I won't try to fix you. Understanding why empathy is the key to all connection.
Have you ever had someone ask: “How are you?”
Have you ever responded: “Feeling really tired and overwhelmed with all of the running around.”
Then, a knowing look followed with unsolicited advice: “you should really spend less time on your phone because of the research on phone use and maybe don’t have your kid in so many commitments or at least you don’t have three kids in sports…”.
How does it feel? Irritating, kinda *judgy*, off-putting, like they don’t really get it?
After all, they are just trying to help.
The missing link in conversations such as these is empathy. Empathy is when we connect on an emotional level. It is when we acknowledge the feelings of another person by evoking a time when we’ve felt a similar emotion. Sharing an experience isn’t necessary. Connecting to an experience of an emotion is. By doing so we are able to develop a bond and build a relationship. It sounds easier than it is. As helpers it’s our nature to want to fix things. Leaders who are good at empathy practice it. Empathetic leaders resist the urge to be a rescue hero by fixing things for other people with well-meaning advice. They don’t point out the bright side of a situation that’s hard or offer a one-up where they share an experience like yours that was ten times worse.
Sometimes connecting empathetically is as simple as responding to another’s troubles with: “That sucks. Want to talk about it”?
While empathy is essential in creating connections between individuals, it is also the foundation to building strong teams. It enables trust. If you are going to elicit advice every time you express your personal feelings, you will soon stop sharing with others. Without empathy a team leader can’t relate to how their teammate may be feeling and won’t be able to support them when they need to. During my interview about leadership with University of the Fraser Valley Basketball player Abby Zawada, she identified Empathy as key.
“Empathy on a team is an important leadership skill. You need to be able to feel for someone else if they're having a bad day if they're having a bad game or vice versa. Empathy creates for a better team.”
Let me capture this for you in a story about a swimmer that I know and her coach. A couple of years ago, Sarah trained all summer to qualify for the Provincial Championship in the 50 Fly. I’ll back up here and describe what I mean by “trained all summer”. Starting in May, Sarah was at the pool most mornings by 5:45 am where she would warm up for 20 minutes doing stretches and some cardio. Then, she dove in for an hour of lung busting reps. By the end of it she was truly spent. She would hop out by 7:30 am, hit the shower be at her school desk by 8:20am. The same process repeated after school. Oh, and did I mention that the pool was outdoors? We live in a temperate climate where 5:45 am in May usually means about 10 degrees Celsius and rainy.
Sarah was relentless. She competed every weekend at meets where her times got faster and faster. For those of you who swim, you will know that when we talk about times we are talking about milliseconds. At a certain point, it becomes incredibly hard to take off time in a 30 second race. This went on until the first weekend of August when it was time for Regionals--the most important event of the summer because this is when swimmers from all over the lower mainland compete for a coveted spot at Provincials. Swimmers compete in preliminary races, the top eight move on to the finals and the top three qualify to attend Provincials.
In preparation for Regionals, the club practiced a ritual fondly dubbed Hell Week. This entailed two weeks of intensive training during the middle of July. Between two swims each day, athletes compete in other events such as climbing the Grouse Grind (a Vancouver tradition of climbing 3 kilometres straight up a mountain), a triathlon and extra-long workouts. The purpose of Hell Week is to achieve peak fitness, following which the athletes rest and recover prior to Regionals.
Sarah’s coach decided to celebrate the conclusion of Hell Week with a trip to the local trampoline gym. The kids were stoked! You likely already know where this story is headed. If you guessed disaster, you got it. Sarah broke her finger five minutes after she started jumping. In the dodgeball pit. It was an ugly break requiring a full cast. She was devastated. Her coach was devastated Her mom and all of her teammates were devastated.
But the doctor was clear. No swimming.
She would not be competing in Regionals the following week. She would not be going to Provincials.
What happened next brings me to the point behind this story. Pure, beautiful, perfect empathy. Sarah’s coach felt awful for having suggested the event. He had been with her through the season supporting her, coaching her. For those coaches reading this, I know that you know what this feels like and what it means to be one-hundred percent behind your athlete who is pursuing her dream.
Coach Scott decided not to indulge his own emotions of guilt and turtle by avoiding talking to her. He also decided not to try to fix it all by making suggestions of how she could still compete using water-proof casts and the like. He knew she wouldn’t get the race-time she needed with a broken finger. She just wouldn’t. His third option was to do that “looking on the bright side thing” – pointing out there’s always next year. He knew that none of these options were what Sarah needed from him. Being an effective leader, he chose the fourth option. Empathy. He sat with Sarah while she cried. He told her that it sucked. He told her that he too felt devastated. He told her that he knows how hard she worked and what a big deal it is for her. He agreed with her when she said it wasn’t fair. He listened and hugged her.
In her book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown explains that empathy is not about connecting to the experience but connecting to the feeling underneath the experience. You may never have experienced a devastating injury that dashes your hopes and dreams but you have likely experienced extreme disappointment and frustration. As a leader, that is the experience that you need to draw on. If you, as a coach, can show empathy and teach the athletes on your team how to be empathetic, the collective resilience of your team will be strong.