According to Dr. Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT in her article with the Harvard Business Review, empathy allows us to “combat the dislocation and anxiety that people feel when they face a moment of crisis alone.” Because of the isolation that Covid restrictions have placed on us, we need to demonstrate empathy in our volunteer programs more than ever.
There are four ways that we can increase how well we demonstrate empathy for our volunteers.
The first is humility – being willing to say “I don’t know how you feel.”
Accepting that you may not know leaves you open to their truth. It is a human tendency to try to “fix” people’s “problems”, even before we really understand them. Sometimes, even before we know if there is a problem! Be willing to take off your superhero cloak, and humbly listen to them.
Commitment – agreeing to take the time to understand.
Start by saying “I don’t know how you feel, but I’m here to listen and learn.” Agree to learn about their truth, even if it isn’t your truth. It takes listening without preconceived ideas or expectations around how the situation is affecting them.
Accept differences – accept that we are not all alike in how events or situations affect us.
When someone says “I’ve lost my job” or “my Mom just died” or “I’m going through a divorce” many of us feel that we can relate because we’ve gone through the same or a similar experience. Not everyone, though, has the same reactions to the same stimuli. We’re all different. By assuming that they feel the same way we felt, we don’t allow them to freely express themselves and they will go away unheard. Instead of sympathizing, simply ask “How are you doing? Do you want to talk about it?”
Finally, build community – understand that, even though we are all different, we all belong.
By being willing to listen and understand each other’s points of view, we build strong community bonds and make everyone feel welcome and heard. Instead of “I understand” (which can sound dismissive), try “tell me more” or “help me understand”. It may open your eyes to a part of the world, or an experience, that you have never encountered before.
Empathetic leadership drives innovation and engagement.
True empathy keeps us from dismissing others, or discounting their challenges or feelings. Empathy cuts across the divisions in our lives, leaving all of us feeling more connected, and mentally stronger. Volunteer teams that feel connected with each other, and with the organization as a whole, are more engaged and more likely to stick around for the long term. And, honestly, just happier!