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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.


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

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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”, 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 is now being argued in a new 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% to 15%.

My own experience as a coach has shown how true this is. One 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. I’ve often seen how personal differences get played out in intra-organisational issues. Another 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 were 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 has a positive emotional climate, communicates well and gets good results from its people. It is very likely well-led.

I give coaching to build EI skills. To contact me, click here.+

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

We must have all done it, a family gathering at Christmas and at a quiet moment you come into the room and everybody is on their phones or tablets, with snippets of conversation in between. Perfectly normal, you might think: everybody is wishing friends a Happy Christmas. 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?

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 gadget, 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”.

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 under 30, that is roughly the so-called Generation Y, than earlier age groups had. It is also being suggested that people are losing the ability to cope with “doing nothing” and where we don’t have a distraction.

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.

I give coaching to help people develop their emotional intelligence and their relationships with others, personally and in work. To contact me, click here.

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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.

A key underlying issue 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 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, as this article shows.

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. 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 about my life coaching and my business coaching, click on the links just given and you can contact me here.

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Being mindful of our perceptions helps us to understand others better

Interesting that a woman’s selfie showing her against the background of a man on Brooklyn Bridge being persuaded not to take his own life has attracted notoriety on the net. It’s a good example of the assumptions we can make of people’s behaviour. To many, this is the ultimate in selfish “me first” behaviour, where people see more interested in themselves and how others see them than concern for what might be happening to others.

Some take it further to present this incident as about a disconnectedness within, where people don’t feel others’ pain and indeed can find humour in the suffering of others. At an extreme, this has been a characteristic of political oppression and torture. Being mindful of another and his suffering seems not to occur and there’s no corresponding empathic reaction within, like such sensitivity is switched off.

So, when you click on the link above and read the article, what’s your reaction? Or have you already read about it and made up your own mind?

Yet, the self aware approach in the positive sense can be to notice your reactions, to step back from them, and then ask what’s really going on. I showed this news item to my wife who said perhaps the woman simply wanted a way of capturing the event with herself in it. Maybe she identified with the man on the bridge? Another perception. What’s really important here is that we see something happen and then make up an interpretation according to own filtering system.

With mindfulness we learn the ability to step back from a situation, and crucially to step back from our thoughts, to be aware of what’s happening for us, and thus be better able to see our own thought process and the interpretations we make, and indeed with practice get to know better our own filtering system. Thus we can then be more open to different ways of seeing things and be better able to have a sense of how others might see things, to be more empathic.

You can learn more about the power of mindfulness and how to use it to better your life on our programs or through coaching.

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Lack of empathy and social awareness can be very damaging

Earlier this week I posted on the levels of social awareness and concern for  others and the lack of empathy. I argued that it is possible to develop this Emotional Intelligence (EI) attribute in people. Yesterday I was sent a link to an HBR article which supports this view, with research evidence. As the writer argues, you can improve your EI, with the right coaching supported by feedback from others. This is as relevant at work as in life in general.

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 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 more collaboration, interactivity and mutual support. Low EI can be very counter-productive in this aspect.

I could go on. This 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, low levels of 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 the 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. 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.

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Where being there for others can be a blind spot

In the individualism of much of western and westernising society we can get ourselves into all sorts of knots about our attitude towards the wellbeing of others. In an age when community is in retreat in the mega-cities of today, it can seem as if it is “every man for himself”, “me first”. Yet by contrast we expect a lot of others: witness the current expectation for getting good customer service. However it can be less easy for us to think of others and to put ourselves out for them. And when we do, do we do this our of genuine altruism, or is it really about a referral back to us ourselves and what we might get from the exchange?

One trend in the current Great Recession that has been very evident has been the increase in numbers who regard poverty as someone’s “fault” and that it is seen as a circumstance of their own making. Thus there is wide support for cutting “welfare” payments. This sort of swing is fairly typical of economic downturns, rather in line with a broader tendency to blame others (eg. bankers), find scapegoats (eg immigrants), become more insular (eg. in the UK, anti-Europeanism), and adopt a “pull up the drawbridge” seige mentality, to adopt an appropriately medieval military term. So, in terms of our concern for others, this might seem to be in retreat.

Yet, almost in the same breath, we might see all sorts of excitement and anger at perceived threats to human rights. In Turkey right now, there’s major unrest about this aspect of public life.

