Applications of Conscious Leadership
I facilitated a conversation recently among a group of seven nurses and CNAs, along with the nursing supervisor and nursing director. It is a group I’ve been meeting with twice a month for about 6 months. The intention of the meetings has been to invite them to take ownership of co-creating the culture they want, to take responsibility for how they are showing up, especially in those moments of reactivity in themselves or in the people with whom they work.
At one point, a nurse said “I wasn’t going to speak, but I just need to say this … when I come to my supervisor and tell her that I’m overwhelmed and need more support on the floor, I don’t want to hear a response of ‘you don’t have anything to complain about … our nursing coverage is much higher than most facilities even when we’re short handed.’”
“I don’t feel heard when you say that, and I get even more frustrated. I want to hear that you understand how overwhelmed I am, how frustrated and disappointed I feel to not be able to provide the quality of care I want to.”
This nurse is describing a moment in her work day when she has a human need for empathy.
The human need of empathy
When our emotions are surging— whether in joy or frustration— we have a yearning for another human being to be present to us, to understand what is going on in us. Not to try to fix us, or make us better, or to try to distract us from it, but simply to be present to us.
Empathy has many close cousins, the simplest of which is the need to be heard. How rare in our work day (or anywhere else for that matter) do we encounter another person who is willing to give us their attention and to listen with understanding. Ahh … to be understood … another close cousin of empathy.
Amazingly, when we are heard, when we are understood, when we get nurtured with the empathy that we need, then we have a sense of being valued, of mattering.
One of the challenges around the need of empathy
We don’t name it, we don’t ask for it, we don’t coach others in how to give it, we aren’t taught the common ways that people “ask” for empathy.
Very often in the workplace, when staff is reaching out for empathy, the supervisor or manager instead hears it as complaining, or whining, or making excuses, or simply “bad behavior.”
Another nurse spoke up, “I appreciate that I can call the nurse supervisor and ask her if I can just vent for a few minutes so I don’t explode, and she gives me the space to do it, and afterward says ‘I can really hear your frustration of how hard it is to work with this patient.’ … That helps a lot. Otherwise, I think I would probably take it out on my co-workers and on the patient.”
When I asked a CNA who had been quiet to check in, she paused for a moment, and said “I don’t really have anything to say … I’m here … I’m doing my job … but I’m not really here.”
I asked her, “Are you saying that you’re getting your job done, but that there’s stuff going on in your life that’s keeping you from being as present as you would like?”
“Yeah, it’s not about what’s going on at work … I’m fine here … it’s even good to be here. But I’ve had so much going on …” She went on to name three people close to her that had died in the last month, one of which had literally died in her arms. “The people here are so supportive of what I’m going through … they give me a hug and say ‘I’m sorry’ … it really helps.”
The need for empathy is pervasive …
We’re more likely to get that need met when we recognize it, and ask for it. In fact, these are milestones of development in becoming a Conscious Leader.
Of course, unless there is someone available to you who is skilled in empathic listening, then you might not get the quality of presence that nurtures the need of empathy. Empathic listening is one of four core skill sets within Needs-Based Communication (NVC), and part of the foundational training for a Conscious Leader.
If we are to meet the human need for empathy in our workplace environments, then we also need structures that support people in their need for empathy. For the group of nurses and CNAs I mentioned above, one of their key structures is the bi-monthly meetings that we have together. They are also encouraged to support each other. To notice when a colleague is in a reactive state, to invite the person to pause and take some deep breaths, and to meet their colleague with some empathic listening.
As another example, in my prior IT business, we had a designated room called the “Gold Room” that was set up with comfortable seating and warm colors where people could go to step out of the work environment for a moment to connect with themselves or with another person.
Empathy is a core human need.
I invite you to learn to recognize it and name it.
I invite you to learn the skill of empathic listening to nurture it.
I invite you to create structures within your work environment that are conducive to empathic connection.
Needs-Based Communication (NVC)* is a potent process that can support us when we are having — or need to have — challenging conversations that matter to us ...
... like giving authentic feedback to a co-worker ...
... or listening to someone at work or at home when we disagree with what they are saying ...
