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.

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.

How to be present when others are losing it

Do you struggle to know how to be present with someone when they are upset or angry, or when you are tired or going through it yourself? I’m very often struck by how people can lack the ability to “be with” people emotionally, especially those who work professionally with people in challenging situations. It’s like our buttons get pushed or we feel inadequate or lack the resources we need. Somehow, people say, they “aren’t qualified” to handle it.

It will be all right
It will be all right

When people kick off

I remember once on a Gestalt training course unpacking a whole load of grief around the impact of divorce on my contact with my younger son, and how I verbalised it to the group in a way that the facilitator later said she was “out of it” for the duration of my work. I recall she was a parent herself. So this can challenge even seasoned professionals. Luckily I had another who  worked with me.

Yet this doesn’t just apply to professionals. Anybody can face this at times. What about when your partner kicks off about some hurt or pain and it’s you that happens to be there – and they need you to be there? What do you do? Do you do what so many do, and shift about uncomfortably, tell people “not to mind” and “it will be OK”, and not get upset, etc? Who are you really helping here, the person kicking off, or actually you yourself? Are you really telling them to stop?

What we don’t like is being faced with powerful emotions that tap into our own stuff, especially if it touches our own doubts and inadequacies. Yet, there are resources available, if you choose to access them.

Being resourceful: self awareness and self management

One is self awareness and self management, in this case the ability to be aware of your own process and how your buttons can get triggered by other people’s stuff. It helps to know yourself enough to know what is your stuff in this situation, of course! This is often all about personal development – that doing your own journey bit, dare I say, that many of us are today afraid to do. It is also about how you self manage, in this case choose not to get caught up in your own stuff but put it on one side, the rule of epoché in Gestalt terms.

Presence

Another is the ability to be present, to be right there in the moment, thoughts and feelings on pause (I’ll say more about that in a moment), in the “here and now”, still in yourself, centred, at One as I keep writing on this blog, connected with some energy  centre or chakra within like your heart centre region or, in the case of powerful emotion, perhaps your power centre in the  solar plexus region. So that you are aligned with  Source as you are “with” another. “Being with” is all about being present with them. So you are truly “with” them, in support, with mind, body and soul, right there in the moment.

Empathy and respect

Your stance matters hugely too. So think about  it. Here is needed Carl Rogers’ empathy and unconditional positive regard. So you respect utterly the other person right there where they are and what is going on for them. No judgement (this can be tough, but it really matters). No conditions attached. In fact  you  are unattached to everything, including how you feel. You have to let go of all that. And you empathise with them, which is to seek as far as humanly possible to see things from their perspective, although  you cannot “know how they feel”. Thus you can hear their story. And you hear it like you get it. So that they feel heard, which is what so many people need. They may not need to be fixed (which is what so many men try to do  with  women, by the way!). Here’s where you truly stop and be with them in their pain.

Then they will feel supported. You don’t have to take their side, or agree with them, or blame them. Just be there. In peace, bringing peace. Om shanti.

I coach people and give training in these core skills. To contact  me, click here

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.

Empathy brings you closer to others and them to you

I often find that the big blind spot in someone’s development is their lack of empathy. It can show up in various ways, like the lack of sensitivity to what is happening for another, the inability to make authentic emotional responses when someone is speaking of a personal concern, the inability to pick up on another’s perspective or even simply to assume that other people think and feel as they do.

I was very struck by it very recently in observing someone listening to another as she shared what had being going on for her. The woman went through the motions of listening, but the feedback later was that the speaker didn’t feel the person was emotionally “plugged in” to what she was speaking about. It was as though she wasn’t really “getting it” and thus the speaker had not really felt supported or really understood. It’s that experience that “the lights are on but nobody’s at home”. She made all the seemingly right noises, but it lacked a sense of connection or authenticity, what some might call “resonance”.

What is empathy?

Empathy is described as being the ability to sense how another is feeling, to pick up on and respond to someone’s unspoken concerns or feelings, or to understand the issues or concerns behind another’s feelings. It can be a feeling response and a thinking response.

It requires self awareness. It means being able to sense and understand one’s own emotional responses, a “feeling within”. Hence one can resonate with another, because one can sense it inside. Self awareness can mean also that one can discriminate between what is “mine” and what is “another’s”. Hence you don’t confuse your own stuff with another’s. You might get a reminder, but you can make the distinction. This might seem an “advanced” skill, but then when another is sharing of themselves, it won’t serve them if you get into your own stuff. Rather, that is to put it on one side, in Gestalt the rule of “époché“, like putting it in your pocket!

To get where another is coming from is to open up whole lines of communication and action that may otherwise be missed. As above, you can offer better support and be better able to offer help that is tailored more appropriately to their needs. Your communication may be more in line with where they are coming from and with their needs. People may have more trust in you. It is then easier to bring people with you, as with a leader, since what you are saying may more accurately resonate with them, or takes better account of their needs. In business it makes you a better “people manager”. In relationships it is more easy to resolve disagreements or to head them off since you say and do takes account of the other’s perspective and potentially involves or includes them.

While people may go through the motions of appearing to take account of another’s perspective, if empathy is lacking it will very likely lack authenticity and therefore credibility. To neglect empthy is to miss out on a whole world of being with others that brings people closer together and more as One.