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  • Writer's picturekristen lessig schenerlein

The Power of Empathy

“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization." Roger Ebert

In Brene Brown's newest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene describes empathy as the most powerful tool of compassion and an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding. A key element to responding empathetically is if we are truly willing to be present in someone else's pain. Brown takes it further to describe two forms of empathy: cognitive (perspective taking) and affective empathy (emotional attunement or experience sharing) and a combination of both are required for true meaningful connection.

To me, this is why empathy in leadership can be so powerful. When we attune with others, we allow our internal state to shift and to in effect begin to resonate with the inner world of the other. In my personal leadership roles, I always felt that this was a strength of mine and perhaps one of the main reasons I felt a pull to the coaching profession. I coaching, connecting empathetically with each and every client is key. As one of my first mentor coaches explained it as "getting in the circle with your client", a means of connecting with their experiences in that moment and even going as far as to reflect on points in your life where experiences or feelings may have been similar.

What would change in your leadership if you led from a place of greater empathy for the challenges of each of your team members? Could you slow down and take the time to connect with each person you lead to explore what may be going on for them as it relates to their "whole person"...personal and professional? Before jumping in to address an issue with performance, productivity, or results...can you get curious about what other factors may be affecting how they are showing up in their role? What is contributing to them falling short on their delivery? What is standing in your way of taking this approach? Is it a perception of what this approach may mean in your leadership? Are you leery of getting "too personal" ? Feeling stretched for time and seeing this as a distraction from the results or important work that must be done? If it feels "hard" to take a new approach, to me this is the signal that growth is underway. Self actualization is a process and it allows each of us to grow our own leadership power (potential) and to lead from a place of strength.

For me as a coach, the ability to connect empathetically with others each and every day requires me to practice self empathy on a daily basis for myself. Now, as I sit here typing these words, I am keenly aware of what a challenge this is. For me, it is challenging on two fronts. One, I have had this blog entry on my "to-do" list for some time. In fact, it was scheduled to be written in March. I have had to literally coach myself through the exploration of why and how I could have done the complete opposite of what I set out to do in January...create more space in my schedule and life. I have to show myself empathy regularly as I navigate the challenges of managing by schedule as both a coach and a mother, a mother who often gets pulled to the unexpected needs of others. Reminding myself that I made the decision to follow the path of entrepreneurship so that I could be there for my family and so I need to give myself grace when that affects my ability to deliver on ideals or goals I set forth in my business. Practicing this type of self empathy is key, as I would never want a client to feel judged by me (the way I may judge myself) or feel as though I did not have an understanding for what may be transpiring in their work and life during any given session. So why not offer myself that same grace? Yes, I mean practicing what I preach!

The second important reason for me to practice empathy for myself is to ensure that I regularly (daily), put my oxygen mask on first. To hold space for others in a coaching session, I must be showing up the best version of myself for each session. This is ensuring a true "coaching presence" and ability to connect empathetically. I cannot do this for myself if I have forgotten about my own needs. This looks like a consistent morning routine of self care to set me up to be the best version of myself that day. To set intentions for my time, my schedule, and to create the space I need to reset, and to transition throughout the day ( as mentioned in my last blog). Some days this needs to look like a brief "PQ Power Break" and some days this may require a longer walk, a mini yoga flow, or even taking some time in the kitchen to listen to music while getting creative with a new recipe. Where I can often get sabotaged is putting the needs of others before my own. Shifting my schedule endlessly for others, giving up the personal time blocks to squeeze in one more thing , or not being clear with myself or others on my needs. This can lead me to feel anything less than empathetic for others. In fact, I run the risk of becoming resentful. What worse way to sabotage important relationships?

In Positive Intelligence we identify specific ways we all self sabotage through an assessment process that identifies your top "Saboteurs". Not surprisingly, one of my highest ranking is what we call The Pleaser. Basically, this is one of my strengths (of being empathetic) too far.

Thoughts of the Pleaser Saboteur (Empathy as a strength taken too far):

  • To be a good person I should put the needs of others ahead of my own.

  • It bothers me when people don’t notice or care about what I have done for them. They can be selfish and ungrateful.

  • I give away too much and don’t think of myself enough.

  • I can make anyone like me.

  • If I don’t rescue people, who will?


  • Expressing own needs directly feels selfish.

  • Worried that insisting on own needs may drive others away.

  • Resentful for being taken for granted, but have difficulty expressing it.

Lies ( of the Judge & Pleaser Saboteur):

  • I don’t do this for myself. I help others selflessly and don’t expect anything in return.

  • The world would be a better place if everyone did the same.

Impact on self and others:

  • Can jeopardize taking care of one’s own needs including emotionally, physically, or financially.

  • Can lead to burnout and resentment that others don’t give back as much.

  • Others can develop dependence rather than learn to take care of themselves, and feel obligated, guilty, or manipulated.

  • Can drive others away by being too intrusive in trying to help them.

  • Can drive others away by coming across as needy.

So, what is the story I am telling myself that leads me to put other's needs before my own? What is preventing me from asking for what I need? If it is true that having deeper empathy for myself allows you to have empathy for others what makes this such a challenge? That critical voice in all of our heads ( the Judge) convinces us that we need to be "tougher on ourselves, we need to make other's happy..."

Denying ourselves of empathy does not make us stronger, it actually negatively affects our ability to reach our full potential. We must recharge our batteries to deliver on the promises and commitments we make to others-whether that be our clients, our team members, our partner, or our kids...anyone that is depending on us in some way most certainly deserves the best version of us.

So, as I reflect on my own ability to connect empathetically with others, I must also continue to take note of how I am practicing empathy for myself, as I encourage each of you to do. As a leader, what could you do differently in your approach? What becomes possible if you begin by showing up for yourself? How does that aid in building up your capacity for true, meaningful connection with those you lead?

I challenge you to reflect on how you are showing up and the potential impact that practicing empathy for yourself and others could have on your work and life. The ripple effects could be life changing for yourself, for your organization/company, and allow us to have a much greater impact on the world around us. Imagine just taking the brief pause, the pause that at the most basic level allows for consideration of a shared experience, this idea of cognitive empathy. This IS a choice that each and every one of us can make in any moment, when facing any challenge and regardless of our title, position, age, social status, gender, ethnicity, etc. Empathy DOES take work, it takes daily practice, and by doing so it allows for a greater understanding of the world around us. It encourages us to be more accepting of ourselves AND others. Empathy can be the spark that we need to change the world. It begins with letting go... let go judgement...judgement of ourselves first and foremost.

Where can YOU begin to practice more empathy in your leadership?

Perhaps consider it a little experiment in starting with yourself. What could that look like?

Consider this idea of deep practicing deep unconditional love for yourself on a regular basis (yes, daily!) Imagine yourself bandaging wounds of warrior before sending him or her out for another battle. EMPATHY is the POWER you use when your emotional reserve is running low. Make a commitment to yourself and begin the practice. And see if in fact this makes it easier to practice empathy for others!!

"Learning to stand in someone's shoes, to see through their eyes, that is how peace begins. And, it is up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that [has the power to] change the world." Barack Obama

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