By Karla Boyd, Ph.D. and Andrea Chilcote
The extraordinary events of the past months have brought most of us face-to-face with new fears and anxieties, and they are playing out in the workplace. In last month’s article, the authors, Karla and Andrea, concluded that organizations are recognizing the very real need for support for leaders and employees at all levels.
This environment cries out for leaders to practice unbiased, empathic listening. There is, as well, a clear demand for professional support through executive coaching and personal counseling, and leaders who are capable of making the distinction.
The authors are again collaborating to share their years of coaching experience and reflection, to invite leaders into a deeper resonance and response to this demand. Both share their present thoughts and musings, offering wisdom, insight, and experience. Karla is also sharing the final results of a survey and interviews that she conducted with leaders and professional counselors.
Don’t Wait Too Long
I sit quietly in the living room for a unique visit. It is sheltering in place time. We four wear masks. This is my niece’s first visit after 33 years. Three generations are represented. We do what is seldom done on such occasions of connecting in, after ever so long. We discuss the elephants in the room…big, looming elephants.
To give a context, we represent four generations of traumas that have occurred in our various family and places of work systems. Because we are family, those elephants get a loving acknowledgement when need be. We linger long enough to go into a deeper connection of kindness with one another…a deeper listening for moments of possibility and healing. Likely because of one or more of those traumas, my great-nephew, for his mom’s birthday, sent her a ticket to fly here…yes, fly across America…even now, during the pandemic. I heard from this great-nephew earlier this year in a text: “I miss my family. I wish I could come visit. As soon as we are safe, can we?” Because I know his history, albeit secondhand, I realize that his lament is genuine. Even with his text, my heart skipped a beat. Because my niece, above all else, is a dedicated mom, she received her son’s gift with a thankful heart.
It is the first time, in the open air, that one of these deepest family traumas is spoken among us four. That alone is fresh air. We breathe in more deeply—yes, even with our masks on. Do I feel sad to sit in a room with such tender and difficult communications as clear pain is being shared—with our masks on? I do. It is not easy. These conversations and revisiting of traumas are not easy, especially for the person reconnecting with them. The pain is visceral and palpable around the room. I am a person who easily leaps up and hugs in family contexts, but I pull back with the edicts of sheltering in place. Sigh. At one point, my niece does get up from the sofa and goes over to sit with her son and his girlfriend. We are communicating deeply. We are also being careful to follow protocols and to be intelligent about safety precautions. We are clumsy and we are finding our new way.
In our family today, we speak openly of four generations of trauma. My nephew’s girlfriend (can we soon please say fiancée?), also invited in, shares of her own deeply traumatic events and history. Her traumas are also multi-faceted and alarming. Now more generations of a complex family are called into this encounter around the room. I invoke one more generation, my grandparents, to give us all a stable foundation upon which to rest…in having these fierce dialogues.
How these two young people found one another is pure grace. I ask them how it is that they, in the face of these traumas, are able continually to have such love between them. They both attest to learning to listen to one another more deeply; and to “own” when they are triggered. Sometimes, my nephew says, if he gets triggered because he is not understanding the different perspective his girlfriend is sharing in a discussion, he lets her know he needs a bit of time away to sort out his reaction and then will return. She nods in agreement and says she does the same. She often needs to take alone time to sort out older wounds before the conversation can continue.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me has been the impact of EI [Emotional Intelligence; EQ in present time] in the world of business, particularly in the areas of leadership and employee development (a form of adult education). The Harvard Business Review has hailed emotional intelligence as “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea,” one of the most influential business ideas of the decade.
—Daniel Goleman, “Emotional Intelligence”
Andrea illustratively points out in our first article, “Calling in Support for the New Future: What Leaders Need Now,” that EQ has been active in organizations and leadership; yet it has a long way to go in being fully implemented. “Despite the publication of Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking work, Emotional Intelligence, in 1995 (that was 25 years ago), we still are not comfortable with emotion in the workplace.” In our workplace, how often do we really give over to the need for these difficult and courageous conversations, granting each other the time and space to go off when old triggers are emergent? How often are organizational cultures designed around generating the open, non-judgmental dialogues—without consequences—that allow for transformational leadership change that impact the triple bottom line? Many say we are a long way from there. But in reality, we have real traumas that impact our entire nation; all people and all organizations need to face that reality, then learn how to have those difficult conversations that will create harmony, safety, and wellbeing in the workplace. We can longer seek a new normal. We human beings are a verb. We are always evolving in a process to become more of who we are. Our organizations need to be a verb, too. We need to move toward an authentic higher ground, not in denial but in transformation, when we embark on having courageous conversations for real possibilities…impacting a viable future.
