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Emerging Insights, 9 September 2020
“It’s from a quiet mind that you touch with ease … the hearts and minds of others!” Mike Schwarzer


Read, as best as you can, with an empty mind. There is nothing to do, but there is something to see! Explore for yourself what I am about to say!

The first reason Harvey Deutschendorf points to in his article ‘5 reasons we need emotionally intelligent leaders in times of crisis’ is Empathy.

Quote from the article: Maya Angelou said, “People will forget the things you do, and people will forget the things you say. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” How leaders are judged in a difficult time is not necessarily what they said or did, but how they made people feel.

You can read the full article here: https://www.fastcompany.com/90494808/5-reasons-we-need-emotionally-intelligent-leaders-in-times-of-crisis

In a previous life I taught communication and conflict management skills to young police studies students. One of the seven core skills that students had to demonstrate in a role play assessment, you guessed it, was empathy.

So, what is empathy?

As a general definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To be able to step into someone else shoes and see with their eyes, listen with their ears, and feel with their heart!

After firstly, practicing the seven skills one by one, the students then applied them holistically in a practice role play including a conflict component.

After the first run, the students were given feedback by participating role players and from me on the effectiveness of the skills demonstrated. Integrating that feedback, the students then repeated the exercise.

The skill that stood out most for being ineffective in the first run was empathy. Rather than defusing the tension of the conflict, the tension often escalated, ending in a stand-off between the parties involved!

Without fail, as the students showed more empathy at the height of the conflict part in the second run, the tension defused, and the parties involved found common ground to resolve the issue at hand.

Common feedback from role players was that “…it is very difficult to stay angry when the other person is showing empathy!”

When is it empathy and when is it not empathy?

Essentially, if your empathy does not reach the other person, it is NOT empathy!

The way I see it, empathy is not really a skill or technique. It is not something we do on people! When we teach empathy as a skill, we teach it as verbal and non-verbal communication. We teach it as uttering words such as “I understand …!” or “I know how you feel …!” We teach it as showing eye contact, head nodding, open palms. We teach it as showing an understanding for others’ feelings.

For many people, providing that they can associate with someone else’s distress, showing an understanding is reasonably easy when that distress shows up as a more passive or submissive behaviour. But when that person’s distress is more aggressive and defensive in nature and perhaps aimed at us, showing empathy becomes a little more challenging.

How can we possibly be empathetic to that?

You may have tried the head nodding, showed eye contact, uttered “I understand”? Given it your best shot to show understanding? But whatever was going on for ‘them’, you may have felt a little awkward about the way they behaved or simply didn’t feel empathetic towards them or what they felt distressed about. How much of ‘your’ empathy reached the other person? How much did it improve the situation you and the other party were in?

If your attempt at or lack of empathy didn’t make a difference, you most likely got in your own way! You may have gotten caught up in the bias of your own thinking about the behaviours of others. Which in turn would have showed up in the subtlety of your behaviours and the energy that you projected.

Behaviours are never wrong …!

“If someone is behaving angrily … that must mean something is extremely important to them … and I can have empathy for that!” Mike Schwarzer

Let’s think about that for a moment. Behaviours are never wrong! They are humble servants of our thinking, and therefore they are ‘visible’ expressions of that thinking.

Therefore, what must be true for a person to be angry for example, may that be with themselves, with you or with someone or something else? What must be true for them to think, feel and behave in that way?

In their mind’s eye, there must be something extremely important to them, something they value or treasure as truth, that is denied or violated. The fact that they are angry means that this truth is not just a loose concept, but one that they have validated as being true and consequently embodied as a feeling.

So, when we are engaging with others, we are not only engaging with the way they are perceiving the world, but very much the felt experience of that perception.

And that knowledge, presents an opportunity!

“If it is important to them, then that fact is important to me … and I can hold the space for them to just be!” Mike Schwarzer

If you recall from the role play scenario above, the first attempt at empathy often backfired. However, the second attempt, integrating the feedback, was a game changer.

