Being attuned to others

Talking with people in organisations, beneath the surface of the everyday activities that go on, I frequently hear how tough today’s work environment is for them. In the public sector it is the cutbacks and the consequences for people’s jobs, in the private sector it is the consumer slow-down in spending and the faltering world economy. Personally people are feeling financially very under pressure and squeezed. Optimism is less common. One businessman said to me on Friday that he felt people have become very self-centred and survival-oriented, a kind of emphasised “me-first” attitude.

In this environment, it is tempting to discount others and to treat others with less than they deserve. Yet it is those others who are maybe struggling a bit and need help. If we’re closed off to others, help is less likely to occur.

This is where being emotionally available and empathic is so important, although lacking in very many at work, often dismissed as being “touchy-feely”. Daniel Goleman speaks of “social radar”, that crucial aspect of emotional intelligence where we are attuned to others, can sense the undercurrents, can pick up on what might be going on, and can thus respond appropriately and potentially more aligned to another’s perspective.

The ability to get what might be going on for somebody

To have empathy is to be able to metaphorically sit alongside someone and see as much as we can what it is like from another person’s perspective. We can’t “know how they feel”, as we aren’t them, although people often mistakenly think they can, but we can attempt as far as humanly possible to find out their perspective. It involves listening non-judgementally, pure listening, and not going through the motions but really hearing another. It involves being observant and noticing what’s going on. Also we need to notice the subtleties, like changes in the atmosphere, in facial expression, body language, skin colour and so on. It also involves noticing how we ourselves are feeling, and our ability to be sensitive to ourselves. How we are feeling can be clues to another’s, as people often resonate with one another.

This skill, if that is the right word, can be developed if one chooses to develop it. For many of us though, we’re closed off to others through our life experience, the codes of work behaviour, our own social fears and discomforts, and in other ways. We become desensitised and disconnected, both from our own life force and being attuned to others. This is where developing self awareness can be so useful. When we’re more self aware we are more able to pick up on the clues inside us to what might be going on for others. When we’re better attuned to ourselves, we are more likely to know what’s really going on for us and what therefore might be going on for others. We can then be more attuned to others and get what it might be like for them, to be more empathetic.

Arguably, this skill or attribute of empathy is now sorely needed, where people are self-focused, narcissistic, suspicious if not hostile to others, especially those different from themslves, separate and divided. “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, Lincoln said. We need to reach out and empathise with others’ pain.

Being attuned to another person starts with being attuned to oneself

Being attuned to others, being on another’s wavelength, is a vital but much neglected skill. “You’re not hearing me”, is a frequently stated complaint by people who feel others aren’t understanding or appreciating their standpoint. Thus do conflicts occur. Empathy too, the ability to see a matter from another’s perspective is rightly emphasised in leadership development but it is very common to find this skill to be lacking in emerging leaders. It is often also missing in couples who don’t get along together. To have empathy, we first need to tune into another and have clear perception.

Attunement to another involves being attuned to ourselves. That’s where we learn it, as too from a parent who pays us attention, listens to us, and gets us. If we didn’t get that attunement from a parent, we can still learn it later ourselves. Here’s where mindfulness can give us the ability to learn to tune into ourselves, on a regular basis if you have a mindfulness practice. Simply by attending to the flow of the mind while keeping an open, non-judgemental perspective, you can notice, monitor and modify your own state, your feelings and your thoughts. You can get finely attuned to your different moods and to how your body feels, and how you react to different situations. You can get to know yourself very well this way. This sensitivity to yourself can then be extended to others.

Knowing ourselves from the inside

This is the process of interoception, the skill of perceiving inside ourselves and being able to sense what is going on. A mental body scan does this quite well, and with practice you can do it fairly quickly. We use the mind to scan, so to speak, through the body, tuning into sensations and feelings, pains and discomforts, unaccessed emotions, tension, energy, unmet need, longings, desires. Then you can use the practice of mindfulness to observe what comes up and, with practice, you can yet stay detached from it. Then you can learn also how to manage it differently through this state of being the non-judgemental accepting witness of what occurs rather than thinking that this is you. This then also applies to your attunement to others.

