Key Concept ~ Here’s part three in a series of excerpts from my book, “The Transformational Entrepreneur ~ Engaging The Mind, Heart & Spirit For Breakthrough Business Success”, that explore the nuanced challenge of cultivating a vibrant, inclusive organizational culture in today’s volatile world.
The authentic expression of empathy contributes to our presence and is capable of re-engaging disaffected associates. Most of us, at one time or another, have worked for companies and bosses that used us for their own personal gain. I have. Not a lot of fun. The conditioned behavior of caution, of keeping our heads down and not fully and openly offering all of our gifts and talents to the endeavor is a natural result of these past experiences in the workplace. Words alone cannot heal these wounds. After all, language only represents approximately ten percent of how we communicate with other beings. Empathy comes directly from the heart and radiates an unspoken energy that is felt by those we encounter, whether they are immediately conscious of it or not. In a way, it’s the energetic acknowledgement that we’re all connected and share in a common human experience. By being sensitive to the emotions of others, empathy communicates authentic concern for another person’s well being.
I discovered a powerful metaphor for authentic presence while working with Linda Kohanov and the Epona herd of horses at her ranch in Arizona. One of the early phases of the Epona Approach™ involves an exercise called the reflective round pen. As prey animals, horses are natural empaths; they acutely feel the emotions and intention of those around them. They sense emotion as information, information they receive from the intelligence centers in their enormous hearts and guts. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism in prey animals. They don’t stop to mentally analyze or judge these messages. To pause and think about what they’re feeling may lead to their becoming a predator’s next meal.
Horses trust these messages and act without hesitation. The empathic powers of horses are so finely tuned that when they encounter a human that is incongruent (displaying behavior that doesn’t match their intention) the horse will quietly walk away. They feel beyond the masks we humans so often wear with each other. Conversely, if the horse feels a person is congruent with their emotions, good, bad, or, indifferent, they will join up with them. People are very similar. Leaders that are capable of maintaining presence and radiate congruency of intention and emotion will see their constituents wanting to join up with them as well.
Linda prepares the person for the reflective round pen exercise with a horse by having the person conduct a body scan; a self-reflective process aimed at reconnecting the person with the intelligence centers that exist in their body as well as their head. It is an exercise in presence that enables the participant to focus on what they are feeling within their entire being, reconnecting with the messages our body is continuously attempting to send us. By connecting with our whole body intelligence we can begin to get out of our head and into our heart, recognizing what we are feeling and allowing the messages these emotions are attempting to convey to us. It really is the first step in developing self mastery, being completely present within one’s self. Self-awareness opens the mind to see through eyes of others.
My first experience with the reflective round pen offered several powerful revelations. First, when I conducted my body scan (I actually envision a conscious form of an MRI scanning down my body) I noticed tension in my shoulders.
Linda instructed me to acknowledge and expand this feeling and to “breathe into that sensation, sending it oxygen and awareness. Ask it what information it’s holding for you and be open to how your body may speak to you.”
Being a novice with horses I was a bit tense as I prepared to enter a sixty foot round pen with a 2,200 pound black Percheron named Kairos. As I followed Linda’s instructions I sensed the tension in my shoulders inform me to just relax…just be. The moment I acknowledge this message and spoke it out loud the tension dissipated instantly. (This is a consistent occurrence using this practice. My firm, Performance Transformation, employs this experiential learning approach in our various leadership, sales, and team building workshops. We witness this release in more than 90% of our participants.)
I entered the round pen embodying this message, to relax and simply be present. As I did, Kairos approached me, his giant hoofs gently puffing up dust as the physical and energetic space between us narrowed. Before I knew it, his soft nose was touching my forehead, his deep, solemn breath washing over my face; in fact washing over my entire being. We began to move together around the pen in delicate synchronization. Neither he nor I was leading. Neither he nor I was following. Somehow we were perfectly connected in co-creative relationship, entirely in the moment. Our movements anticipated one another’s as we stepped around the pen, side by side, without judgment or mental noise, profoundly connected in a place of peacefulness and trust.
What I had discovered was that by connecting with my embodied intelligence I had truly aligned with my self. A moment of authentic presence emerged and my ability to empathically connect with another sentient being flowed effortlessly. It seemed that Kairos and I felt each other’s presence so clearly we were able to connect on a majestically beautiful and inspirational level. Neither of us attempted to dominate the other, we could simply move in the moment with grace and dignity.
The analogy of what I had experienced in leading the European business team those many years ago was not lost upon me. I had entered into the leadership relationship with an open mind and, perhaps more importantly, an open heart. I did not judge their ways of doing business as worse or better than corporate’s perspective. It was simply their way of doing things that suited their markets and environment. I genuinely cared about their success and empowered them to co-create the relationship resulting in a level of acceptance and respect that still resonates with me today.
Some of us are natural empaths; capable of feeling the emotional energy of those we encounter. This can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Humans that are highly sensitive to these emissions can actually be overwhelmed by the emotions of those they encounter. We’ve all experienced this on some level. Think back to a moment when you may have encountered someone experiencing significant inner conflict; you most likely recoiled from that person without even being conscious as to why you reacted this way. You simply knew you wanted to put space between you and that person.
While it can be challenging, natural empaths are well served by learning to discern the emotional energy of others from their own. Conversely, those of us that are less aware of the emotional energy surrounding us are capable of learning how to calibrate our sensitivity to others.
I learned this while working on the empathy education company project I mentioned earlier in this book. The company used scenario-based learning for clinical health care professionals to elevate their ability to express empathy towards people and family members experiencing a health crisis.
There is a significant difference between simply being present, expressing authentic empathy, and trying to fix the person or situation. As we learned during this project, this is an exceptionally difficult delineation for health care providers and people drawn to serve others. They are attracted to their profession by their desire to heal people, to ease their suffering by fixing their ailment. It is difficult for them to accept there are certain situations they cannot fix, and attempting to do so beyond a certain point communicates a paternalistic, almost patronizing message to people in deep emotional pain.
What we discovered was the clinicians needed to learn to let go of this attitude and accept, what in their conditioned, well trained terms is considered defeat. In other words, accept things exactly as they are. The kindest and most conscientious expression they can offer at that point is empathy. In certain situations they can no longer heal the body yet they can still help heal the spirit.
The lesson here is that empathy does not require action, only presence, authentic listening, and the allowance of space for emotional processing. Simply being sensitive to the situations of those around us and quietly acknowledging what they may be experiencing is an expression of empathy. We all experience ups and downs in our personal lives. If leadership wants associates to be truly engaged, they must recognize these trials and tribulations will inevitably follow people into the workplace. Authenticity recognizes emotions, both highs and lows, as part of being whole and present.
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