“…but how do I demonstrate empathy?”
– A coachee preparing for a difficult conversation
I often work with leaders who want to improve the way they handle difficult conversations. We do this thing called “Rehearse for Reality” where people get to explore and prepare to handle real life difficult conversations (when the stakes are high and there are contrasting viewpoints with the potential for strong emotion). We know that rehearsing for reality elevates the quality of communication which in turn largely determines the quality of results (both performance results and the humanistic aspects of work life).
In a recent session, someone asked me, “but how do I demonstrate empathy?”
Now that’s a perfectly fair question and yet somehow it jarred with me. It came across like empathy was a trick to be mastered, a strategy (“I’ll empathise with you and then you’ll do what I want…okay?”)
I have to be careful not to make this too black and white. I understand that “getting what I want” is a valid pursuit and it’s certainly part of my job at Be Learning to help people communicate to influence. It’s a tricky one though. Because if empathy becomes just a “behaviour to demonstrate”, a box to tick because “then they’ll be more pliable” or “because I want to demonstrate our values” then something essential is being missed, and I think that will have a cost.
I have found that empathy cannot exist only as external mechanical behaviours (making eye contact, repeating back what they say to demonstrate that I’m listening, nodding to signal understanding). These external techniques can help. Indeed I’ve found them very helpful, because they are so tangible. By committing to them, I demand of myself presence and this can generate empathy.
At some point though we need to also look within and perhaps confront some difficult questions and some unpleasant answers. “Do I really even want to empathise with them? Could I care less? Why can’t they just do what they’re told?” I’ve found, personally, it’s quite a shock to find that within me lie some quite immature and ignoble attitudes. It can be uncomfortable to admit to them. But here are the good news folks… confession frees you to move up to greater states of awareness and action.
What do you mean by “confession”?
This means being straight with yourself about how you feel, so that you can then unhook from how you feel and move to a more constructive feelings. It’s starts with ‘fessing up; “you know what, actually I just don’t have the energy to empathise today, I don’t care about them, and what’s more, I’m covering this up with a fraudulent mask of patient kindness.”
Once I’ve fessed up, well then I can genuinely ask myself afresh what I’m committed to.
“Am I willing to give up my self-centred internal attitude and the inauthentic external cover up?”
You can’t really shift your attitude until you’ve recognised it and then asked yourself, hand on heart, am I willing to connect? Usually, I’ve found the answer is that yes, of course I do, it’s essentially what I want to do. It’s just that my desire to care and connect got buried under all my stress and self protection. To have this transformation to occur, I have to learn to stop, breathe and acknowledge the truth of my inner state, and then make a choice to connect, not just fall into some pantomime imitation of what I’ve been told connection looks like.
How can we connect authentically?
Connecting with people, empathising with them isn’t about furiously figuring out the right things to say to let them know you’re empathising. It’s not primarily about doing. It’s about being present.
Practically, one key to this is breathing. To simply notice and allow yourself to breathe is one of the greatest access keys to connection, and to empathy. Often, the “how to connect” will then look after itself.
Another practical key is to get to know your own (pardon my French) Bulls#%@t. You know, when you’re not quite sure what to say, so you fill the silence with that those spiels that spill out of your mouth on autopilot. We all do it. It’s not a crime. It fills the silence, which helps us all (maybe) feel more comfortable. But the price of that comfort may be the loss of a deeper connection, the lack of which impacts so many areas of work life; engagement, performance, sustainable working relationships, discerning decision making.
I go into all this Connected Leadership in more depth in a chapter titled ‘Connected Leadership’ for the book; “Emerging Trends in Leadership” [editor, Paul Sparks, Trends Publication] due for publication during 2013.
The chapter talks about connectedness and why it is important for today’s leaders. It also shows how connectedness relates to personal wellbeing and why it can help deliver high individual and team performance.
To recap, for those who want the “how to” connect;
- Cultivate mindfulness of breathing and apply it in challenging interactions.
- Observe your autopilot spiels then practice ceasing and desisting- the few seconds silence may feel like an eternity but on the other side of that void I’ve often found surprising, positive choices and words will pop out, changing the trajectory of the interaction in subtle but significant ways.
Try it out and discover for yourself how this process can elevate the quality of your own communication which in turn largely determines the quality of your results.
Blog by Brett Robin Wood, Principal Consultant at Be Learning