There Was No Class
I was in the middle of my first semester of an MBA program, deep in Accounting and Finance assignments, when I got troubling news about my pregnancy with Mercy Joan: something was very wrong. Luke and I would spend the next 20 weeks hoping and praying, meeting with everyone from neurosurgeons to hospice providers.
Mercy Joan, our third child, was born on a cold February day in 2011. She died just eight days later. My grief sprawled, cascading over the landscape of my life. And during this disruptive life event, I was overwhelmed with a sense of being “not enough”. I wasn’t the mother, partner, professional, or friend that I wanted to be.
I drove to campus each day and sitting, grief-sodden, in my seat, I learned how to lead in the world of business. And over my 2-year course of study, not five minutes of a single class period was devoted to how to care for people when they go through hard times.
This lack of training has repercussions and it is what led me to launch Handle with Care Consulting in 2018. As I work with companies, leadership teams tell me that they feel overwhelmed and underequipped. They don’t know how to support their people as they wrestle with the grief and overwhelm and disruption.
Why Does Empathy Matter?
Disruptive life events happen regularly in the lives of your people (and in your own life!). Even before the pandemic of 2020 or the inflationary cycles of 2023, your coworker was getting a cancer diagnosis or going through a divorce or burying a child.
Human-centric skills are essential to workplace thriving. A recent study in Forbes indicated that 69% of leaders were considering quitting because of their terrible state of well-being. Empathy is the ability to honor and respond with care to the emotions and experience of another person and it is the essential leadership skill of 2023. When this sort of intentional care occurs, it has a profoundly positive effect on businesses, communities, and families.
And yet, empathy is a skill that is often unpracticed and under-appreciated, especially from top leadership. In the 2022 Businessolver Empathy at Work Survey, 77% of leaders worried that they would lose respect if they showed empathy at work.
What Is In Your Empathy Toolkit?
When I was in sixth grade at Noblesville Middle School, I watched an eighth grader named Tom dart out into traffic. He was in a hurry, not looking, and I watched in horror as a car collided with him.
Tom hit the pavement hard. I had no idea how to help. Within minutes, a first responder arrived at the scene, bag in hand. He pulled out bandages and a blood pressure cuff, deftly stabilizing Tom until the ambulance arrived. His job was to help Tom get to whatever next level of care he needed.
You are an Empathy First Responder. Every time you find yourself in a situation where you witness the strong emotions of another person, you, like that paramedic, have an opportunity to use your empathy toolkit.
Your empathy toolkit is shaped by a lot of factors: your family of origin, your personality, what someone told you the first time you scraped your knee. For most of us, we live out of this toolkit unconsciously, defaulting to ingrained behaviors. Spoiler alert: you (and I) don’t always have the most helpful tools in your toolkit.
Empathy Avatars: Which One Are You?
Here is the good news, you can improve! Empathy is a skillset that you can grow in and the first step to growth is to take an inventory of your empathy toolkit. I lead clients to greater awareness by introducing them to common empathy avatars. These are default response patterns. Have you interacted with any of these types? How did he/she make you feel? Have you been any of these types?
Also, although the names are gendered, the responses certainly are not. You could be a Silent Samantha as easily as a Silent Sam.
- Silent Sam does not want to say or do the wrong thing, so he does nothing at all and hopes the problem will go away.
- Fix-It Frank is a problem-solver by nature. He is quick with a suggestion of what someone needs to do to “get better”.
- Cheer-Up Cheryl has the gift of positivity, but she is always pushing people to look on the bright side, often before they are ready. “At least” is one of her favorite phrases.
- Buck-Up Bobby is inconvenienced by displays of emotion. He believes in powering through difficult emotions and feels strongly that emotion has no place in the office.
- Commiserating Candace jumps in quickly with her own story, hijacking the narrative. Suddenly, the conversation becomes all about her…or her sister…or her dog. You get the idea.
- Interrogating Edward is a natural investigator. He likes getting to the bottom of things and will pepper you with questions, “Well, why do you feel that way?”, leaving you feeling defensive.
- Joking Julie wants to change the subject with a joke. She is dismissive of your disclosure and makes light of your pain (she also does this to herself).
What Can I Do To Build Empathy?
Did you see yourself in one of the types? Just last week, my son got sent home for a (potential) case of COVID. I found myself pulling a Buck-Up Bobby, berating him for not being able to deal with an allergy headache without going to the nurse. Not my best parenting moment. We also had a pet bunny die. Before Bluebell was in the ground, I was researching where to get a new Holland Lop; operating in full-on Fix-It Frank mode.
Empathy Tip 1: Cultivate Awareness
Observe yourself over the next week, when do you find yourself going into some of these behavior patterns? You can deepen your awareness by vulnerably asking a family member or a coworker who knows you well if they experience you as a particular type.
Empathy Tip 2: Radical Attention
Especially important for the Commiserating Candaces or Cheer-Up Cheryls, coach yourself to quietness and attention. This is not the time to share a story or a pick-me-up cliché. The most important thing you can do is to let the person in front of you know that they are seen and heard; you don’t need to fix her or make the pain go away. Just be present to the hardness.
Empathy Tip 3: Something is Better Than Nothing
You won’t always get everything right (none of us will) but trying signifies that you care. Statements like, “I am so sorry that you are going through this” or “That sounds hard” are good to incorporate into your empathy vocabulary. They show resonance without judgment. And if you don’t know what to say, say that! “I don’t even know what to say right now, but I just want to let you know that I care.”
Empathy at work matters. Each time you put a better tool in your toolkit, you increase your capacity to show up as an Empathy First Responder, helping those around you survive, stabilize, and thrive.