Some things are much more difficult than others. Many business groups and family members operate with an unspoken rule book, including a list of undiscussables, topics that are [deemed] too risky to bring up. Some topics on the undiscussables list are in the form of quid pro quo agreements. Sometimes we avoid saying what needs to be said because we’re sure there will be consequences. “I take the high road” is often an excuse for not tackling the issue. It is far better to take the direct road.
Granted, revealing painful truths—our own or others’—is rough. Understandably, many of us fear confrontation because it hasn’t gone well in the past. All attempts to date have failed miserably. We don’t know how to make it better this time, and the stakes are fairly high. We sense that there a monster might be lurking in the bushes and today is not the day we are prepared to take him on. Or this is not the hill on which we are prepared to die.
—Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations
Let’s Start Where We Are
Today a client—I’ll call him Gordon—asked me if I was sensing more fear and anxiety “out there” than at the beginning of these crises. His question stopped me in my tracks. “Well…maybe so,” I thought, and then replied: “Yes, I think you’re right.” His question stopped me because I hadn’t fully noticed. I had begun moving too fast, perhaps not listening deeply enough.
Gordon followed up by sharing several close-to-home stories, including one about a family who had just lost two healthy, adult parents to Covid, leaving their only son, a teenager, behind. The story anchored me in reality. We all know someone who is suffering and, as a result, we are suffering ourselves.
In the early weeks of the crises, we took time to check in with people before jumping into the meeting agenda. I’ve noticed a movement away from that, even though things are far from normal. Are we so tired of being in a state of limbo that we’re pretending to get back to business as usual? Or, have the pressures, stressors and anxieties increased to the point that we don’t know what to do with our own and others’ feelings?
Shortly after my conversation with Gordon, I spoke with Karla, my co-author for this article. She, too, said something that gave me pause: “What’s happening now is traumatizing for anyone who feels.” I understood. It doesn’t matter if loss of health, life, financial stability—or respect—has hit me or a loved one personally. People with the ability to empathize feel the pain others are experiencing. And for many, it has become overwhelming. How is it that some seem to be managing well, even moving through most days with immense gratitude, while others seem to be at a point of breakdown?
Researcher Kandi Wiens’s work correlates components of emotional intelligence with the ability to avoid burnout, despite high levels of stress. In one study, she found that of those describing their stress levels as “severe, very severe or worst possible,” the majority of these individuals with high EQ were not experiencing burnout, a condition characterized by emotional exhaustion, a cynical attitude and dissatisfaction in one’s own performance. Her work posits that people who are aware of their emotions and the source of them, and can recognize and empathize with, yet distinguish others’ pain from their own, are more able to manage stress. Wow. How do we help those around us grow this capacity? As an executive coach, I feel compelled to help people build this capability, especially now.
We have written before about the importance of the ability to slow down, become present with another, and deeply listen. Now more than ever, the need is for listening without bias and without a compulsion to fix or advise. Genuine, empathic concern is a key ingredient. And, for the listener—the leader in our context—it is a complex process that is dependent upon self-awareness and our ability to distinguish our experiences from others’.
Empathy, Communication, Listening, and Yes, Therapy too.
“Genuine, empathic concern is a key ingredient.” How Important that is, Andrea!
I took a deep breath, hoping that I had an empathic ear for my family. A new moment emerged after we had a lovely lunch on this recent visit. Safer, deeper experiences could be risked in sharing. But, oh my, deep waters were called in. I knew the stakes were high; you know, there could be a monster lurking. That could be true. I asked deeper questions that were welcomed. And a few that were not. The ice was thin. Maybe it was not the best moment to skate out to the middle of things? Maybe I was not being that empathetic? Family dynamics are messy kinds of things. Be that as it may, the question of receiving support and therapy had already been identified in our earlier dialogue with us all sitting in my living room. After a gentle inquiry into exploring whether this painful encounter had been openly acknowledged with a request to work it through, there was a pause in our dialogue. The response came with a sadness to it: “I have tried before to have this conversation. More than once. It didn’t work.”
“Directly?” came the solemn question from another family member.
There was squirming in the seat. Someone cleared a voice. Gingerly, I made a statement and then repeated my question during this now-deepening dialogue: “You know your pain is deep and very real. How about requesting therapy with the other person on this matter?”
