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Activating Empathy with One Easy Change

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

Written by CultureCon Guest Blogger and 2020 Virtual Summit Keynote Speaker, Nina Baliga

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Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

During times of crisis, it is human nature to spark more feelings of empathy because we’re all going through something together. The question I ask many leaders today, though, is “How can we make sure that empathy is sticky after the crisis is over?”

This is particularly important for the workplace. People are looking for support and want to offer support to others. And by working to build a consciously communicative team, we can truly start to build more inclusive workplaces.

We built our trainings to help people be curious, develop empathy, and practice conscious communication, all in the hopes that together, we can build truly inclusive and diverse organizations.

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Photo by Harshal Desai on Unsplash

We explored a variety of ways to activate empathy in our teams and have tested a variety of tactics. One of the most successful ones we’ve found is called “The Traffic Light Check-In.”

What is the Traffic Light Check-In?

Our brains, which drive our emotions and behaviors, make us very complex beings. We don’t show up to work with the same ability to perform at our best every single day. This is for a variety of reasons:

  • People who are neurodivergent or have chronic pain can experience days where it’s difficult to work.

  • People may wake up to bad situations that are stressful - maybe their dog died recently, or they were up all night with a screaming baby.

  • People may be fasting for a religious event and have low blood sugar.

We all perform differently due to how our brains work and how our bodies behave, and that’s okay.

The key to successfully navigating our complexity together is simple: we have the power to be gracious and vulnerable. And we have the ability to consciously communicate information that helps people around us know how to better communicate and interact with us on any given day.

Here’s how the traffic light check-in exercise works:

At the beginning of every meeting each person says what color they are:

Green – Good to go! Ready to hit the ground running!

Yellow – I’m not at my best today, but I can still perform.

Red – I’m struggling and could use some help.

There’s no need for people to share their “why” for being a certain color. What’s important is that every person in the room understands what that color means for their teammates.

The Unintended Benefits

While it was started as an exercise to activate empathy, there were other unintended consequences that we experienced:

  1. People became more gracious - people snap at each other or make aggressive or passive aggressive comments. If a teammate who was “yellow” snapped at another teammate, that teammate, who would have typically taken a snap comment very personally, may now take a step back and gave their “yellow” teammate more leeway. Conflicts that could have escalated are de-escalated immediately by understanding the other person’s frame of mind.

  2. People help each other more - you start to understand how a color impacts a teammate’s day and their work. We found that teams would often trade tasks and make efforts to help each other through their “red” days. That way people who were “red” were still able to help the team move forward to achieve their joint goals. Even though people cannot contribute 100%, they still want to feel like they belong and this way, they can.

  3. Team became more cohesive - the understanding of just one word can lead to people caring more meaningfully about one another. This emotional connection allowed for better communication across everything, from team meetings to 1:1 conversations.

  4. People started taking it home! Some people on the team found the traffic light check-in so powerful, they started using it at home to communicate with their partners and children. Sometimes it’s hard to put words to emotions and physical states. But a simple choice of three colors can convey more than enough information you need to be a conscious communicator.

How can we all begin to feel empowered to lead our teams, support our families, and ultimately be the best and most effective people we can be through this current crisis and beyond? This powerful change can start with a very simple act of graciousness and vulnerability in the form of The Traffic Light Check-in. If we can share and scale this exercise intentionally across our organizations and our communities, we will start to see inclusive and positive change.


About the author:

Nina believes that problems can be solved for people of all backgrounds and walks of life. With 10 years of work in the tech sector under her belt, Nina has focused on user experience design, digital strategy, and business development. Nina wants to see more women and people of color in leadership positions around the country. She hopes to build a foundation for a stronger and more diverse tech community. She recently joined forces with Jobber Group and Breaking the Bias to help companies and leadership build spaces where everyone can feel seen, valued and heard.


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