With fear, restrictions and insecurity dominating the world, people are both vulnerable and volatile. Empathy goes a long way towards preventing anger, meltdowns and aggression from making a bad situation worse
The world’s been thrown into a unique state of vulnerability (defined as that emotion we all experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure). Never before have we found ourselves in the same collective boat across geographies, cultures, races, genders, ages, religions and status.
There are common triggers that people may be experiencing during a time like this. These include fears of irrelevance and incompetence. They may have feelings of scarcity and comparison. They may be feeling lost, confused and lonely. They may also turn to self-soothing behaviours to “numb” what they’re currently going through.
Try a little tenderness
We can’t enter into a game of comparative suffering – assessing who has it better or worse. Hurt is hurt, anxiety is anxiety and fear is fear. Each time we honour our own struggle and those of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the collective understanding (and healing) that result positively affect us all.
What is empathy?
Empathy isn’t about reacting to an experience or event that someone’s sharing with you: it’s about connecting to the emotions which underpin that experience. We may not know what it’s like to be retrenched (or retrench someone else), but we can connect to the fear and loss that this event is eliciting.
It’s also not about one-upmanship or even feeling pity or sympathy for another. Empathy has five core attributes, according to the work of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman”
- Staying out of judgement and being curious.
- Taking the other’s perspective.
- Understanding and identifying the emotion you’re hearing.
- Communicating your understanding of the emotion.
- Not pushing away emotion because it’s awkward or uncomfortable, but feeling it and moving through it.
What is compassion?
According to American Buddhist nun Pema Chödron, “compassion isn’t a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.”
In the workplace, this doesn’t mean feeling sorry for others, feeling inferior or superior to them or even assuming responsibility for resolving their emotional struggle. Nor is it about being soft on others. Boundaries remain, but compassionate leaders are clear, kind and firm about what still needs to be done during uncertain times in order to deliver our best work and honour our commitments to staff, stakeholders and clients.
Developing and demonstrating empathy and compassion
- Check in with yourself
Examine your own emotions (introspection): “What’s going on for me right now?” “Am I feeling my emotions or simply trying to manage them in order to avoid them?” “Am I offloading my emotions – bouncing my fear and uncertainty off others?” “Am I stockpiling or numbing my emotions?” “What’s my body telling me right now?”
- Check in with those around you
With deep respect and curiosity, enquire about and then really listen to what’s going on for others. While discussions about fears and feelings may be deeply uncomfortable territory to step into, especially when you’re struggling yourself, it’s important to spend a reasonable amount of time there. If not, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll spend an unreasonable amount of time dealing the unproductive behaviours which result from people’s emotions.
This is where the development of courageous leadership is essential.
- Role-model the behaviours you want to see
The antidote for anxiety is calm, which involves gathering facts, creating perspective and developing mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity.
Helpful questions to ask when uncertainty increases include: “Do we have all the facts?” “Knowing what we know and utilising all the resources we have available, have we done all we can?” “Is there anything else we can do, shift or reprioritise?” “What’s the next best step we can take?” “When will we take that step?”
Accept and expect slip-ups in delivery, mistakes and possibly even failure – there’ll be setbacks, missteps and dropped balls. Let’s give ourselves and our colleagues permission to test, experiment and not always get it right, but circle back, so we can set them straight to try again, rather than shaming and blaming them.
Commit to practising empathy and compassion daily, knowing that at some point, you won’t get it right. The world doesn’t need perfection right now – it needs connection and those willing to question, listen and learn.
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