Why was that?

Although, we may observe all the verbal and non-verbal aspects listed above when empathy is doing its job. But the critical difference is where these aspects arise from. Because that will influence your felt experience of your thinking and your intention, and consequently show up in your behaviours and the energy that you project.

For example, if your intention is to show empathy but you get caught up in your thinking i.e. you might be unsure how to deal with an irate or distressed person, you may feel uneasy and defensive. Much of your attention is on yourself. This shows up in your neurology or muscle tension which can be very visible or very subtle. This also emanates an energy that the other person will pick up on even if subconsciously. If the energy you project feels tight or tense, they will feel it too. This is the type of energy that repels others.

Of course, this also works in the opposite direction. When you find the space to stay out of your own head, and genuinely come from a place of compassion and care, your behaviours, and the energy you project will arise from within that space. You may experience that as a state of flow, peacefulness and clarity in body and mind, even in turbulent times. Much of your attention is on the other person. The energy you emanate could be described as gentle and calm. This is the type of energy that illuminates others.

The way I often explain to people when they struggle with showing empathy to a ‘difficult’ person is this. When an issue is so important to that person and they express it in a strong emotional response, I recognise that this is not about the behaviour they display but about ‘a truth’ they are acting from. Their truth, unique to them! And without having to know the content of that truth, seeing the state of distress or comfort it puts them in, makes it important to me. With that I can easily empathise.

Empathy as energy, from a place of innate humility

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself. Humility is thinking of yourself less!” Sydney Banks

Empathy is something that positively enhances another person’s felt experience. In times of distress it expresses itself as a feeling of comfort and connectedness. They feel heard and understood.

As I said above, empathy is not something that we do on others, it is not a technique or process. Rather than that, empathy is an energy that emanates naturally when we come from a place of humility, especially when it arises from the intelligence of our quiet or deeper mind.

As Syd Banks quotes “… humility is thinking of yourself less!”. When we see beyond those words, we find ourselves in place that is not obscured by intellectual thinking but filled with clarity and wisdom of higher-level consciousness. It is also filled with innate love and humility.

And something magical happens when we come from that place. It breaks down barriers with ease, as we step beyond our own biases. We see beyond the façade of labels and judgements we make about the world and others. We see in others, fellow human souls. We see in them the deeper intelligence from which we all arise, and which connects us.

And when we show up from that place, it creates the space where people can become alive, where they are open to us and where they can flourish.

All we need to do, is show up with a quiet mind and hold the space for them! No changing or fixing required. By holding the space, we give them opportunity to drop out of the murkiness of their intellectual truth and see it for what it is with greater clarity or to just sit with whatever is on their mind!

So, in your next encounter with someone in distress, quieten your mind, speak less and listen more, free from judgement and see what unfolds!

Lead the way and hold the space … with love, with patience, with humility, with kindness and with compassion … where others can become alive!

I trust that what you have read has intrigued you and aroused your curiosity! To further explore how you can tap into and lead with humility or simply to reach out to start a conversation contact Mike at mi**@mi***********.com or visit www.mikeschwarzer.com.

I look forward to serving you with my next reflection!

to your highest learning and growth



About Mike Schwarzer

Mike is a Transformation Professional and Learning Leader who is passionate about helping leaders and organisations to solve the problems that they have not been able to solve elsewhere.

He works with the underlying mental, behavioural and deeper innate dynamics that drive people’s and organisations’ thinking and actions. He creates and holds the space where they learn how to tap into their inner and outer capabilities in transformational ways and lift their perceptual abilities to see their world, its problems and emerging solutions with fresh eyes.

At the organisational level, Mike’s approach challenges the status quo and hierarchical thinking. He takes you into the world of living ‘open & adaptive’ systems and their self-organising nature. From there you will be able to create a workplace culture that naturally draws from the collective wisdom of all its people and that is highly adaptable to the changing winds of a complex world.

For more information about Mike visit www.mikeschwarzer.com.