As we learn to be better attuned to ourselves and understand what that means, we are more alert and aware with others too. In fact through our attunement to ourselves we can learn to recognise senses and feelings that can also tell us about another and their needs, and to discriminate between what is our stuff and what might be another’s. This growing knowledge helps us with empathy towards others and our ability to support them. Then of course we need to recognise when we are perceiving others through our own coloured glasses of our stuff, and when we not, and when we can set our own glasses on one side and truly be there for another, what in Gestalt Therapy is called “the rule of époché”, or bracketing off our own stuff. To make this distinction is very important. Self awareness is key here.

People who work with others, like therapists or coaches, often need to do this work on themselves if they are to be more effective in helping others. This also applies to leaders, although relatively few take this journey to any serious degree. More’s the pity since the world would be a better place if they did.

Lack of empathy and social awareness can be very damaging

You’re having a row with your partner. In the midst of the fury, they scream at you, “you’re not hearing me!” You might carry on with self-justified, self-righteous anger, and then you might pause and think, for a moment, “what have I missed here?” You might just have saved your relationship. Been there? What cost lack of empathy in relationships?

It will be all right
It will be all right

Empathy, put simply, is the ability to be aware of and sensitive to another person’s perspective. It can be an emotional sensitivity, in which one senses another’s feelings, or it can be a cognitive or thought-based process where one seeks to grasp another position than one’s own. Sadly, this ability is lacking for most people, but it can be developed. Lacking empathy can have damaging consequences in certain situations.

As many in the “people business” will testify, empathy is surprisingly low in the general population. Research has shown that only about 20% of the population are genetically predisposed to empathy. Those who in their work are involved in managing and developing others, or where what they do requires a good level of awareness and sensitivity to others, know that empathy needs to worked on to enhance performance. Those in relationship may also report that their partner lacks a certain sensitivity and understanding towards them and an appreciation, for example, of their needs. In fact it can be a complete blind area for certain people, with potentially unfortunate results.

An example might be where a customer makes a complaint but the customer service person responds by being defensive and self-justifying rather than getting where the customer might be coming from, what their problem really is and thus being better able to identify what isn’t right, fix it and thus retain customer satisfaction. Often a shift is needed, away from our own perpective and into trying to understand and respond to another’s perspective.

We might think we are a particular person with a particular style but we may be very unaware of how others experience us and the impact we have. As many at work will testify, managers with low Emotional Intelligence (EI) will be sources of stress and work anxiety. They will struggle with building effective relationships and are more likely to adopt poor management techniques which might deliver results but at a social cost. A classic way this shows up is the difficulty they may have with performance management and developing others, a crucial area in organisations today. Thus developmental discussions could be in danger of being instructional and one-way if empathy is low. A manager might fail to pick up on signals, not tune into a potential difficulty, not understand how and why someone might be having difficulty, not respond suitably to requests for help, struggle to understand another’s perspective, not utilise to best effect another’s views and contribution, etc. Today’s world of work actually needs strong collaboration, interactivity and mutual support. Low EI can be very counter-productive in this aspect.

This lack of empathy and social awareness blind spot can be very damaging and while the manager might deliver, he or she might do that at a social cost, in low engagement, high stress and high turnover in talent.

Equally outside work, a lack of empathy and social awareness can limit one’s ability to attend to and respond to the needs of others, such as in relationships, and people can feel undervalued and unappreciated and not taken sufficiently account of. It’s a common reason for people to leave their partners. Also children who grow up without sufficient attention and responsiveness from a parent may then lack this crucial skill as adult, and also potentially feel that no one was there for them as children. This can then get passed on to their children in turn.

As I suggested above, it is possible to turn this around. People can be taught empathy, and build the necessary self awareness that goes with it. They can learn how to tune into others and get where they are coming from. They can learn to build better relationships with others, and thus have their work and their lives be vastly more fulfilling in consequence. And the impact on others can be of incalculable value too.

Do you relate well to others?

Do you relate well to others personally and at work? Do you inspire, lead and motivate them well, or do you struggle in the “people” aspect of your job? It’s common for people to minimise this part but it’s crucial to things going well.

Business leaders have finally woken up to the fact that “soft skills” make a big difference to the bottom line, after years in which people have denied its importance and minimised the value of such training and coaching. Many in the Learning and Development industry will of course be thinking “told you so”, that people need to be able to relate well to others, but it must still be a cause for celebration for many that at last the truth is out in the open, and it needs all the support it can get.

