Connect. Think. Do.
I’d first gotten the call, an inquiry call for coaching, two weeks previous. In a follow-up conversation, one of the team, one the five co-founders of a hot local startup, came to the phone with a simple plea: “Help.”
In the year since they’d begun their efforts, they’d successfully raised the necessary capital, begun operations, and even turned a small profit. But this tight-knit team was at each other’s throats. We agreed to meet for an all-day session, all five of them, for six hours, starting early on a Sunday morning. It was about the third hour when the breakthrough happened.
The presenting agenda was, as I call it, “The five-year old” soccer team problem: everyone wants to chase the ball and no one wants to play their position. It’s a common problem and one I felt at ease in addressing. But, as the morning unfolded, it quickly became apparent that the roots of all the fighting, all the chasing of loose balls, were layers of unmet needs.
And then there was the breakthrough.
I’d spent part of the morning briefly but consistently modeling one of the aspects of Nonviolent Communications (NVC) techniques most useful in the workplace. The aspect was around giving feedback using of the model of OFNR, Observation, Feelings, Needs, and Request. (I’d honed these skills working with my friends/teachers, Miki Kashtan, Martha Lasley, and Marie Miyashiro as they developed a program called Making Collaboration Real for using NVC in the workplace.)
As the morning progressed there came a moment when Mark felt compelled to respond to some things Nicole had done.
“Nicole,” he began with some coaching from me, “I notice that you prefer to work on a single task at a time.” He paused and I encouraged him to check that out.
“Is that right?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s hard for me to move onto the next task when I feel the first isn’t complete.”
“When you do that it makes me anxious that all the things we need to do won’t get done.”
“I have a need,” he continued, “in fact, the company has a need, for multiple things to be worked on simultaneously.” Pausing to make eye contact with me, he took a deep breath—courageous conversations require vulnerability–he then made a request, “So can you tell us what we can do to help you handle more things simultaneously.”
Not bad, I thought, for a guy who’d just started the practice of giving nonviolent feedback. But then something really magical happened: Nicole’s eyes began to soften, to “shine”, as some say.
The nervousness in the group was palpable; they wanted to move on—we so often turn away from another’s pain simply because it’s not bearable to us, it’s too evocative—perhaps—of our own stuff. I knew they had to hold steady.
I checked in with Nichole; I held a space that Mark had, in fact, opened by his honest sharing of his inner motivations, his inner needs.
“Nicole, how are doing?”
“Well, I was thinking about Mark’s observations. I started paying attention to the feelings I was having, the tightness in my own chest even as he made the observation.
“He’s right,” she continued, “but I started to ask myself why I needed that. And then I realized…I’m afraid I’ll get hit if the thing I’m working on isn’t perfect.”
The pain that had been in the room had now been named and everyone in the room connected with it. Nichole told a story from her childhood of literally being hit if she didn’t get everything on her homework correct. And she wept.
Suddenly this disjointed, angry, fighting-at-cross-purposes team of brash, young, brilliant start-up executives jelled into a single, compassionate, and loving unit. Suddenly the arguments over who got to play CEO and who took notes and got coffee during the meetings became far less important and everyone, myself included, connected with that kid inside all of us who worries about failing and disappointing an aggressive and demanding parent.
The story of this team, and so many other stories from my coaching and venture practices, resonated with me as I read the first drafts of Marie’s new book, The Empathy Factor. Over the years, I’ve served on more than a few boards of directors, worked with both for-profit and not-for-profit companies. I’ve watched companies get born and grow into success stories. I’ve watched large companies falter and miss opportunities. I’ve watched small not-for-profit organizations struggle through the maturation process; some succeed, many fail. And every one of them, and every one of the people endeavoring to do the sacred work of creating something of lasting and enduring value, could benefit from the lessons laid out in The Empathy Factor. (Marie’s got a compelling video on the underlying precepts here.)
