Recently I worked with a wonderful group of leaders who I was training to become in-house workplace coaches (a voluntary focus alongside their normal leadership and work duties – very cool).
As the skills of this group have been increasing, so has the depth and value and power of the conversations they are having – which inevitably leads to supporting their ‘coachees’ with real and challenging issues, often creating emotional responses in the person being supported.
This is natural, and human and useful if handled well.
One of the challenges though, is that many of the struggles of their colleagues are either shared by the coach, or of a nature that the coach’s natural and wonderful empathetic response causes them to be drawn into the emotion as well – not so useful. When we have experienced the same or similar situations in the past, we start to relive those experiences again through the present conversation.
We have been told that empathy is good, that we should seek to understand the situation of others and put ourselves in their shoes. This is sort of right.
I’d like to challenge the idea that leaders need to be empathetic.
I’d like to suggest that leaders need to focus more on being compassionate with people, rather than empathetic.
When relating to and supporting others, your personal response can take two forms: empathy or compassion. Let me explain the implications of each of these.
During an empathetic response, you emotionally absorb the feelings of others. Empathy is an amazing human capacity, essentially allowing us to literally feel the pain or joy of others. When a loved one is in trouble or pain, we have the capacity to live their lived experience, and for good reason. No empathy would lead to abandonment and loss of caring.
What an empathetic response does, however, is light up the same regions in the brain as those lighting up in the person of interest – usually pain. When others are in pain, you are then in pain, and that response inhibits your capacity to be objective, to think totally logically and to support that person in a useful way. Your capacity to be totally present to others and to the most useful way to support them is diminished whilst you deal with your own feelings, and eventually you can be drawn into the drama of the situation.
Conversely, a compassionate response is a response of kindness through objectivity. Compassion stimulates oxytocin (the trust hormone), dopamine (the reward hormone), and serotonin (anxiety reduction), leading to happiness and optimism. It’s a bit like the concept of ‘tough love’ – in order to help the most, sometimes you have to be the one to hold the line – like denying your child the opportunity to attend a party when they have been naughty – those ‘learning moments’!
Take some time this week to notice your responses to the challenging situations brought to your attention by others. Is your response empathetic (emotionally non-useful) or can you be present to supporting them from a place of useful compassion?
Have a great week.
The statistics are compelling…
Leaders spend 80% of their time in conversation. On average, an employee spends around 37% of their time in meetings – which are essentially group conversations.
That’s a rather large percentage of the time spent in the workplace on conversations, and that doesn’t include emails and chats. And let’s face it, emails create work…skillful conversations get things done!
What I think organisations have still not been able to capitalise on is the enormous opportunity that this presents in terms of improving culture, performance and employee engagement.
EVERY conversation is an OPPORTUNITY….
- To influence and create insight
- To acknowledge the right stuff
- To check and redirect focus
- To test clarity and confidence
- To uncover discontent and confusion
- To manage emotion and non-useful reaction
- To get the truth
…and most of all, to create and support quality thinking through quality conversation.
Conversation is an art, and a skill. Developing powerful conversation skills in your leaders provides a surprising ROI in terms of the positive influence that they can have on the habits, thinking and behaviour of those around them, and over their own growth and development as well.
The conversations in your organisation are a clear predictor of the health of your culture – and all it takes is a little attentive observation to find the underlying patterns.
Here are five things to observe and assess.
- Listen to where the conversations are FOCUSED. Are they focused on the past or on the future? Are they focused on barriers, or possibilities?
- Watch the way people are LISTENING to each other. Are they waiting to interject with their own idea or solution, or are they being CURIOUS and taking the time to dig deeper and understand another person’s point of view or perspective? Are they finishing sentences? Are they doing other things while listening (think meetings and phones) or are they present and respectful to what others have to say with no agenda?
- See if there is more TELLING than ASKING in the conversations. Research tells us that in organisations 95% of the communication is ‘tell’ – yet people don’t like being told what to do! People feel engaged and respected when they feel like they matter, and that what they do matters. Do the leaders in your organisations care enough to ask?
- Look for the EMOTION in the conversations around your organisation. What emotions are prominent? What tone is evident? And are emotions ignored, or explored?