It was, for example, argued in a campaign by employers that coaching and training in such areas as communication, initiative, interacting with customers and team working can make an impact to the value of £88 billion a year in increased productivity and reduced operating costs. It is said that this is particularly so in businesses that rely on “face-to-face human interaction.” An example of this relates to the field of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Research has been showing for a long time now that EI is far more important than IQ in terms of a leader’s capabilities, in the proportion of 85% for EI to 15% for IQ.

Another example is how time gets lost in needless conflict between managers and between their teams. Only when the managers have resolved their differences and found a better way of working together have results improved. Personal differences often get played out in intra-organisational issues. Another, again, is where a manager believes that to manage effectively (s)he has to be strong to the point of bullying the team, and fails to build relationships and rapport with his or her team and results through such methods as simple positive motivation and encouragement.

Key to EI is self awareness, the ability to know your own strengths and weaknesses, but built on that key foundation is self management, the ability to self manage and act appropriately, and social awareness, in particular empathy, to understand and get alongside others. Then the fourth key area comes into play, the ability to build good relationships at work.

People need to get comfortable working with emotions, whereas historically they have been viewed with suspicion by senior managers. A business that has a positive emotional climate is where people feel good to be there, where they feel connected to and supported by one another, where they feel safe to be themselves and feel confident in what they are about and where they are going, where they can be open and honest and trust one another, where they willingly collaborate to make things happen, and where their abilities are recognised and rewarded. That’s not done just by throwing money at it. It’s done by building engagement, involvement and commitment. That kind of organisation is where people relate well to others, and which has a positive emotional climate, communicates well and gets good results from its people. It is very likely well-led.

Are we losing our ability to have empathy and to connect?

We must have all done it, a gathering round the dinner table, and there’s a quiet moment as everybody is on their phones or tablets, with snippets of conversation in between. Perfectly normal, you might think: everybody is checking their phones. Except that that is what occurs a lot right through the year where people are together or alone. This world is now getting brilliantly connected. Yet do we notice any disconnect with others we’re with, our lack of attunement to others, that we don’t have empathy?

Being a big user myself but also a coach of relationship and interpersonal dynamics, I’m frequently observing what occurs in the use of the gadget in one’s hand. As the law now recognises, people can’t effectively concentrate on driving and use a mobile phone. The focus gets drawn into the latter and people miss crucial and sudden events on the road, with sometimes fatal results. When we focus on our phone, our attention is drawn away from what is occurring around us. Thus we are at best only partially present to those around us. To another, it can feel, if they are so bothered, that “the lights are on but nobody is at home”. Disconnected.

Connected but so disconnected

The “inner world” of the phone or tablet is very absorbing. It is also very addictive. It’s now reckoned that people up to the age of 18 now spend over 7 hours a day so connected. However, more concerning is the potential cost to interpersonal relationships. It has been found from social-scientific studies by Sarah Konrath that there are now 40% lower levels of empathy for the age group 25-39, that is roughly the age range of Millennials or Generation Y, than earlier age groups had, along with a corresponding rise in narcissism. It is also being suggested that people are losing the ability to cope with “doing nothing” and where we don’t have a distraction.

What empathy means

To have empathy is arguably the crucial area of development for people interpersonally, and a fundamental aspect of emotional intelligence. As we grow and mature, we realise more and more the need to understand and relate to others and take their needs into account. Empathy is the ability to tune into another and get a sense of where they are coming from, to gain some awareness of their perspective. Without “social awareness”, people can struggle to connect at a meaningful level and others may sense they do not really have a relationship with them in a way that fulfills.

Being connected with others is not a digital occurrence although that is one way we can communicate. What is crucial is the ability to be present and aware of another, right now, in the moment, person to person, in the room, with all our senses engaged, and with our thinking, feeling and behaviour. We hear, see, feel, smell and taste another. Psychologically we are “there” for another, available, conscious, valuing, caring. We notice what happens for another. We respond appropriately. We become attuned and resonate, and become as one.

You don’t get all that from a screen.

