Sunday, July 19, 2015


Life is a Ride
Gillian Cornwall, c. Spring 2015

Empathy - I have been thinking about how we behave on a daily basis in our personal and professional lives. 

Leaders and colleagues may have a void of empathy for those around them. In a professional environment, this lack of understanding can have disastrous results, not the least of which is the alienation of a team and their emotional divorce from an organization. This can be the first crumbling brick between working groups, friends, institutions, teams or businesses.

Everyone can benefit from coaching in the process of empathetic engagement. Primarily, it takes desire to learn how to acknowledge the problems or difficulties of a friend or colleague. It takes development of emotional intelligence. It requires a comprehension of your own emotional issues and learning how to express them in the best ways and at the best times. Packing your emotional stinginess into your lunch kit everyday into a sarcasm sandwich may not be the best option.

Certainly, it is unwise to climb into the crevasse with someone when then are trapped in the dark without a visible means of escape. If you are both in there, how will you be able to help the other out? Who will hold up the light to show the path and point out some options for footholds?

It is essential to first acknowledge that the person is in a crevasse and that you are aware that they may be uncomfortable, hurt and afraid in there. If you skip this step and proceed to, "Hey, at least the crevasse wasn't bottomless!" or "Don't worry, you'll get out." and walk away, it becomes entirely apparent to the person within the crevasse that you wish you had never come across the discomforting scenario of finding them in the first place. It appears that coming across them in this state of distress is an embarrassing inconvenience and that their predicament has been engineered to inconvenience you on what would have been an otherwise enjoyable day. "Crevasse person" should have quietly withered away to nothing without disturbing you. Obviously, this is not the way to assist with 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 a situation, it is still essential to acknowledge its existence with the person. Once you have made your acknowledgement, if you are uncertain in how to direct the person, you can tell them you will get back to them with resources (give details, such as date, time and format) and make sure you follow-up! Be real and be true. 

If you are in a position of empowerment, entitlement or leadership, your position makes your time no more or no less valuable than that of the person in the predicament. The amount of money you are paid to do your job is irrelevant in this scenario. Time taken to work together on problem-solving is an investment in any relationship, organization or group. Remember that the people with whom you work are your colleagues, fellow humans, all worthy of 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 those you have been asked to lead.

If you do not know, find out before the next scenario arises.

Do not make assumptions about the person's experiences or feelings based on your own history.

Once you have held up that light and helped guide the person from the crevasse, set a time to follow-up and talk about the experience. This will involve listening and it may involve redirection to other resources. Keep your judgements to yourself and be clear about the time frame and methodologies you have with which to assist. Be empathetic and kind. The people with whom we work are the employer's "human resource." Think about these two words carefully. Think about them together and separately. Think about their meanings and implications. Be honest - both with yourself and with the person 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 judgement nor personal need. You needn't carry the trauma of others, but hold up the lantern and let folks know you are willing, as a fellow human, to offer light and guidance as each of us makes our way out of the crevasse we find ourselves in from time to time.

-Gillian Cornwall, c. July 19, 2015 
edited and re-posted from June 22, 2014


The following articles, books and scripts have been helpful to me on my journey towards empathy and along my path towards emotional and social intelligence.

T-Shirt painted for VSAC event
Gillian Cornwall, c. 2013


Lauren CS. said...

This should be an onboarding material for new staff at all levels. You do an excellent job in a succinct post of highlighting the importance of this issue - and explain perfectly what happens in organizations that don't empathetically engage. Thank you!

Gillian said...

Dear Lauren - apologies for the length of time until my reply to you. Thank you for your kind words and insight. Empathetic engagement is key to success in units - for trust, for relationship building and for forward motion. I am so lucky that you understand.

With great love and respect for your incredible mind!