- And finally, are the conversations that you hear around your organisation USEFUL, or just interesting? Do they connect and relate to bigger goals? Are they distractions or procrastinations?
I’d love to hear what you observe in your organisation. If it helps, you can click this link to download a quick diagnostic for your organisations cultural health!
Have a great day!
Michelle Loch is the Founder and Director of Rewired Leadership. One of her signature programs is ‘Rewired Conversations’ – conversational mastery that combines neuroscience, coaching skills and intuition to give leaders the confidence and courage to have powerful and influential conversations.
Someone will always win – let it be you!
My friend ‘Harold’ and I were yesterday discussing the critical impact that conversations have on the culture and performance of an organisation. Harold is a highly respected and experienced businessman and consultant, semi-retired, and currently Chairman of the Board of a very large institution embarking on a necessary and significant cultural change process
Interestingly, he was lamenting the state of conversation he is experiencing across the board – in politics, in coffee shops, in business meetings and in Boardrooms. Harold came to Australia in the 1970’s – to a refreshing culture of boldness, larrikinism and authenticity which, in his observation, seems to have been diluted and sanitised to the point of non-existence – and in his opinion to the detriment of the culture of both our personal and professional worlds.
“You start a conversation over a coffee, and it ends up a whinge-fest and somehow you get drawn into it.”
And that’s called Emotional Contagion. It’s a real and powerful force. AND it operates predominantly below our conscious realisation.
Your brain is highly tuned to connect and align with the emotional states of those around you, and for good reason via some clever brain cells called mirror neurons.
Imagine you are not in the line of sight of some form of extreme danger, but your friend is. Your friend sees it, they become instantly fearful, and somehow you are able to instantly and intuitively pick up on that fear and feel it as well, without any form of deliberate or language-based communication needed and you respond accordingly. From an evolutionary perspective, this sophisticated human ability is quite useful in keeping you safe.
Emotional contagion is why you can intuitively ‘know’ when your child or partner is not happy, or that the manager at the end of the boardroom table is about to share something bad.
So when two or more individuals come together in two or more emotional states, there begins a battle. In this Emotional Contagion Battle, with the absence of deliberate and conscious overriding, the negative emotion will always win – for all the evolutionary reasons I’ve already mentioned.
And it is a difficult battle to win. It can feel a bit like yellow food colouring in a glass of water fighting to stay yellow when some black has been mixed in…! An uphill battle!
Sometimes, of course, this overriding negative view is necessary, but in our socially evolved and relatively safe business environments it gets in the way of the objectivity, logic and useful intuition needed for a great organisational culture to survive.
Now the evolutionary odds are against us here.
- Humans are born with a negativity bias – an evolutionary tendency to view the world from a negative perspective before a positive one.
- To save the expensive use of brain fuel required to think consciously, our brains encode and automate repeated patterns of thinking and behaviour – if you regularly see or engage in ‘whinging’, then your brain encodes (hardwired) that way of being.
- Engaging in those hardwired activities is easy and preferred by the brain – again under the brain fuel saving banner.
So, it’s hard, but only when we are not paying attention. And of course, for all the same reasons we can start to REWIRE and train ourselves to firstly, reframe to overcome our natural tendency to be drawn to the negative, and then, with full conscious deliberate-ness, WIN THE EMOTIONAL CONTAGION BATTLE.
Someone will always win – let it be you.
So let’s apply Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle to this…
We’ve started with WHY it is important for you to be on the lookout and deal with Emotional Contagion.
WHAT do you need to about it? You need to recognise it, check in on your own emotional state and assess its usefulness and, if necessary, reframe it. And then hold your ground to win the Emotional Contagion Battle
HOW do you do that? Three easy steps…
- Acknowledge it – call the emotional state of the other person or the group. Eg, “I can see that this is really frustrating you”
- Shrink wrap it – people need to be heard and validated. Ask them to succinctly express their concerns and then shrink wrap that into a phrase or idea or concept that represents it – then put it aside. Eg, “So it’s really about….”
- Redirect it – gently redirect the conversation to what can be usefully done about it, or to a more useful conversation entirely. Eg, “What specifically do you want to now do about it so you can move on…”
Master leaders understand this and consciously and patiently, and with permission, redirect the attention of their teams to places where positivity, creativity and engagement can thrive.