The challenge is that there are many who don’t have good levels of empathy. It’s a major weakness for those in business, for example. Leaders who lack empathy are poor leaders at the people level. If you are in a job where people skills matter, it can be costly. In personal relationships it is what makes for a good relationship: how often do you hear people complain that their partners are not “there” for them when they need them?

The danger is that people don’t know what they are not aware of. Thus building self awareness is an important starting point, and getting feedback from others. We can change things once we know what’s really going on, what we need to fix. And we ourselves have to take charge of it, to make the changes.

A fundamental human need is relationship. We are social beings. Being disconnected from others is a major source of unhappiness and depression.

Do you not relate well to others?

Do you find that in some area of your life you lack the ability to relate well to others? You’d not be alone, since our ability or inability to connect with others is something that is the cause of much heartache and conflict in our society and in organisations. For some it is about avoiding making effective connections and for others it is where they overdo it and cause harm. Some people are for example reserved or non-assertive while others can be aggressive.

The importance of self awareness and emotional intelligence

A key underlying issue to whether we relate well to others can be due to a lack of emotional intelligence, our self-awareness, how we manage ourselves, our awareness of others and how we build relationships with them.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is often described as the distinguishing feature of good leaders in organisations, and yet it is not one that figures amongst those that leaders themselves express, the latter more often judging themselves and being judged by their results. As one client client said it to me once, “I deliver but I leave bodies”. However this perception can mask the underlying contribution to success of EI, since it is arguably not so obvious and can be dismissed in business macho cultures as “soft skills”. What matters, it is implied, is “hard” results. Coaches know otherwise since they are so often working with their clients to connect more with their “soft” side and in that of others in order to get better at the hard end.

In personal relationships, what can be key is our ability to be aware of what is going on inside us, especially emotionally, to manage ourselves and our feelings, to sense and empathise with what is also going on for another and build a connection where there is authentic resonance, where we truly get one another.

When I start coaching people I often find it is in this seemingly scary arena of our emotional life in relationship that can be a minefield for people. Thus it pays to unpick what goes on for people so that they understand and know themselves better. Self awareness is absolutely the most important area to work on. If we don’t know ourselves, we don’t know what to change in how we relate to others. With self awareness comes the ability to identify and manage what occurs in us and thus be able to deal with disruptive emotions and be more present, calm and centred. Teaching people self management skills is in itself a course in how to manage life.

At the same time we also explore how we might learn more about what goes on for another, so that we can better relate to another. This requires emotional self awareness since when we know more of our own emotional life we can do the same for others – though, let it be said we never “know how you feel!” But we can ask, find out and respond appropriately. As we tune in better we also learn to manage our responses better. One flows with the other.

Building better relationships is the final arena, and key to people having better personal lives and managing others better at work. It is all about how we connect and build resonance, how we overcome our own and others’ barriers, how we get others on our wavelength and us on their’s, how we tune in and speak their language and help them better understand our’s, how we value others and help them understand our values, how we get others along us, how we resolve conflict and build trust and good everyday communication skills, and how we become more fulfillingly connected.

Then the love can truly flow!

To find out more

To find out more about my coaching, click on the link just given and you can contact me here.

When banter becomes abusive to another

When does banter become abusive, such as for example harassment? I was having an interesting discussion about this the other day and most in the group thought that banter was good-natured humour directed towards someone else. How can this be a problem? However, I suggested that one test as to whether it is no longer “good natured” is how the recipent might feel as a result.

If you look up the word “banter” the OED has it as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks“. In certain organisations banter can be quite common-place, and it can be part of the culture of groups and what helps cement how they work together. Many will say it makes for a friendly workplace, and would look askance on people who challenge it. Yet there can be a fine dividing line between humour which is innocent and that in which one participant feels uncomfortable. What is more, the culture or the character of the recipient may be such that people may be reluctant to “go public” and challenge the interaction.