“And how about asking it directly, when you are not upset or hurt or angry?” came another quiet question from across the table?
Our dialogue did not initially change the pain or the resignation being shared. It did open up new options; there was a sense of things being aired, people being valued. The pain being real. “I will be reflecting on this moment and what everyone said in the days to come,” was the grateful response that signaled the end of our lunch hour together.
Isn’t that the possibility of a new beginning? Yet how many of us keep repeating attempts to call attention to an issue between us with another person and then become resigned? Our messy issues beg for transformation in our work relationships as much as they do in family dynamics. There are many possibilities here. One way of deepening communication is:
The key is learning to describe the gap—or difference—between your story and the other person’s story. Whatever you many think and feel, you can at least agree that you and the other person see things differently. Importantly, you don’t have to know what the other person’s story entails to include it in initiating the conversation that way. All you have to do is acknowledge that it’s there; there are probably a lot of things you don’t understand about their perspective, and that one of the reasons you want to talk is that you want to learn more about their view.
[You can say] “My sense is that you and I see this situation differently. I’d like to share how I’m seeing it, and learn more about how you’re seeing it.”
—Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Shelia Keen; Difficult Conversations
Another possibility lies in the answer to the survey question that I sent out to help us get a deeper look into what is needed during these crises’ times in our organizations. A well-known and active member of many organizations, while fielding a high-profile career as a veterinarian and sitting on countless boards, has this to say in answer to this question:
Comment on the phenomena of these crises producing stress and behavior that’s more exaggerated than in the past. How might a leader engage in developmental dialogue without prying into the team member’s private past? How best can the leader respond if the team member “invites her in?”
Me—I would listen hour after hour—do not cookbook a solution.
Still another possibility lies in clear knowing when to support someone to get a therapist when crises have either reached a critical mass or a tipping point. This is the question that the survey asks:
What might tell me that coaching isn’t the best approach and that I need to make a referral to a therapist? How do I know when a client needs personal support?
Here is a sampling of some answers:
- The further off base from the person’s ordinary usual behavior the more likely to refer. A one-time discussion should be done to decide that.
- When the employee is clearly already being overwhelmed or if less severe mental health issues are not showing significant improvement in response to a primarily supportive approach.
- When an employee is becoming emotional during coaching sessions and is struggling to remain pragmatic and collaborative, that is a sign that they need support. This support could be therapy. If a person is resistant, it could tell you that you moved in too deep or quickly or that they are not ready to contact those feelings. Therapy could help.
- Suggest [Employee Assistance Programs] EAP if available as it is an easier first step, free to the employee, fully confidential and easier to accept as normal, helpful, useful, educational, rather than something they need due to being deficient.
- If a team member seems traumatized in any way and show signs of being activated a lot by smaller things in the work environment, then look for resources for that person. Find the right person to help them to shift out of that state. A therapist is schooled to help trauma.
- Help clients who are triggered become more grounded and have better balance in the work environment in ways that are not triggering or stigmatizing.
Transforming crises in the work place and organization as well as creating safe cultures is our present time work. Otto Scharmer from MIT says in a recent article, “A New Superpower in the Making: Awareness-Based Collective Action”:
We want to be part of a different story of the future. We want to contribute to redirecting where we are heading as a society. Covid-19 has become one of the most effective and impactful teachers of our time. It’s providing an advanced lesson on systems thinking with the planet’s 7.8 billion citizens as students. Yes, some of us have already learned these lessons intellectually. But now our bodies have too. We are acutely aware of our global interconnectedness.
We are many, and we are one. We breathe the same air. We drink the same water. We walk the same earth. We enact the same global web of social, economic, and cultural connections. You thought it didn’t matter to us what happens on the other side the globe? You thought it didn’t matter to you if vulnerable people in your community didn’t have health insurance that would cover a Covid-19 test? Well, now we know better. Now we know that ignoring our fundamental condition of interconnectedness leads us to design institutions that utterly fail in moments like this. In other words: it’s time to “rip off the veil of unreality,” as Peter Lipman, co-chair of the Transition Network, suggested the other day.
Isn’t that the hallmark of empathy, to become more aware of our self and world construct…of our shared environment? Doesn’t listening more deeply let us know when and how to respond more lovingly…and appropriately? Doesn’t it let us know when to refer and stop business as usual?
