The honest side of empathy in leadership

Carolyn Cleveland, Founder and Managing Director, C&C Empathy Training

“Difficult questions needed to be asked by all; by me, by the clinicians and by the leaders who were setting the scene. What is being experienced? What is being felt?  Most importantly, how is this influencing communication and the impact on long term wellbeing?”

These are some of the words I say at my ‘Journey Through Leadership Using Empathy’ workshops. Words that I use, as I engage on a human level, with the dedicated healthcare staff I work with. The phrase ‘human level’ is key here, as it is the reason I am there in the first place: As a human being, working with other human beings.

Indeed, one of the things I also say, right at the outset, is that I am not there in a leadership, or indeed clinical role. That is an area of knowledge and experience that belongs to those attending and who I will be encouraging to share with me and each other such experiences during the day. No, my role is to share my knowledge and experience of how empathy and emotional awareness, or lack of it, impacts on us individually, organisationally, personally and indeed professionally. My knowledge is not from a text book, even though it has been my area of study for years with counselling and psychology, but from some extraordinary events that brought the presence and absence of empathy and the impact on psychological well-being into a stark realisation for me. From my own struggles to understand and utilise this ‘soft skill’, in the most extreme circumstances, to create optimum outcomes and beneficial ‘hard results’ for all involved.  None more so than when I lost a child in hospital and had to go through a brutal complaints process, led with no empathy, and manage my own psychological well being at the same time.

Let’s face it, most of us, most of the time, are trying our very best to manage our life, our real life, as that is what we share in common, whatever our job role. We may well have family commitments of children and their needs, partners maybe, friends, parents. We will be managing, or not managing other people’s personalities (not easy!). Long work shifts and responsibilities and a multitude of both internal and external struggles. Although we are trying our best, we can often feel like we still are not doing enough. That we are drowning, or failing in some aspect or another, or need to simply ‘pull ourselves together’ and perform more exceptionally.

In the world of social media, we are constantly shown what ‘perfect lives’ everyone else has and what can feel like a scrutinised and procedure driven existence. Soft skills like empathy for others, can feel like the last thing we need to think about developing. After all, 98% of us are hardwired to be empathic anyway, so, yes, I can hear you, ‘give me a break, do I really need to think more about empathy?’  Trust me, I hear your frustration and hear your pain! In fact, often people attending my courses will come in with this thought process already in place. Hard working staff members, with important, demanding and already caring professional roles. But, this is where they find this day a little different because this ‘inside out’ journey through leadership and the role that empathy plays in communication, starts with understanding ourselves and the world we operate in, with honesty. And that honesty is that we are human beings and not perfect.

This honesty starts with me. As group facilitator, it has to. Using my own openness, candour and transparency, staff are encouraged to look at the fuller picture of life without shame, but with thought provoking content, humour and self-compassion. The empathy phenomenon, which is recognised in multiple leadership studies now as ‘the number one skill’ for those in leadership roles to possess is something, I believe, to be incredibly powerful, but not easy always to achieve and is dependent on our own honesty with ourselves. For example, what do we have going on in our world? What are our thoughts about others and self and how are these emotionally motivating our words and actions?

Using authentic honesty and being able to laugh at myself and how I get communication wrong sometimes, yes, that’s right, I do, gives permission for others to own when they get it wrong too and then to start to look at it more deeply. This honesty sits adjacent however to the times that I have found and excelled at empathy in the most difficult of circumstances, reminding staff to recognise when they have too, and to inspire them to see its benefits. As those attending the day examine what it feels like to be really listened to and understood, as well as recognise what psychological harm looks like, they not only learn more about the neuroscience of empathy, but importantly, are reminded what it feels like too. And it feels good. It’s often what makes the difference and forms that all important human connection when circumstances are challenging and not always easy to negotiate your way through. What IS someone actually saying to you? What is THEIR perspective? Are you hearing the emotion? Are you recognising it? Is it fear, sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness? Hearing the emotion is not about absorbing it or ‘fixing it’ but acknowledging it to be their experience. Using the emotional data to understand at a deeper level. Only then can you start to look at meaningful responses and actions.

The journey staff members, including complaints and patient experience teams, clinicians, nurses, matrons and board members go on with me, is not always a comfortable one. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, challenging one’s thinking and looking more deeply at emotions, is rarely a comfortable process, but one where personal growth and learning can take place. One where authentic empathy can develop. Self-care can be nourished. And we, as human beings, can understand ourselves a little bit more to strive to be the best version of ourselves we can be in our leadership and professional roles and personally, as human beings. With mixed anxiety and depression being the most common mental disorder in Britain and the cause of one fifth of days lost from work in Britain, those in leadership roles, can make an immensely positive difference to the people they lead through developing their own emotional awareness and optimising their empathic attributes, and by caring for their own wellbeing and understanding their own needs too, they are best placed to do this.

Carolyn runs full day workshops on leadership and on handling complaints using empathy and is available to speak at conferences. To work with Carolyn you can contact her on [email protected]

To read more about the work she does and testimonials, see

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