To be at the receiving end of banter can be an uncomfortable experience for some

Let’s say for example that the teasing, which for one person may be quite innocent may have uncomfortable connotations for another. Under the 2010 Equality Act in the UK certain “protected” areas include gender and gender reassignment, disability, ethnicity, religion or belief, age, and sexual orientation. Somebody might for example include potentially unfavourable references to aspects of another that touch on one of these areas of sensitivity. Or, one person might make uncomfortable references to another’s personal characteristics. All under the guise of “humour”. Then there is the distinction between “innocent” humour and that with a different underlying agenda, a kind of indirect communication at another’s expense. The gradations can be fine ones, and subtle too. One colleague who experienced the hurtful end of a certain kind of banter says that when banter has a less wholesome intent, “you can know it because it feels like a knife in the guts.”

Some are reminded of childhood experiences when they were teased at school and all would laugh at the jokes aimed at them. Many would learn to laugh with the others in the hope of deflecting the attention, and try to appear not to be hurt but instead to “take a joke”. It might even be more socially acceptable that you could do this, often so as to “fit in”.

How might the recipient feel?

What can be lacking in some of these situations is empathy, the ability to perceive another’s perspective, an aspect of emotional intelligence, how another might feel. By contrast, being able to sense another’s perspective can cause one to pause and reflect before speaking. What might work with one person might not go down so well with another.

Moreover the means by which people can enjoy humour can help foster one’s role in a group, and the level of influence enjoyed, and yet needs also a degree of integrity in the use of that humour, in that it is used with respect and which in turn honours another person’s rights. Our society is less geared to earning brownie points by the extent to which one person shows integrity and respect, as against power, influence and esteem in the group. Yet it might be a measure of how far we are progressing as humans in society when the former is what people in the ultimate are remembered for rather than the latter.

Feeling empathy needs not to cloud your judgement

In the emotional stakes it is good to see empathy now playing a big part and yet there are cautionary points to be made. Just because you empathise with someone doesn’t mean you do what they want, but it can play a powerful part in building bonds and connections and in influence.

In the last US Presidential election Obama was able to make great play of his opponent’s perceived lack of empathy. For example he was able to portray Romney as uncaring with regard to the alleged 47% of the population who he said was government-dependent. Thus whether you are empathic (“I feel your pain”) can make a difference in how you are perceived and impact how you deal with situations and people.

As this blog has pointed out in numerous articles, empathy is a key factor in emotional intelligence and thus in your ability to build relationships and influence people. However, it is not enough to simply empathise with another. You also need to act appropriately on the data received. As you can read on the above link, there’s plenty of evidence of people getting another’s perspective but then not responding as one might expect, for example compassion not being aroused and a different course of action being followed that might well not serve the interests of the one with whom you might experience empathy.

Thus alongside empathy needs also to go a set of values, principles for action, that guide one’s choices. One might have concern for the suffering of others but instead of a government bail-out one might advocate the dismantling of state aid as an action more likely to serve the interests of the sufferers. One group of people may hold different value sets to another. Then again, having empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. “I feel your pain” can mean being caught up in another’s stuff, whereas the effective use of empathy is to attempt to understand another’s perspective but not to be so caught up. In other words it needs not to cloud one’s judgement. This is an attribute observed in well-trained counsellors and psychotherapists. Having empathy can give you more choices and can potentially enable you to respond to others in ways that shows awareness of their perspective and that you have taken account of it. But it can still mean you can take tough decisions when you need to.

A powerful way this can be seen is when a person, for example, devotes time to hearing someone’s perspective, and showing they have genuinely heard, such that the speaker really feels “heard”. Even though the decision may not go the way the speaker might have hoped, the fact that they got to put their position and felt heard makes a difference. Yet along with that there is also the decision made and whether it was fair and reasonable. Hence, even with the display of empathy, other principles come into play.

Thus empathy can play a powerful part in the skill-set of the self aware, emotionally intelligent person, but they should not let it divert them from trusting their judgement and taking what they genuinely believe, according to their well-tested values, is the appropriate course of action.

Forgiveness can mean you need to let go of something

Forgiving another can be the really hard bit in dealing with a problem in relationships. Yet that’s so often what we’re told to do, forgive. But is this true forgiveness?

Part of the problem lies in the term itself. People associate forgiveness with “letting people off”, as though what we are supposed to do is go and say, “You’ve done this but I forgive you.” This can be really difficult, especially as there’s things like hurt pride and a lingering sense that the other person was really at fault. So we have blame involved and we also don’t want to be seen to back down.

