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A very results-oriented CEO, frustrated with what she perceived as a direct report’s lack of commitment, felt she had to choose between empathy and effectiveness.  This CEO has been working hard to embrace the concepts in Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead™ , especially the idea that people are doing the best they can.

What Does That Really Mean?

We went back to the source for clarification: “Assuming positive intent does not mean that we stop helping people set goals or that we stop expecting people to grow and change.  It’s a commitment to stop respecting and evaluating people based solely on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing.”

Set Boundaries for Ourselves First

If a team member isn’t meeting expectations, it’s the leader’s job to have the tough conversation and hold that person accountable.  It is possible to do that with empathy but here’s the surprise – we have to set appropriate boundaries for ourselves first.  When the CEO acknowledged that her direct report’s best wasn’t good enough, she made the decision to let him go.  Defining that clear boundary for herself meant she didn’t have to choose between empathy and effectiveness.

What boundary do you need to strengthen to be both empathetic and effective?

Over Under Around and Through

Do you remember Grover on Sesame Street teaching kids about Over, Under, Around and Through?  Check it out: Grover on YouTube.  Grover’s lesson is useful in understanding how we respond to negative emotions like sadness, guilt, anger or jealousy.  Most of us do whatever we can to go over, under or around those emotions.

Research shows, however, that we need to go through the experience of feeling uncomfortable emotions so we can learn how to accept and deal with them.  Like Grover, we can’t just do it once.  Experiencing these emotions throughout our lives can make us more resilient and able to bounce back sooner.  We can also develop more empathy for others who are dealing with difficult situations.

If you find yourself trying to go over, under or around something, I invite you to consider what benefits might be on the other side if you let yourself go through it.

Are you the person everyone comes to see when they need to vent?  Do you spend a lot of time comforting colleagues, friends and family members and then find yourself depressed and exhausted?

Empathy Can Drain You

We are told that empathy is important in understanding how others feel, and yet it can drain us if we take on too many of someone else’s negative emotions.  Practicing compassion along with empathy enables us to relate to others who are suffering without becoming too distressed.

Take Action

Taking actions like these helps us feel that we can make a difference and gives us strength to resist the temptation to wallow in someone else’s misery:

  • Avoid blame
  • Encourage cooperation
  • Give to charitable causes

If you are a naturally empathetic person, I invite you to consider approaching the other person’s pain from your point of view rather than trying to mirror their feelings, and notice the impact on your mental health.

listening

Do You Hear What I Hear?

As the Christmas carol says, “Do you hear what I hear?”  If we’re honest, mostly what we hear is ourselves talking.  Telling others what we think they should do or how they should feel or what we have accomplished since our last holiday letter.

What Am I Doing?

In our results-oriented world, it is easy to focus on delivering value by doing something.  Although we think we’re helping by offering solutions, our spouse, colleague or friend may just want a sympathetic ear or a brainstorming partner.

Giving a Gift

This holiday season is a great time to give the gift of listening.  That means:

  • Keeping our mouths shut and holding our advice until we’re asked
  • Emulating Nelson Mandela and focusing on the person who is talking as if there were no one else in the room
  • Restating what was said so the other party feels heard
  • Expressing empathy

I invite you to give the gift of listening generously and often and reap the benefits of improved relationships.