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.