Developing Empathy, Compassion, and Understanding as Leaders

July 22, 2020

By Lisa McNeill

We often talk about a business in terms of building its health: strengthening leadership to guide the organization; developing core competencies so the business and employees can grow; building operational systems and structures to effectively carry the organization into a new phase of development.

But we rarely talk about developing skills such as empathy, compassion, and understanding – words that sometimes make managers nervous, yet are all needed for real growth and heavy lifting in our businesses and in our lives.  With the social and racial injustices that are coming into the collective consciousness weekly, now is not the time to turn away from hard conversations or to simply ignore the issues.

Now is the time for leaders to develop, practice, and lean into these skills of empathy, compassion, and understanding to get to a new level of trust and growth.  

In a 2003 Gestalt Review article, Connecting Strategic and Intimate Interactions: The Need for Balance, Edwin and Sonia Nevis and Stephanie Backman talked about the need for balance between strategic and intimate interactions within any system, whether it be a couple, family, or work system. They referred to it as a “seamless braid,” the switching of focus between the critical and hierarchical to the personal connection and relationship.

The authors posited that each side of the “seamless braid” supports the other. The best leaders are able to balance these skills, knowing when to switch from one to the other, and recognizing that both types of interactions – strategic and intimate – are needed to build trust and create strong, healthy teams that lead to organizational success.

Empathy, compassion, and understanding are key traits for building intimate interactions, which in turn leads to more trusted relationships to lean on when the strategic work needs to get done.

We find ourselves in a time where each of us, specifically those of us in leadership positions, are being asked to understand in a different way: To empathize and hold compassion in a new way—a sustained way – not for one day, or a week, or for one month, but for the long-term. And to hold that empathy and compassion for what has been a generational experience in our country, and indeed around the world.

It is not a matter of having to fully understand or embody what another person is experiencing. It is a matter of asking, listening, and understanding that we are all influenced by our own lived stories, experiences, and backgrounds. None of this is easy; it’s messy and requires constant practice and reflection. Sometimes it requires outside support from Diversity and Inclusion consultants to facilitate conversations or provide training. Sometimes it needs a neutral and trusted sounding board to check ourselves and build awareness. Like developing any part of the body or business, it takes work.

This moment in history is giving us an opportunity to be better for ourselves, our teams, and our organizations. Leaders must seize this moment with greater empathy, compassion, and understanding which will humanize our businesses and our society in a new way.

If we want our teams to be able to face the challenges of the coming months, years, and even decades, we need to look at the whole body. It’s time to flex those intimate muscles of empathy, compassion, and understanding in order to accomplish the strategic in our teams, businesses, and society.

Lisa McNeill is an ICF-certified coach and consultant who works with leaders in a wide array of sectors as well as those in transition. Throughout her career, she has worked to build and develop strong teams in international and local settings.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash  

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