• Antje

Practical experiences with empathy and COVID19

Working with leaders in organizations, I usually ask, as an opener to a coaching conversation or any other work meeting: “How are you doing? How are you feeling? “. I do this not only now during COVID times but have always done. At the moment I am surprised that usually two things occur:

One, many people answer more along the lines of what they are doing and not how they are doing/feeling. Sometimes I ask again a bit more specifically then, at the risk of being a bit more direct about the emotional state/frame of mind.

Second, when peoples start telling me how they are coping with lockdown or other how they are doing, struggling with this or that…very quickly comes the sentence: “AH but I shouldn’t complain really, because really, we are doing well, we still have work…we are healthy…”. It’s almost as if going there, to the emotional side of what the pandemic does to us, talking about difficulties I am having, is not allowed. It’s as if I have to compare myself with suffering that is even worse than mine and ergo, I am not permitted to complain. I can have a good job AND in this situation, not feel good.

I recognize both of these two reactions as emotional coping strategies (which I have used myself of course). I wonder if they help though.

Keeping busy is up to a point a wise thing to do if by doing so, we get energised by what we are doing, we structure our days in home office times, we create successes for ourselves and we come into contact with people (even if it is over digital means). It can also mean we are using tasks and work/lists of things to do as mechanisms to avoid feeling, to avoid becoming aware of ourselves and how we are really doing and to not want to feel what I am feeling. In my experience, the “keeping busy strategy” works for a certain length of time, then it becomes unhealthy. The awareness of how am I at the moment is the key to a door to checking in with yourself: Hey, how am I? Is there a need to self-adjust? What can I learn about myself (e.g. I am run-down so what can I do to get my energy back up or I am feeling low so what can I do to take care of myself).

In the role of a leader, this awareness of how at any point in time, you are doing, is a very good way to increasing your empathy for the people you are leading. There is very little chance of you being compassionate with someone else if you cannot do this for yourself first. The more empathy you can have for yourself, the more you also have for others.

The second strategy (which Brené Brown calls “ranking your suffering”) can be helpful if you are using it to keep perspective for a while and if it stabilizes you. There are whole national cultures built on this principle e.g. British stiff upper lip. But important to remind ourselves: This strategy is only helpful up to a point, because it has a tendency to negate feeling altogether. Are we not allowed to admit even to ourselves that we are struggling? From an emotional/psychological point of view, this can only work short-term, because we are investing energy to manage this part of ourselves that is struggling or feeling stressed to keep it from popping up into our awareness too much. Are we not better off investing the energy in actually dealing with the feelings that most people are feeling at the moment during the COVID pandemic, i.e. fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration and uncertainty? Using our experience and maturity in figuring out what helps us individually at the moment, whether it is sport, a walk with your dog, a snuggle on the couch with a book or chatting with family, a colleague or a friend (even if it is over ZOOM).

From a leader perspective, this might mean starting the team meeting with the question: How are you all doing? And having the tenacity to dig a little deeper if you get answers around what people are doing (rather than how) or hear somebody say: “Ah, I shouldn’t complain”. This opener in a meeting might lead to a really good discussion in the group about how people in your team are really doing and an exchange about individual coping strategies. This can be a great long term investment for the team showing some vulnerability and building trust. And: Learning from one another is a good basis for team building.

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