I probably talk about empathy to a singular client or a group of people at least a dozen times a week. I believe that empathy is one of the most powerful things a leader and frankly any human being can develop.
It can open new pathways for connection, communication and understanding.
And, I thought that I was pretty darn good at it.
That was until I realized my own shit was in the way of me being deeply empathetic.
Recently one of my friends and colleagues lost his Mom. Just weeks before he lost his Mom I was with him in New Jersey facilitating a deep workshop on leadership and culture. While we were there he mentioned that he was in the process of trying to get his mother into an assisted living facility.
The next time I heard from him he was on his way to North Carolina because his Mom was not doing well. The next day he informed me that she had passed.
At first, I simply felt sad for him. I knew that his mother was very special to him. I attempted to feel some of what he must have been feeling. I suppose at some level I had a shallow and somewhat normal level of empathy for him.
But that is not what I speak to or expect from my clients or myself. I want deeper levels of empathy.
And this is where I failed and learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes our own shit is in the way of us being deeply empathetic. In this case, mine was.
My colleague is 20 years my elder. I share that to say that within 24 hours of receiving the news that his mother died I went from feeling sad for him to thinking in some way “He is lucky”. He is lucky because I had done the math and he had his mother for 40 years longer than I had my father.
My shit got in the way of me fully being emptathic for this man that I care about. I made it about me. And God knows it was not about me.
As I realized this, I was reminded of something my Grandfather said to me after my grandmother died. I was in Florida with him and he brought me into his room and said, “You know Ted, everyone keeps telling me that I should feel lucky that Grandma and me had so many years together. What they don’t realize is that it is just more years to miss”.
My colleague lost his Mom. One of the greatest losses for any human being. He was not lucky.
I felt bad that I even thought that. I also forgave myself for being human. And then channeled the proper level of empathy for my friend.
I share this with you because I want you to reflect on how your own shit gets in your way of being deeply empathetic everyday in various situations. I am doing the same thing as I write this.
I believe that to be empathetic we must become more aware of our own shit and not always go back to it when someone else is going through something.
I get it, many times we are simply trying to relate. But believe me, it gets in our way of fully relating to the persons authentic experience.
I see this in leaders all the time. They see a struggling employee and reflect back to all the shit they had to endure to get to where they are. And thus, lack empathy and therefore understanding of the unique experience the employee is going through. Because of this, they lack the knowledge to appropriately support and lead the employee to the next level….their shit is in the way.
I will get off my soapbox. Really shouldn’t be on one considering it was my flub up on empathy that lead me to this post.
Lessons in Life and Leadership….as I learn, I will share.
PS. JU, much love to you…I know you now have a hole in your heart in losing your Mom. And when I see you I will simply listen and try to understand your loss.