“Leading Effectively with Empathy” is a 2‑day workshop I have been successfully facilitating for an international logistic firm since 2017.
It started when the HR business partner of that logistic firm was attending my “Systemic Business Coaching Program” and then invited me to design a leadership program for their international leaders – who work in a culture that is extremely defined by pressure and leading-by-numbers.
I remember, that – when the workshops were announced in the organisation – no one was realistically counting on getting a significant number of leaders to sign up for it. We all thought: who would be working in a logistics company with THAT kind of culture AND be interested in empathy at the same time? Yet, the HR business partner – who had had the experience of the transformational power of empathy in my systemic business coaching training – was committed to bringing empathy into this rather life-alienating leadership culture.
The response was overwhelming.
More than 100 leaders signed up immediately to learn about how to address ‘the human factor’ in leading people. The program’s success soon created further demand – and resulted in an advanced workshop design for ‘Leading Effectively with Empathy Part 2’. So far, I have led 28 workshops in German and English for leaders from all over Europe and beyond. During this time, I have encountered many highly dedicated leaders – often willing to sacrifice even most of their private life for the success of the organization
Yesterday I was leading day one of ‘Leading Effectively with Empathy Part 2’ in English – and something amazing happened! Which represents to me the very purpose of why I actually do what I do. It started like this…
I asked the participants in the check-in round “What made you come back for Part 2?”. One of them answered: “Oh, well, you know, your workshop did not collide with my holidays this year. That is pretty much the only reason I signed up for it.”
I responded “Oh, what a wonderful coincidence…. And it may turn out not to be a coincidence after all, who knows?”
As the day proceeded, I observed that this particular participant hadn’t been stepping forward to ‘enter the arena’, as Brené Brown calls it, but preferred to stay in the role of a spectator. When I addressed it he said: “I do not feel enough trust to step forward. I need more time.“ I suggested another way of looking at this: “So, you intend to wait for trust to come to you – so you can find the courage to step out of our comfort zone? Imagine: this workshop may be over, before that happens! I invite you to make a CHOICE to step out of our comfort zone FIRST. Then, AFTER having an actual experience, I believe trust will follow.”
He paused and looked at me and said: “Now you’ve lost me. I have no clue what you are talking about.”
Then, in the afternoon I invited the group to practice ‘empathic conversations’ in the context of a challenging situation and asked for volunteers. To my surprise, he raised his hand!
He chose to practice a challenging conversation with his superior whom he described as: superficial, unsupportive, holding back information, brushing things off, not listening and completely ignoring the impact of his own behavior. Feelings of frustration, anger, pain and even resignation became very obvious as he was giving us the briefing for the set up.
He started the conversation with a peer representing his superior – and spoke nonstop for 5 minutes! Simply venting his anger and frustration. When he told his “boss” that he was actually considering quitting his job after 25 years of full dedication to this one company, his chin began to tremble and tears started coming to his eyes. Finally he was in touch with what was emotionally alive in him. Expressing his pain, he became more and more relieved of the tension he had been carrying around for years! The rest of us were allowed to witness it and the room became very silent.
Afterwards, I approached him and asked what would happen if he WERE to actually HAVE the conversation with his boss. He was quick to respond: “There is no way I am ever going to talk like this to my boss! He never listens, it makes no sense at all.”
I thought to myself: Somehow this is not over yet. I wonder what is wanting to happen now…? Later that evening I received a call in my hotel room from him. He shared with me, that he would not attend the second day of the workshop.
“Why?”, I asked him.
He said: “I actually DID call my boss after dinner. And told him about my feelings, my needs and what I was missing. And he responded completely different. He was understanding – and we decided to meet tomorrow to sort things out.”
“Wow!”, I said, “what made it possible for you to find the courage to speak up like you did?”
“When I did the role play this afternoon and all that pain came up, I had an insight: I wasn’t actually that afraid of my boss’s response. The truth is: I was really afraid of confronting my own fear of feeling like a failure.”
This is what I call an insight. A very powerful one, too.
What had actually happened here? I have seen it happen so many times. Yet, it seems like a force too rarely tapped into by leaders. By connecting with his feelings and needs, by making himself vulnerable and especially by letting go of his need to ‘be right’ about his boss, he was able to let go of his ‘enemy image’. He re-directed his attention to what was true for him underneath the self-protection, blame and projection. And – this is one of the most powerful realizations – then he was able to take full responsibility for what he cared about and needed. Now no more a victim, rather a player. And then he was able to take an action he had not even thought possible a few hours earlier.
And THAT is the transformational power of empathy.
Now, imagine: what must it be like to work in an environment where EVERYONE is able to practice self-empathy, to take full responsibility and then take the action that can actually make the difference that they really are wanting. Just imagine. IMAGINE. What would that be like? We have an idea of how organizations can get there.
What I forgot to mention …. Previously, my candidate had been handed another area of responsibility – but without being consulted by his superior at all! My personal guess is: his superior thinks so highly of him and believes that my candidate is capable of doing that. On the other hand, my candidate has since to lead people who do work he knows absolutely nothing about! Not Knowing is what makes him feel insecure, incompetent and at the risk of feeling like a failure.
I guess that shame was the feeling he needed to avoid at any cost. I believe that this kind of challenge is going to become the ‚new normal’ and leaders had better get used to it. Leading in the Not Knowing with lots of unfamiliar variables – and to do an excellent job as a leader at the same time. THAT is the real challenge. I believe that one of the most important competencies in the future for leaders and employees alike, is to be flexible and adaptive when it comes to change.
Yet, it is a part of our human nature to protect ourselves and react with resistance, when we are nudged into the unknown. However … change is the new normal! And empathy is one of the most powerful keys to shifting the place where you operate from – especially when you fall into your patterns of your immunity to change. With self-empathy, empathic speaking and listening you connect to yourself on a deeper level and to what is true for you – in order to take sustainable and aligned action.
This connection with yourself makes you become competent in adapting to the new and the unknown amazingly fast!
This is the transformational power of empathy. I was lucky enough to witness it happening.