It can be even harder when we have done something too to the other person, because we fear we may have to go and admit something. Thus the sense of “losing face” can be all the more problematic.Then we might fear we’re giving power to the other person, or that they have the moral advantage.

Human relationships are stuffed full of all this. It’s how countries have ended up at war and whole peoples have suffered genocide, let alone the feuds and private wars that go on. Backing down, as it seems, is impossible.

Here’s another definition of forgiveness: “giving up the right to punish and truly letting go of all resentment.” There’s a big difference here. This is about a shift in you, without any expectation from the other person. It’s unconditional, non-judgemental. It involves letting go, giving up all the stuff that’s going on inside, all the blame, the judgements, the beliefs about what we think the other person or persons did or said, all the stories, all the allegations, all the so-called “facts” (really points of view), all the hurt we feel, all the pain, all the costs, all the hurt pride and the damaged ego, the whole lot.

This is the hard bit. Letting go of something in ourselves. Going and saying “I forgive you” to another is surprisingly quite easy, especially as you may not actually mean it. But to let go of it in yourself, that’s the real journey, the real healing: letting go of all that anger, upset and bitterness. Peace at last!

I coaching people in improving and maximising their relationships. Click here.

Letting go can be so hard to do

You might hear people say, when someone is struggling with a problem or challenge, “why not just let go of it”? Letting go can sound easy to say, but it can also be really hard. Like letting go of relationships we’ve been in, breaking up with someone we love, where we’ve invested a lot of energy and emotional capital. You might know you need to let go of a situation you are in but a part of you just keeps on at it, like a dog with a bone.

When a separating couple are in dispute and won’t let go

I’ve been reminded recently of this struggle in a situation where two people have been in dispute, during the process of ending a relationship. Each had a very clear view of their position and believed they were right and could “win” their case. However, while for one party it didn’t hurt, for the other it was likely to be very painful. Somehow she needed to let go of the matter and make a settlement, even if it was costly. That would be a strategic move that would avoid worse to come. However, it was hard to let go. She had invested a huge amount in the dispute and believed strongly that she had suffered injustice. Despite being aware at one level of the need to let go, another, very big part of her was very caught up in the injustice. She would even have all sorts of fantasies about engaging the other in a physical fight and being very violent, and of course “winning”. It would keep her awake at night.

I put “win” in inverted commas because I would suggest that people don’t really win, since it tends to come at a cost and victors end up with further issues later on. Yet “win/lose” and its concomitant, “right/wrong,” is another of those ego games that go on, another way we play out the drama of relationship at the ego level.

So what is this investment that we make that we find so hard to let go of?

Our investment in holding on and not letting go

Is it that what drives us forward, that keeps us engaged and with antlers locked, is really the fear of losing, of seemingly admitting we’re “wrong”? And what’s that about? Often it is the fear of the shame we might feel. People really dislike shame and will do all sorts to avoid it. Yet, what we resist we get and it keeps driving us. Is it the feeling of injustice, of having been “wronged”, of something not being “fair”, or a sense of having suffered an injury, or of being a victim? All sorts of old hurts can come with this of course, going back a very long time.

Maybe also there’s even something else behind that. It can be very useful to explore our own pain in a conflict and get what’s really going on, what’s really driving our behaviour, even if it seems like the other has “caused” it. Using the power of developing your self awareness is one way to do this. So, in our example, there’s perhaps the pain of separation, the “breaking of the interpersonal bridge”, as Kaufman calls it in “The Psychology of Shame.”  This is primal stuff, going way back, and yet is so often core to how we are in the world as humans. It was when we fundamentally expected something of another but were thwarted or got the message that it was wrong. The severance of the connection is felt as shame, and we can feel it acutely, but we resist it and over time get into battle over it.

Hence the connection also with relationship, which we don’t like to let go of either!

It’s a tough one, since we are really only playing out our drama with ourselves. The real disconnect is within, but we play it out in the experience of duality in the world out there. Letting go of the drama of conflict and injustice opens up the pathway to inner peace. We are no longer at conflict with ourselves. Letting go is often accompanied by a sense of peace. All there really is is One. So, it’s worth remembering, whenever we feel reluctant to let go, that what we are really resisting is our inner truth of Oneness. It’s another way to re-member.