Burnout, EQ, and Flexibility
Karla’s questions in the previous paragraph are imploring. Reread them. If your answer is “yes,” you can (and must) be part of the solution. While Wiens identified a group with high EQ who largely were not experiencing signs of burnout, others are. In an article entitled “Why Coaching Is Exploding Since Covid 19,” the authors point to another recent study that finds 68% of 1,600 people surveyed who are working from home are experiencing burnout. What is the difference, and what do these people need?
We have some answers that point to organizational culture. Employees who are allowed more flexibility and control over their schedules have been managing the crises more easily, and are able to do their jobs despite this disruptive work environment. In anecdotal observations of my own client organizations, those whose cultures were employee-centric and more empowering vs. “command and control” have leveraged these cultural elements for good short-term results. Yet it appears this isn’t going to end any time soon. If EQ is a factor in preventing burnout, how do we build that in the midst of crisis? Perhaps a place to start is with the question: What do our team members need? I’ll suggest that what they (and all of us) need as a prerequisite to pragmatic strategies is understanding, inclusion and connectedness.
To Listen for Understanding—Empathic Listening
Let’s unpack the need to be understood. Being understood is not just being “listened to,” in the typical sense. In my experience, it begins with empathy. Brené Brown says we have an empathy deficit in our culture. I agree, and suggest that many don’t even know what it is.
What Empathy is Not
Empathy is not a behavior. Behaviors can be utilized to express empathy: “You sound excited,” or “It looks like you’re feeling sad.” When we perceive a feeling in another, expressing that can build connection if we’re right. Stating what we see or hear is safe, because the other person can correct us. “I’m not sad—I probably look that way because I’m exhausted.” When we tell someone they are feeling something, or that we can understand how they are feeling, we’re in dangerous territory because it pre-supposes we know. In fact, we can never fully know or understand another’s experience. When we listen deeply to another, we notice signs and signals that indicate how they’re feeling. A person with a high degree of social awareness—the aspect of emotional intelligence defined by the ability to recognize the emotions of others—can pick up these signals and check them out by reflecting what they see or hear. While it’s a skill that can be built, reducing this reflection behavior to a technique misses the importance. It can seem disingenuous if the listener does not know how to separate her own feelings and biases from the observations she’s making.
Empathy is not: “What I would think or feel if I were you.” If I had someone else’s situation, I would naturally respond in different ways because my experiences, personality, likes and dislikes, and values are different.
What Empathy Is
Empathy occurs when we seek to see things from the experiential point of view of another. The word empathy comes from the Greek em meaning into and pathos meaning feelings, emotion, passion. When we experience empathic feelings, we realize that the other’s point of view is rationally consistent from his or her perspective, however disjointed it may appear from ours. Empathy does not mean we must agree with, or have positive feelings about, the other’s point of view. Empathy is about using our imagination and good will to understand another—cognitively, affectively and behaviorally—whether we agree with them or not.
—Catherine Anne Lombard, “Empathy Training Shoes Part 1”
An exhibit in Europe’s traveling Empathy Museum, entitled “A Mile In My Shoes”, allows visitors to literally do just that—walk in someone else’s shoes. Their website says the exhibit “holds a diverse collection of shoes and audio stories that explore our shared humanity. From a Syrian refugee to a sex worker, a war veteran to a neurosurgeon, visitors are invited to walk a mile in the shoes of a stranger while listening to their story.”
While we can never really know what another is feeling or experiencing, we can come close by approximating their state of being. It begins with the physical body—our own. If we are to metaphorically step into another’s shoes, we must first embody our own shoes in order to make the distinction. Then, we can observe ourselves from their perspective. Here’s an example:
Let’s say I’m planning a conversation with my colleague Tonya. Tonya recently had foot surgery and is still wearing a cast. Like so many of us, she also is working remotely, sharing an office with her work-from-home husband and 12-year-old daughter who is attending school virtually. I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated during my conversations with Tonya. She complains about everything, and even sighs frequently. Yesterday she rolled her eyes on a Zoom call. It’s not who she is, and I want to help her see how her behavior is affecting our entire team and their perception of her. Yet every conversation we have leaves the issue unresolved, and seems to increase the tension between us.
To prepare for the conversation, I would sit in my chair, in front of the screen I use to connect with Tonya on Zoom. I first notice my body—how am I sitting? Are my feet on the floor, sitz bones on the chair? No—and I feel that slight ache in my left knee. Imagining that I’m connecting with Tonya, I move my awareness to my upper body, then my face. I notice tension in my shoulders and tightness in my face. Am I really pursing my lips? As I look at her face on the imaginary screen, I begin to speak, and listen to my tone. I begin to detect frustration—and maybe even judgment. I take the time to examine the words I’m choosing. Then I identify the emotion I feel. It’s more than frustration—it’s exasperation, borne from the fact that I can’t get through to this associate whom I admire so much. The exasperation lives in my shoulders and facial muscles. Could she be seeing that? Could she be put off by my tone of voice? I decide to check.