Have a great day!
I’d like to hedge a bet and say never, or at least rarely!
One of the challenges of being human, is the limited capacity of our ‘thinking’ brain. Whilst it is powerful in many ways, it is also quite limited in its capacity to think though complexity.
The pre-frontal cortex (the bit that makes us intelligently human) is a linear processor. It loves problems that fit into an A + B + C = D structure. When you find yourself going around in circles over a problem or challenge, it will often be because either the A, or the B, or the C is missing. Until that piece of the puzzle is discovered or sourced, the equation can’t be processed and your thinking goes into a kind of loop.
This is where having a buddy with effective conversation skill can help because for the same reasons (ie, linear), we find it difficult to analyse our own thinking in ways that can release the blockage.
And for the same reason yet again, we always take the easy way out and an ‘I don’t know’ will elicit a rescue response from someone else who then takes on some of the responsibility for resolving your issue.
Couple this with our innate desire to help others, and an urgency to move the issue along, and an horrific fear of silence , and we fall into a time-consuming series of conversations that still don’t solve the problem.
The reality is that, in most cases, you DO know the answer. People do know what they need and the answer is not in their thinking brain – it’s more intuitive than that and they need to reflect much more deeply and in a non-linear way. This kind of thinking requires time and space.
Helping someone proactively to do this thinking is a skill that can be learned.
However, when I hear the words ‘I don’t know’ I have trained myself to hear ‘I’m not sure, just give me a minute!’ and I SHUT UP.
Giving others the time and space to really think is a gift.
It doesn’t hurt.
The discomfort of the silence will be broken by someone, let it be them.
Try it and see what happens.
Have a great day…
For over 20 years we have been talking about the importance of diversity and inclusion. This conversation has focused more on the ‘fairness’ aspect of inclusion for minority groups in the workplace, such as women and minority racial groups. You may remember the days of ‘Affirmative Action’ where legal and regulatory bodies were set up to make sure action was taken to address the situation.
And so the conversation continues with relatively little tangible progress.
But now – the conversation is changing. Social science is providing us with new knowledge and a different focus for the business case of actively pursuing diverse and inclusive teams in our organisations.
Last week I attended a ‘Chicks in Business’ lunch event and the guest speaker was Mark Bouris (Wizard Home Loans, The Apprentice – Australia). He told a fascinating story about his first big deal with Kerry Packer and referred to Kerry’s unique and powerful ‘Practical Intelligence’.
After a 3-6 month long due diligence period which subjected Mark and his company to intense, professional scrutiny, he finally met the man himself. Kerry had only three questions for Mark in terms of his own due diligence before sealing the multi-million dollar deal….
Question 1: Son, do you know what business you are in?
In Kerry’s view, Mark’s Wizard Home Loans business was not in the home loans business, but the business of hopes and dreams. He believed that business purpose connects to some form of basic human need, and there is much power in having the empathy and understanding required to connect with what your business really provides – your business purpose. I would suggest that my business purpose may be to help people achieve that human desire to better ourselves and to do our best for ourselves and for others? What business are you in?
Question 2: Son, do you have enough fight in you to see it through in good times and bad?
Do you have the fortitude, strength of character and sheer courage to stick it out when things get difficult. Starting with a passion for your business or career is not enough on it’s own. Navigating a GFC, surviving low cash flow, dealing with the energy-takers and confidence-knockers are all examples of the challenges involved in our careers and businesses. What do you need to do to develop the courage necessary to see you through your challenges?
Question 3: Do you know who you are accountable to?
In Mark’s case, Kerry set him a task (an ‘on the side’ deal) that essentially risked the 25 million dollars he had just made on the deal, and the fear of not achieving the task, and having to repay the 25M (who wouldn’t be fearful!) drove him to be even more successful. Kerry had held him totally accountable to the success of their partnership. Sometimes, if the stakes aren’t high enough, the dedication to the cause is insufficient to achieve real success. Are you holding yourself accountable to something that truly motivates you to achieve and go beyond your normal limits?
Perhaps these are three great questions to reflect on this week, or with your team, or with your business partner or coach!