Empathy Starts with Curiosity

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Peter Bregman for Harvard Business Review and the HBR  Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Rainer Elstermann/Getty Images

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“I’m feeling deeply unsettled,” my client we’ll call Keller, the CEO of an investment firm, said to me.

“Of course,” I could reply, “we’re in unsettling times. Especially for you, a CEO whose organization is disrupted. You’re worried about cash and operational continuity. And you’re in the investment community. How can you not be unsettled in the face of such dramatic and unpredictable market swings? I totally get it.”

That would have been the most obvious thing for me to say. It would reflect my empathy, my understanding, my connection, my own knowledge and expertise. We’d both feel good about the exchange. But it would have been a mistake.

A mistake because, especially in this very new, very unique moment, there’s a response that’s even more powerful when someone expresses their vulnerability. A response that’s important and necessary before empathy. And that’s curiosity

Because the truth is, I don’t know what’s going on for Keller. In fact, Keller hardly knows what’s going on for Keller. We’re on new ground here. And while everything I could have said could have been true, I don’t actually know what is true. Which means that before demonstrating my understanding, I have to develop it. I need to ask questions and be open and listen and learn. Which takes humility. Humility is not knowing. And that, eventually and almost always, leads to empathy which leads to compassion.

So when Keller told me he was feeling deeply unsettled, I asked him to tell me more. I’m glad I did.

See, Keller didn’t talk to me about his role as CEO, his operational challenges or his investments. He’s a solid leader, and like so many other solid leaders I know, he’s sure-footed and capable in times of crisis. No, Keller wasn’t struggling as a leader. He was struggling as a human being. Keller talked about feeling scared and lonely and sad and a little lost. He’s feeling the weight of these times, of the uncertainty in human life. He’s feeling the challenges of his family and the psychological shift of being alone in his house versus in an office.

One of the effects of social distancing and working from home is that we are left, much more than usual, with ourselves. Who are we when we are no longer reflected in the faces of the people around us? Who are we without all the external recognition? No fancy clothes and cars to project an image. No praise or even rejection. No feedback at all to define us. This can leave us feeling lost. Or, as Keller put it, unsettled. Maybe you’re feeling a little of that?

I know I am. In a day, I feel everything, often inexplicably. Joy and sadness. Thrill and anger. Frustration and ease. And, of course, fear. But also, of course, excitement and connection. To feel it all requires courage. Emotional courage. Which is why, as important and difficult as it is to stay curious about others, there’s something equally important — and far more difficult — to do: We need to stay curious about ourselves.

That is what is required of us now, in this new moment. A moment that is not simple, clear, or expected. Being curious about ourselves is how we begin to know — really know — who we are. That can be scary. But also, possibly, exciting and freeing. The hardest part? Slowing down enough to actually feel. Do you have the courage to slow down?

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps successful people become better leaders, create more effective teams, and inspire their organizations to produce great results. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Leading with Emotional Courage. He is also the host of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To identify your leadership gap, take Peter’s free assessment.


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