I now imagine myself in Tonya’s spare bedroom. Momentarily “becoming” Tonya, I sit down into her chair, and prop my foot onto the oversized ottoman. I have to adjust my body so that my leg fits nearly parallel to the desk and the computer screen blocks the sun from the window. I notice that the cast is heavy. If I focus on it, I can feel the tight restriction it creates on my foot and ankle. In this odd position, I notice discomfort in my hip and back, and what a challenge it is to make eye contact with the camera. Paying attention to the environment, I can hear my husband and daughter consumed by their work, talking as if I’m not there, as if this doesn’t distract me. Now, I look into the screen. I see my work colleague (me) alone in her well-equipped home office. She looks tense. “What now?” I think. Is she going to try to cheer me up or admonish me? As she begins to talk, I realize it’s the latter. She has no idea what I’m going through.
From this exercise, I get a glimpse into what Tonya is experiencing. While I don’t know exactly what she’s feeling—I can’t label her emotions with precision and I don’t really know how her foot and body feel—what I gain is her experience of me, in the context of everything else she has going on. That precious information allows me to adjust my approach. I can sit differently, relax my shoulder and facial muscles, choose a different tone and perhaps different words. The empathy that I now have transforms my previous feeling of exasperation. It becomes compassion. I feel prepared for our next conversation and hopeful about its outcome.
People often ask me, “How do you know that Tonya will respond well to the new approach?” The answer is that while I don’t know for sure how she will react, I do know that she will re-act differently, given that that my approach will be vastly different. By identifying my own physical and emotional state of being, observing my colleague’s and making a distinction between the two, I am able to approach her with both empathy and compassion—a far better formula than a well-intended yet self-centered approach. This is emotional intelligence in action.
Seeing Our Blind Spots
The most important leverage point for profound change lies in seeding and cultivating these fields of deepened connection with each other, with nature, and with ourselves. The emerging superpower of this century is linked to our capacity to bend the beam of observation back onto ourselves. This shift of our attention allows us to see ourselves through each other’s eyes, to keep our gaze focused on our behavior as a collective, and to become aware of our own blind spots—in order to bend the curve, to reimagine and reshape civilization to bridge the ecological, social, and spiritual divides.
—Otto Scharmer, “A New Superpower in the Making: Awareness-Based Collective Action”
Coaching and therapy can help leaders and their teams deepen their listening for self and others—exploring where they need to be compassionate and empathic with first themselves and then others…and then the environment. This listening, compassion and empathy naturally leads to deeper resilience and emotional intelligence as leaders lead, becoming more effective with teams. Empathy for our times and all of us caught up in these global crises that seep into our organizations can also give leaders access to telling the truth more about what is truly needed.
Another place leaders can grow during this unprecedented time of crises and innovative work environments is in deepening their empathy capacity. Invest in developmental communication that unearths your own blind spots and expands your capacity to be vulnerable. Loving and powerful communication is an art. There are no bullet-point presentations or black-and-white tools that will pave the way. Even our seasoned and practiced survey participants offer a vast range of views in how to help shift the inequity in the workplace and create supportive cultures. Learning how and when one of their answers is useful and needed is an inquiry into communication practices—not a prescription. Learning how to invite in painful dialogues is needed, so that team members do not feel pressured to oblige because someone is their boss or team member. Respecting other’s privacy while letting them know you are there for them if they need support is, again, an art.
Leaders do need to open their minds and eyes to see that they and their teams might need more support, coaching and therapy than the outdated business models allowed. Now is the time to reshape our work cultures. There comes a time when referrals are needed and appreciated. But how to be effective in making a referral becomes an opportunity to be empathetic and drop into someone else’s shoes for a moment. This is the question the survey posed:
What are things leaders can do in their response to Covid-19 and recent societal crises to foster a culture that is supportive to employees and teams? Especially in terms in inequity around ease of working at home? (e.g. presence of small children, single parent, other stress at home)
Here are some of the answers:
- Dialogue with employees about their needs that do not have to do with job performance. Instead it would be good for leaders to have an underlying assumption that job performance can be supported by directly supporting employee’s needs and be less focused on only the projects at hand. Simple changes can be very effective. No meetings before a certain time. For example, know the school schedule. Schedule meeting times in blocks that work for employees with children around the employee’s children’s school schedules.