My clients, the startup team struggling to become a Team, underwent the process that Marie refers to forming as “an empathetic connection,” a necessary step before educating, explaining, or justifying; she calls it “Connect-Think-Do.” And, in doing so, they experienced the transformative power of empathy.
Any form of educating, explaining, defending, or justifying before someone feels heard or understood, creates more separation than connection in my experience. Therefore, I like to ask people if they would find value in me explaining something before I begin sharing the information with them. When they’re not ready to listen to what I have to say, they likely have needs for understanding, expression, more information, or the like. This is a clue for me to connect with their feelings and needs. When they’re ready to listen to me, they might pause and stop speaking in such a way that I notice they’re now open to hearing what I have to say. Many times I’ve had people say, “Now I’m ready to listen to you.”
On that Sunday morning, the team created a connection that was so powerful that when it came time to explain, to educate or even to understand, the mutual empathy was so great that, unmet needs could be spoken aloud and the foundation for those needs to be met was laid. They were ready to listen to each other.
Marie makes a compelling case for wider-spread use and awareness of the core NVC techniques not just in situations where the violence of our interactions is so apparent but also in the places where we don’t necessarily see the violence done every day in the name of productivity:
“As I studied the model of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) that Marshall [Rosenberg] taught,” she writes, “I understood what he meant. I could see the unconscious and unintentional disregard for the feelings and needs of people, both in everyday relationships and in the world of the businesses, nonprofits, universities, and government agencies with which I worked. I observed that the workplace is full of what I call silent pain. I like to tell the groups I work with that I estimate about 30 to 50 percent of what is said in workplace meetings is not what is heard.
She goes on:
Our workplaces are two-dimensional because the process of empathic connection requires a literacy and comfort with two human qualities that have been systematically devalued and misinterpreted in the world around us. Our organizations are born out of this same consciousness and simply replicate this world condition in our workplaces. These two misunderstood qualities are:
1) Our ability to be fluently aware of our feelings without judgment of them and 2) our ability to then connect these feelings to related human needs that are being met or unmet.
“Our problem,” she adds, “seems to derive from our entrenched conditioning in using the emotions of fear, guilt, shame, and anger, as workplace motivators [my emphasis] instead of proficiency with connecting to our own or one another’s feelings and needs.”
Is it any surprise that people joke that work is a four-letter word?
The Empathy Factor is a call for ending the subtle, persistent, and awful violence to the Self done everyday in the name of profits and productivity. But more than a call to action, it also offers proof that–ironically–building a more compassionate, empathic workplace is precisely the path to greater productivity and, consequently, profits.
Indeed, one of the most highly regarded business writers, Warren Bennis, asserts in his classic treatise, On Becoming A Leader:
In order to lead a Great Group, a leader need not possess all the individual skills of the group members. What he or she must have are vision, the ability to rally the others, and integrity. Such leaders also need superb curatorial and coaching skills—an eye for talent, the ability to recognize correct choices, contagious optimism, a gift for bringing out the best in others, the ability to facilitate communications and mediate conflict, a sense of fairness, and, as always, the kind of authenticity and integrity that creates trust. Nothing about the world today is simpler than it was or slower than it was, which makes the ability to collaborate and facilitate great collaboration more vital than ever.* [my emphasis]
Marie details how The Empathy Factor facilitates this vital collaboration. More important, she shows how managers can build organizations where empathy is the core driver of their success.
Last week, I met with one of the team members of that original group. In the months since our first meeting, there’s been pain and growth, laughter, success, and failure. As we talked about his transition, his taking of his seat as the leader of the group, he reminded me of the transformation possible by simply pausing to check in on yourself and the team. Connecting with the on-the-ground reality creates a tremendous basis for the hundreds of decisions that have to be made every single day.
We laughed as we enjoyed a moment of recognizing both the work that’s been accomplished to date and the fearsome work that has yet to be done. And I watched as this first time CEO manifested not only Connect-Think-Do but the even more powerful Connect-Think-Lead.
The was adapted from the revised Introduction to On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, Basic Books, New York (2003).