... or how we respond when we perceive ourselves as being "attacked" in a conversation ...
... or expressing clearly our personal or professional boundaries when a colleague has stepped beyond them ...
... or what we do when we feel anger rising in ourselves and we know we will likely regret the words we are about to say ...
... or when we've just expressed something in a meeting that really matters to us, but no one seems to have heard it ...
... or when we're too scared to speak up at all.
NVC guides us to move beyond blame.
Here are some of the skills and benefits of using Needs-Based Communication in the workplace ... or at home:
Needs-Based Communication invites us to expand our perception so that we see ways to bring connection amidst conflict. At the core of this expanded perception is the skill to focus our attention on the underlying human needs that are seeking to be nurtured in any moment, both within ourselves and within the people around us.
Examples of human needs include such things as ...
These underlying human needs are the motivation for our actions and our words ... the "why" behind what we do or say. Because human needs are universal — they are common to all human beings — when we bring them into explicit focus, they tend to stimulate understanding and draw us closer together.
The potency of Needs-Based Communication is in its pragmatic simplicity. In any moment, including a moment of conflict, there are two ways to enhance connection & understanding:
These are radically different choices than we are accustomed to experience when we are in conflict: namely, fight, freeze or flee.
While simple, NVC is often challenging to embody because we are so deeply conditioned to perceive each other through judgments and blame.
With practice, the process of NVC helps us navigate within ourselves to transform unconscious reactions into conscious responses.
What Needs-Based Communication is not ...
Our workplaces and our homes will become more vibrant when there is greater trust and care, and less fear and blame; more conscious responses among us, and fewer unconscious reactions; more listening to understand, and less listening just to respond.
Needs-Based Communication is a pathway to take us there.
If you're intrigued by Needs-Based Communication, I invite you to learn more:
*Needs-Based Communication is based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg, which he called "Nonviolent Communication™" or NVC. I have chosen to call the process Needs-Based Communication for two reasons:
In a trust-based organization where people are valued, crying is recognized as a fundamental way that human beings respond to the world around them. There are many reasons why we cry, and one of them is when we touch into the energy of what really matters to us. THAT's the energy that a conscious organization thrives on ... a shared purpose and an embodiment of our core values that moves us to tears at times.
I remember with fondness overhearing a conversation of a colleague who was inviting an emotionally upset business acquaintance to come to our offices to talk. The business acquaintance expressed reluctance to come because she knew she would likely be crying. My colleague assured her, "we cry all the time around here ... come on over!"
In fact, what we had, and what every organization needs, are structures that recognize the human need for empathy (much as every office has bathrooms and a kitchen for other human needs). In our offices, we created a "gold room" that had soothing gold walls, very comfortable seating and a couch, music with high quality speakers, lots of plants, and adjustable warm lighting. It was a place people could go when they just needed a little time for themselves, or needed empathy from another person. Our Gold Room became a symbol to everyone of how much we valued the human experience in our workplace. And it was the place that my colleague and her business acquaintance went when she arrived.
We also need structures and skills in our meetings so that when a person becomes emotional or tearful, we can hold the space with care and empathy, and invite them, if needed, to seek the space or the care that they need. It takes self awareness, emotional intelligence and skills of empathy for a leader to show up with such a quality.
The acceptance of crying in the workplace is a direct measure of where the organization is on the spectrum of leading through trust vs. leading through fear.
(Above thoughts sparked by this article: hbr.org/2018/06/why-is-crying-at-work-such-a-big-deal)
In a September 18, 2017 article in Fast Company (Satya Nadella Rewrites Microsoft’s Code, by Harry McCracken), McCracken states that “One of Nadella’s first acts after becoming CEO, in February 2014, was to ask the company’s top executives to read Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, a treatise on empathic collaboration … The reading assignment ‘was the first clear indication that Satya was going to focus on transforming not just the business strategy but the culture as well,’ says Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith, a 24-year company veteran.”
Nadella also includes Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication among the short list of books upon which he’s drawn inspiration (The 7 Books Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Says You Need to Lead Smarter, by Harry McCracken, Fast Company, September 18, 2017).