- Over time build rapport and keep building more rapport. When a person feels safe with you, they will lessen their walls.
- Validate them. Stand in their shoes. Have empathy. If they are stuck on a task at the job or stuck in any way, let them have a felt sense that you understand and are understanding.
- To let someone, know that “I’ll be here for you.” Empathy: “I too have stress. I know how stressful it is running errands right now. I know how stressful it is for me in working at home.” Give examples of something that happened to you like, “My husband Dave just tuned the computer on full-time and it caused him fatigue and isolation. He needed time to walk around in the fresh air and to talk with a few people more.” I don’t know what the answers are for folks who have kids at home; that’s up to leaders and those folks to perhaps brainstorm how to support them with daycare. I don’t know what you would do but it needs to be explored and implemented.
- Let them know that you are only listening for growth and understanding. There is no hidden agenda.
- Balance and connection are key in times of crisis. Leaders can think holistically about what stabilizes and nourishes team members and shift priorities to focus more on the contexts within which team members are living and working….and are impacted by the various global crises. Leaders can increase flexibility and willingness to collaborate on how to reach realistic goals.
- As a leader, it would be important to ensure (as much as possible) that the employees and teams have access to the resources required to successfully work remotely. Extremely important that there be frequent check-ins with employees to identify mental health issues at the earliest time possible.
- Listen, acknowledge, try to understand, be compassionate, supportive, don’t judge, and don’t think you have to do a mental health evaluation.
- Develop a list of supports and resources in the community.
- Keep building trust. Assure them they will not be attacked, fired, or written up in a performance review for what they share with you in private.
- Work with them on their issues. Are they feeling heard and seen for what they are sharing? Let them know that their diversity and uniqueness is valued and will not devalued if it differs from others, policies, or team consensus. Help them to feel included in the culture and not pushed out.
- If they feel as if their diversity is not honored, team members will shut down or deflect to keep their jobs. Work with them to shift the company and culture’s barriers so that their voice and perspective is included as mainstream in the culture.
- Learn to have equanimity in listening; do not become unglued if someone is distressed; learn to listen with respect, concern, and detachment so that the person feels safe to explore what is emerging for them. If it is serious do not escalate in a threatening way. Instead reach out and get them the kind of hands on support with EAP, a therapist, or a crisis center. Let them know you care and are respecting their needs. Do not judge.
- Ask people if an extra support system is desired or needed. Normalize this possibility. Perhaps check back in with them a few days later, even if they are in the midst of using that support. Let them know you are more than their boss.
“Not qualified to answer” is a refreshing reply to a question as one individual replied that he felt it was not in his domain to respond. This answer was from our veterinarian, who, by the way, was overly qualified to answer, but had the humility to let others say it best. Along with being humble, emotional intelligence often requires us to more deeply lean into the reflections of others as to how to become empathic and deepen our listening. Andrea and I, for instance, have been in new conversations deepening our own empathy, exploring also how to coach others in deepening theirs. I am someone who believes powerful communication is key in good leadership practices. It is ongoing, this evolving of that capacity in ourselves…and then enabling others in their evolutions.
Andrea pointed out in our first article that self-referencing and comparing one’s personal experience with another’s is often a disguise for empathy. And yes, when an eager person jumps in to tell about their relative’s illness when you are devastated about news you just received about someone you love, it adds salt into your wound. There is no listening for you and your personal experience. Being quiet, listening for more to be said is an art. Learning how to contact someone in a way that person needs to be contacted is what the years of seasoned communication training and development is all about. Sometimes paradoxically to Andrea’s wisdom, when someone in the organization is feeling dismissed or not part of the culture and community; and they break down and share that with a team member, it can be, in the right moment, and after listening deeply to their pain, uplifting for someone to say: “I am here for you. And so that you do not feel isolated, I want you to know that you are not the first person who has come to me feeling this way. I have heard others, for similar and other unique reasons, who feel that our culture is not inclusive. I want to validate that for you.” Our whole society right now is screaming to be heard and to be validated. Having empathy and communicating it well is an art, an art we all need to learn.
Our participants contributed deeply to helping us all define better leadership practices to evolve our work places right now. In the survey, we asked participants to respond to the following:
“Comment on the phenomena of these crises producing stress and in triggering wounds and behavior that’s more exaggerated than in the past. How might leaders engage in development dialogues with team members without prying?”