It’s hard to have it both ways, to expect things from others to ensure our continued wellbeing and yet to strguggle to give to others. As a coach and personal development specialist, I frequently come across the issues people have with their awareness of others, and in particular empathy. It’s a real blind spot for very many people, the ability to see another’s perspective, to put oneself almost in another person’s shoes. Daniel Goleman considers social awareness to be one of the  cornerstones of emotional intelligence, our ability to be aware of and appropriately use our emotions in the conduct of our lives and in our relationships. I do find empathy can be taught, that people become more effective in being socially aware and responding appropriately. There is a whole school of thought that people are not born with social awareness but need to be taught, for example, to be considerate of others.

One area in which this whole area can be most striking is the notion of service. As I have written elsewhere, service has strongly negative associations in today’s society, being linked with servants and an old social order now long past. We expect it of others, but we don’t find it so easy to give it. Yet, as a powerful tool in becoming more ego-less, service is extremely useful. Service from this perspective is about doing for others unconditionally, without any expectation of a reward, self-lessly. We put our own ego on one side and we be there for others. It is the ego that objects to this: “What about me and my needs?”, it complains. It is not uncommon for those helping for example on personal development retreats to find their egos being challenged in this way and what comes up is highly significant for their growth. One example might be that one person’s ego might actually be concerned about not getting attention for themselves, of feeling too much in pain themselves to be able to serve others unconditionally.

The notion of being there for others challenges us to look at what goes on for us ourselves. What do we need to attend to in us that we’re denying support for others? What deficiency is there that we need to attend to? This whole matter brings us face to face with how the ego, the limited or illusory self, is such a deadly force in today’s human make-up, as people like Eckhart Tolle, Steve Taylor, and others have argued. Inability to deal with and more on from personal suffering and know more of who we really are is a major stumbling block not just personally but in relationships and in how whole groups and nations deal with one another. When we make this paradigm shift, another’s pain becomes our pain too, to deal with and move on from our own stuff automatically invites us to extend this to others, since they are a part of us.

I run a program to help people rise above ego and know more of who they really are. Click here

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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.

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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 concerns, 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”.

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 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 put on one side, in Gestalt the rule of “epoche”.

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.

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Where empathy can be sorely lacking

It can beggar belief, but it happens. Recently a crowd watched as a young man stood for two hours on top of a building about to jump as police reasoned with him to not do it. Many apparently called out for him to jump, filmed it when he finally did and posted it on the internet. Before we get too self-righteous, you might like to pause and ask yourself how often you’ve ever so slightly slowed down on the motorway to look at a serious accident, rubber-necking as it is called.

It might be hard to understand, but there’s a curious fascination in the suffering of others, perhaps a way in which we experience our own shadow. “There but for the grace of God go I”, as the saying goes. It pushes our buttons and one way of dealing with the internal challenge is actually to encourage someone to do what we most fear, a form of denial perhaps.

Yet, with all this, one might also be tempted to reflect on the gap in empathy displayed in such situations. It’s like we shut ourselves off, like a defence mechanism, from another’s suffering, and almost go to the other extreme to distance ourselves. There’s the famous experiment where an actor was interviewed by various participants in the research and when he got the answer wrong was administered a supposed electric shock, and as the wrong answers increased so too did the supposed intensity of the shock. As the administrator of the shocks hesitated, they were urged by the experimenter to continue as it was “essential” to the experiment. In theory the actions would have killed the actor. These experiments were about the level of obedience people may have to authority, with the Nazi concentration camp war crimes in mind. The experiments were and are very controversial, but they happened and many “obeyed” the authority figure, despite their moral scruples. Another cautionary tale is that of Lord of the Flies in which a group of middle class children are marooned on an island and, most of them, revert to savagery.

Empathy, the ability to perceive another’s person’s perspective, is a crucial emotional intelligence competency, and it’s one that arguably not enough many people have in abundance. It’s is arguably a social skill and one that many people need to learn. It’s well-known that managers are often deficient in this area and need to develop this skill in order to better lead others. I have written about it before here. It can be learned and a key start is to practice truly listening to another and getting where they are coming from. Yet, in responding to the suffering of others, it is sorely needed in our society. It is also of huge importance in enhancing relationships of all kinds, but particularly with your nearest and dearest.

I coach people on developing their relationship skills, both for work and non-work situations. To learn more, click here.