Empathy in Difficult Situations...
Gillian Cornwall - c. 2010
Empathy - I have been thinking about how we act on a day to day basis in our personal lives but in the workplace as well. Leaders and colleagues can appear to have a void of empathy for those with whom they work. This lack of understanding can have some disastrous results, not the least of which is the alienation of the team and their emotional divorce from the organization. This can be the first crumbling brick in the demise of an institution or business.
All leaders can benefit from coaching in the process of empathetic engagement. It takes desire, primarily, to learn how to acknowledge the problems or difficulties of a colleague. It takes development of emotional intelligence. It takes dealing with your own issues first and not packing your emotional stinginess in your lunch kit everyday and hauling it into the office.
Certainly, it is unwise to get right in the depths of the pit with others when they are down. If you are both in there, then how will one of you guide the other out? Who will hold up the light to show the path?
It is essential to acknowledge the fact that the person is in the pit and that you are aware that they might be uncomfortable or afraid in there. If you skip this step and go right to, "Hey, at least the pit wasn't bottomless!" or "Don't worry, you'll get out." and walk away, it becomes entirely apparent to the person in the pit that you do not want to know they are in there at all. In fact, you are entirely dismayed or indignant that they have been so thoughtless in sharing their predicament. "Pit person" should have quietly withered away to nothing without disturbing you. Obviously, in this context, this is NOT the way to go about recovery and healing.
Once you have acknowledged the situation, as an effective leader, you can offer direct assistance if you are able - this too is a form of empathy. If you are out of your league with an issue, it is still essential to acknowledge its existence with the person. Once you have acknowledged, if you are uncertain in how to direct the person, you can tell them you will get back to them (give a time and date) with resources and make sure you follow up! Be real and be true. Your position makes your time no more or no less important than that of your colleagues. The amount of money you are paid to do your job is irrelevant in this scenario. Time taken to work together is an investment beyond measure. Remember that the people with whom you work are your colleagues, fellow humans, all deserving of basic respect. They are not "your employees", rather they are employed by the organization and you have been hired to lead them.
Know your responsibilities as a leader.
Know the resources of your organization.
Know the rights and benefits of your team.
If you don't know, find out now before the next scenario arises.
Do not make assumptions about the person's experience or feelings based on your own history.
Once you have held up that light and helped guide the person from the pit, set a time to follow up and talk about it. This may involve listening and it may involve redirection to other resources. Keep your judgments to yourself and be clear about the time frame and methodologies you have in which to assist. Be empathetic and kind. The people with whom we work are our employer's 'human resource'. Think about these two words carefully. Think about them together and separately and their meaning and implications. Be honest - both with yourself and the person with whom you are engaging.
It is not your responsibility to "fix" whatever is happening with the person. It is unlikely they need nor want "fixing". As Oprah said on her last show, "...every single person you will ever meet shares the common desire. They want to know: 'Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?..."
Try it. See people. Hear them. Acknowledge what they have said to you and let it flow through you without judgment or personal need. You needn't carry it but hold up that lantern and let folks know you are willing, as a fellow human being, to offer light and guidance as each of us makes our way down our own individual paths.
-Gillian Cornwall, c. June 22, 2014
The following articles, books and scripts have been of great help to me on my journey to being more empathetic along my path for emotional and social intelligence:
Gillian Cornwall, c. 2006