Here is what they offered:
- I guess in communication, certainly as this is a leader talking to one of his employees, it is important to know that unless there’s a high-level of trust, someone who is being triggered will not open up. It might not even be appropriate for them to open up. They may need to explore their triggering wounds with a therapist. Some team members might feel comfortable sharing what triggered them. Not all people do. Building trust on a daily basis is very important. That is what therapists do all the time, they keep building trust The leader has to listen to his employees. Not just talk at or to them; She/he has to listen and be respectful. She/he has to gain their trust. They have to not be doing it because he/she is wanting the question answered. The person has to know that they can go ahead and say the thing that is bothering them. It is all about trust again. This is an evolving dialogue built on trust. They need to trust that this is our normative practice to have support.
- I would need to listen. Leaders need one-pointed attention; undistracted and not multi-tasking. They need to listen in a one-pointed way, not just in the crisis, but during the lifetime of that employee. Then the employee begins to see and say, “You know, I can say something to her and I won’t be reprimanded.”
- Leaders need to give the employees the reality that they can be heard. They need to know what they are saying matters and is respected.
- Get training in watching for body language of the team (Somatic Education) to notice if someone on zoom is having a hard time. If you wonder about unusual concerns with a team member and it seems like they are in trouble, you might consider calling in EAP to do a screening support interview and consultation if the employee is open or in danger. Do this with empathy and no judgement. Let it not be reflected on the performance review.
- High levels of stress activate core wounds and anxieties and increase the chance of maladaptive and heightened defenses against those wounds and anxieties. Team leaders can focus on strengths and success stories: what has helped in past times of elevated stress, what strategies make previously reliable and adaptive resources more accessible? Leaders don’t necessarily need to know what the difficult “private past” is, but once again normalize the process of current threats/stressors triggering past vulnerabilities. If the team member does share vulnerable details, the leader must not use that disclosure against the member but express deepened care and commitment to supporting the member, including encouragement of seeking appropriate professional support. The more serious the level and nature of team member distress, the more pronounced that encouragement will need to be.
- It is also important for the leader to be very cognizant of the power dynamics at play in these contexts, and to be ready to be fully supportive if that is the direction that they are going to go to explore a team member concern. I would also advise in these times that leaders need to create space, not for deep dialogue about what is happening, but just space for its acknowledgement. For example, offering an acknowledgement of living in extraordinary times can be very helpful. The leader does not have to be all things, but they can make space for the humanity of the people they work with.
- Don’t use phrases like “core wounds” even to fellow leaders. This tends to reinforce the general attitude of therapy being for disturbed people who need serious help. If someone is having an intense emotional reaction, be supportive, compassionate and “normalize” the value of talking with a professional “counselor.” No need to inquire into details and personal history. More important is the person’s immediate situation. Again, let employees know about their EAP benefit if they have it and normalize it as helpful, a support, not an assessment that they need serious help. Leave that up to the EAP counselor.
- Don’t pressure a team member to open up. Sometimes communication and intimacy are like the dolls that have layers and layers to them. Sometimes pulling on one thread is too intimate and threatening for the person for the work context. Don’t pry. Be conscious of the dual relationship. You are the lead for the team.
- Take care when inviting in someone to share—only if they want to. Reassure them that the company does not have record of them talking openly to you. Don’t diagnose. Have healthy boundaries.
- If the leader suspects “core wounds”, I would think this is even more of a reason to consider involving a professional. As a leader, it would be important to not become overly involved, i.e. being drawn into a therapist role.
All over our planet, on any day and in any country, we can see the collective traumas growing and know more and more people who are impacted. From fires again burning in Colorado and California to nation-wide Covid concerns causing schools to open and then to close again abruptly, we have our hands and hearts full. But our hands are asked to hold even more, from social unrest to relentless concerns about economy and job security. Our hearts grow heavier from the children suffering without enough care and from countless evacuations during 2020’s fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes. All of us are impacted by this surge of emergencies and all of us viscerally, when ready, can tap into our global communities and collective despair. I realize we all have a choice right now amidst these crises and current events. We can choose to collapse into overwhelm and let our fears plunge us into confusion and despair. We can rail against our collective traumas coming at us from all sides, or we can bury our heads in the sand and “hope it all goes away soon,” a sentiment shared by yet a different niece when we texted each other last night…hoping we will not have to evacuate as my nephew’s family just did.
