Celebrating Empathy This Holiday Season
Life is messy. It has the tendency to kick the livin’ snot out of us. And sometimes, we run out of gas. It is during these times that we need the supportive people in our lives to step in. These are people at work who say “don’t worry; I’ve got you.” Clients who guide us for a change. Friends who show up with linguine and clam sauce, when we have had one of those days. Team members who pray. These are the people who stand in the gap for us when we are sometimes too weary, overwhelmed, or grieving. When we are broken wide open or just struggling with more ordinary challenges, we need people to show up with ease and without question. To be empathetic.
Empathy is also getting quite the attention in the workplace. Quite a few enterprises are putting managers through empathy training. The World Economic Forum has a measurement called the Empathy Global Index which demonstrates that businesses toward the top of the list increase their value twice as fast as those at the bottom, and generate 50 percent more earnings per employee than the worst performers. Empathy is a driver of business metrics, including the attracting and retaining of talent.
However, empathy presents challenges because as women we don’t want to be known as the listening ear in the workplace. We want to be taken seriously for who we are, what we know, and what we do. As women who care deeply, we don’t want that caring used against us because we are thought of as being too soft. We don’t want to overlook bad performance and ignore hurtful behaviors. We want to be tuned in emotionally to others and also a force to be reckoned with. Don’t we?
So what is empathy and why should women concerned with living their best life professionally and personally be empathetic?
Empathy, the ability to feel another’s emotions because you are consciously aware of your own – is a leadership super-power. It starts with learning to be kind to ourselves. It motivates us to leave the comfort of our own lives to be present to others. It is about connecting with and empowering others so they soar in ways they did not think possible, even during dark times.
When we nourish the well-being of our colleagues and loved ones while also tending to our wholeness, courage rides shot-gun with us. A firing-on-all-cylinders work culture and loving personal circle is created when we say to others and hear others say to us, “you are not alone. I get it. Me, too.”
However, empathy does not occur on its own. So as women who want to live fully joyful, authentic, courageous professional and personal lives, here are three ways to generate empathy.
Being curious is a journey of inquiry into ourselves leading us to discover who we are. By being curious we explore what we have been taught, discover what is working, and determine how we need to wake up in order to evolve.
If manifested along with empathy and the ability to listen deeply, curiosity invites our colleagues and loved ones to explore, innovate and feel understood. However, if we emulate litigators and believe curiosity is asking rapid-fire questions we reenact the inquisition and those around us feel put on the witness stand. Curiosity is nuanced, not self-righteous; it is rooted in a self-awareness and courageous humility.
We live in a world that celebrates having the answers and worships being right. Our schools, boardrooms, and religious institutions can systematically eradicate our natural curiosity by shaming instead of rewarding the questions. I encourage the leaders to get really comfortable with not knowing: to find power in the willingness to learn and to ask questions that unleash potential.
Living and leading a more intentional life is built on the process of listening deeply: of waking up to the truth of what happens within and around us. Listening deeply challenges us to slow down and take time to hear and listen to those around us. In a fast-paced world, connections may be difficult to maintain, but through listening deeply, one can be present and connected.
Wherever we lead – in the boardroom, in the community, on the field or classroom – listening deeply begins with how we honor our truest self. There is nothing more important to the quality of our work and life than knowing who we are. Therefore, it is critical for leaders to learn to connect first with themselves. So pour yourself that extra cup of coffee in the silence of the morning. Take time in the evening to write in your gratitude journal. Mediate. Pray. Do therapy. Do you … quietly, and without apology. Your world depends on it.
There is no outside solution to an inside problem so listen deeply to define how you can empathetically create the life you want.
Boundary-setting is a radical act grounded in self-respect. It invites emotionally and spiritually evolved people to be a part of your life; people who are struggling with themselves and are in denial, don’t like boundaries. Boundaries are not about controlling anything or anyone else (goodness only knows how exhausted we got doing that crazy stuff). Boundary-setting is about having empathy for ourselves.
Being empathetic and showing compassion (empathy in action) does not mean you let people walk all over you by saying “yes” to every request. It does not mean setting up camp in someone else’s tent, trying to rescue them from a situation they created. It does not mean putting ourselves in dangerous situations emotionally or physically because someone else needs us and we know more about their pain than they do. It does not mean tolerating poor performance or accepting mediocrity because we feel sorry for someone and we know how they mean well and how much dang potential they have.
Boundaries enhance engagement at the office and intimacy at home. Be kind to yourself. Find ways to nourish yourself every day. Be intentional by filling your life with people and activities that provide you with joy. Be courageous in the face of people who would have you think their failure or consequence is your fault; it is not. Boundaries help us to know where we leave off and someone else begins. The most productive women I know are those who are not distracted by others’ manipulations.
Empathy is powerful. It can transform groups into teams, loved ones into soul mates, and work into places of purpose and connection. There was a three-day period recently during which I did not leave our house. I stayed in my pjs, and quite simply put, cried me a river. It was a normal response to a heartbreaking situation. The months of trying to be strong in the face of being broken caught up to me, but empathy brought light and healing. Friends called. Family members flew in. And I knew what it was like, once again, to have people “stand in the gap for me.” In the toughest times, our ability to say “no” is the sliver that lets the light in. In the toughest times, we rest on the grace and generosity of others at work. At home.
By Karen Benjack Hardwick
Photo by Kira auf der Heide
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Maya Angelou
Karen Hardwick, M.Div., MSW is a leadership advisor and executive coach who specializes in working with leaders and their teams interested in living amazing lives and working at the top of their game. As founder of Karen J Hardwick, Inc. she is recognized as a consultant who helps her clients transform their lives. Find out more at www.karenjhardwick.com.
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