Or we can decide that our lives are worth living, that our places of work have the potential to lift us up and inspire—that we can co-create our new world…and build compassionate work cultures. And if we choose the latter, and I do, then we can all exhale and wait for new breath to find us. We can plunge into empathy for ourselves, for our organizations, for each other—and for our world around us. We can do that much. We can lend our ears.
With my niece who visited after 33 years, her son, and those looming elephants in the living room…dialogues are tentative but ongoing. In recent texts, it emerged that the folks in this gnarly conflict all happened to be on a text at the same time. Okay, okay, I might have nudged things a little for a text dialogue to show up that invited in our spirited and friendly selves, making fun emojis. I was playful, sharing photos and making comments. It was sort of like shaking a fruit tree loose as children, hoping that lush ripe peaches might fall out onto the ground that you can sink your teeth into as juice drips down your chin…jiggling things loose, hoping to find treasures. Presently, there is no real way to know if this good-natured gesture, gingerly venturing into expanding connections, will help ease tensions. But I did have the chance to follow up on a conversation recently. There was still doubt about moving the dial. But now there is commitment from one person, that at the first real opportunity and in a heartfelt way, communication would happen. This conversation, like so many in our society, is a continuing process. Old wounds got opened and heard. As a result, some things might be in shift. I need to keep listening in for those possibilities. And, as one of my mentors reminded me recently, “Give them a chance to work it out on their own!”
You can respond by turning away, or by turning toward. Turning away means closing your mind, heart, and will—in other words, acting from ignorance, hate, and fear. Turning toward means opening your mind, heart, and will—acting from curiosity, compassion, and courage. These are the choices we face in any moment: Do we turn away and close down, or do we turn toward and open up, activating the deeper levels of our humanity?
—Otto Scharmer, “A New Superpower in the Making: Awareness-Based Collective Action”
When I teach skillful listening, and processes like the one I outlined for gaining empathy for Tonya, I often make the distinction between “techniques,” which can be utilized in a rote, step-by-step manner, and genuine other-centered connection. It’s the difference between completing a paint-by-number portrait and taking an art lesson. Karla stated earlier: “Having empathy and communicating it well is an art, an art we all need to learn.” We can learn this art, and a prerequisite is authentic concern for the other.
Like Karla’s family story, our workplaces have elephants that represent unspoken traumas. I often have a vantage point that allows me to see the collective good intent, even as people feel unheard, bullied and marginalized. I know that many leaders do not intend to create isolation and disengagement, even as they unconsciously withhold information, deliver terse directives in response to their own stress, and fail to listen. In these situations, I want to tell them all to talk to one other, and stop making up stories in their heads about unspoken intent. Yet I know it is not always safe to talk. Art lessons are needed. If you have the capability and capacity, your contribution to this sacred form of empathic listening is needed now more than ever. If you are in need, there has never been a better time to learn. Don’t wait too long.
About the Authors:
Karla Boyd, Ph.D.
Karla Boyd Ph.D., a lover of animals and people, is an organizational and leadership development consultant, Equine Guided Leadership Coach, and a writer.
In all of her work, she helps people connect with their passion more deeply. Karla inspires all to have a more intimate relationship with nature, animals and making a difference in the world, and she inspires a deepening and revitalization of loving and healing initiatives in our world. Karla has joined others in creation of innovative designs for palliative and hospice care for people and animals, honoring the dignity of all life. As founder of Namaste Global Vision, she empowers animal stewards to transform the animal steward world. She invites philanthropists to align their values with donor giving practices in intentional and dynamic ways.
Karla designs curriculum for non-profits, small businesses, and large organizations. She has designed and implemented comprehensive leadership development programs in diverse organizations including philanthropist and animal steward communities, created high-potential leader programs, and integrated innovative system change designs. She has worked with hundreds of leaders to improve performance and individual leadership capacity, and her many certifications include Ontological paradigms, Appreciative Inquiry, and Equine Soul of Leadership Coaching. Her blog is Conversations with Karla.
Karla Boyd, Ph.D.
Founder and CEO
Namaste Global Vision
Andrea Chilcote holds nearly three decades of experience in the organizational development coaching and consulting field. Her notable work includes enterprise-wide organizational development initiatives as well as executive coaching, partnering with executives and their teams across a variety of Fortune 500 companies and diverse business sectors.
A recognized, trusted partner who gets results, Andrea focuses on client relationships—taking much pride in her track-record of longevity and sustainability in client connections. Her programs and methods meet leaders on their development trajectory, moving them beyond the superficial to integrated behavioral change.
President & CEO