When we are not feeling good about ourselves, it is all so easy to project our emotions onto those around us through rudeness and generally being unpleasant. Conversely self compassion results in compassion towards others.
If you are noticing that you are more short tempered than usual. If you are feeling intolerant of people around you. If you look at your recent behaviour and do not like what you see. Is it time to start looking at self-care?
Exploring what you value is a good place to start, as it can help you understand why you feel what you feel. Message me if you want to start reducing your incivility and increase your ability to self-care.
Over the past few months I have been speaking to a lot of people across healthcare, individually and in teams. Sometimes reflecting on their experiences and other times looking forward to what is next for them. I have asked them a lot questions about what has been challenging, what has been helpful, what they want to happen next and what challenges they may face. The answers to these questions have been varied depending on their role and what they were facing. There were 2 questions I asked however that universally generated very similar responses. What would you ask of others? What would you offer others?
Think about those 2 questions for a moment. How would you answer them?
When asked what would you ask of others, people overwhelmingly wanted them to be kind, to be supportive and to be open to asking for help if they need it. When they were asked what they would offer the vast majority said they would offer themselves, their time to listen and be compassionate.
Most of us want people to be kind, but also to recognise when they need help and ask for it, and the majority of us are willing to offer that support. We are all willing to offer compassion but I would suggest from this that most of us are reluctant to ask for it, until things get really bad.
To be honest this came as no surprise to me, and I doubt it is a surprise to you either? We are all wonderful at transmitting kindness and compassion, but a little reluctant to receive it, until we really need it.
What would be great is if we could all switch our aerials from transmit mode only to receive and transmit. If only it was as easy as just flicking a switch. I don’t know about you but I have been telling people for years to be kinder to themselves, social media is full of memes telling us to be kind to ourselves. Many people have told me. It makes no difference; we all just carry on putting others before ourselves. Because that is the virtuous story that we tell ourselves and is told to us, so it is the right thing to do. Being self-compassionate is indulgent and selfish. To open ourselves up to willingly be on the receiving end of compassion, not just when we have reached crisis point, but whenever we get a bit of a knock, we are going to have to create the right conditions. We are going to have to do a bit of work on ourselves to become more emotionally flexible.
Below is an approach that may help you become more self-aware and more emotionally flexible to allow you to be open to receiving compassion and in the long run make you more compassionate.
Be Here Now
Practice spending more time in the moment. There are times everyday when we feel consumed by our thoughts (for me it is usually first thing in the morning and last thing at night). Bring yourself in to the present by either using mindfulness techniques or by doing an engaging activity that takes your attention that you enjoy. It is important to be able to set yourself free from your thoughts and spend a moment noticing what is happening right now, not in the future or the past but right now. Practice stepping back from your thoughts and watch them come and go rather than getting caught up in them and letting them push you around.
Make room for painful feelings, sensations, urges and emotions. Don’t struggle with them, run from them or get overwhelmed by them. You don’t have to like them, but it is important to recognise that they are there for a reason. It is better to be curious and understand what message they are sending rather than push them away. Painful emotions are often connected to what is truly important to you, therefore that needs acknowledging.
Know What Matters
When we have a clear understanding of what we value, we are in a better position to acknowledge and create space for our painful emotions. We are less inclined to push them away as that would diminish what matters to us. When we are clear what our core values are we have a greater knowledge of what lies behind our emotions and we are better placed to address what needs to be addressed. To help you identify your own values try and answer the following questions as honestly as you can (after all you are the only one that will see the answers);
What motivates you?
What is important to you?
What moves you into action?
What gives you a sense of identity?
What scares you to death when you imagine losing it?
What do you depend on to influence others?
Commit to Action
Now you are practicing stepping back from your thoughts, giving space to your painful emotions, and are now clear on what you value, you can now start to make choices and take action to improve your well-being or to maintain your balanced outlook on life. You don’t have to make big changes, what is important is that you take action that is congruent with your values. You are able to decide on the best action for you based on what you value and what will attend to your emotions. So you are able to recognise and act when you need help, and therefore be in a better position to recognise and act when those around you need help.
Emotional flexibility in such an uncertain world is vital and some might suggest a professional requirement.
Is it time you switched the mode on your aerial to receive and transmit?
Balance and perspective have been themes for me this week. The coaching conversations I have been having, have all been related to balance and perspective, and how it is so easy to lose track of either and get caught in a cycle that has a negative effect on our well-being. These attacks on our well-being can feel like they come out of nowhere. They slowly creep up on you and overwhelm you, impacting on your mood, behaviour, and your ability to think rationally.
During a coaching session when we were discussing this, Martin Seligman’s PERMA came back into my mind. If you are a regular reader of my blog or have listened to my Connected Living podcast you will recognise PERMA. I have used it a lot, it is a really simple acronym to check in with your mental wellness. Seligman’s research showed that there are 5 elements of life promote mental health and help you flourish.
He suggests if we attend to these we will maintain a mentally healthy life and flourish. In our busy lives, when work, complicated home lives and global pandemic’s get in the way it is often challenging to maintain all 5 elements. So it is not always possible to prevent an attack on our well-being and the difficult painful emotions that result, but what we can do is maintain balance and perspective. If we attend to all 5 elements we are able to see that the emotional pain we are experiencing is acute and will pass, and for everything that is painful and difficult in your life, there are aspects that bring your joy, and contentment.
Over the past year and half I half have experienced frequent and sustained attacked on my well-being, as I am certain most of you have, and there have been times when I have focused on the pain and discomfort and attempted to dampen it down or push it to one side. It never worked and it always leaked out effecting how I behaved, how I saw the world and how I saw myself. When I stopped fighting the pain and attended to myself and in particular the those important 5 elements, I was able to acknowledge that these emotions were not all encompassing and there was plenty of opportunities to see joy.
To make it easier to use PERMA for each element below I have suggested some questions you ask yourself, to help you gauge if you need to pay it more attention than you are now.
Do you smile everyday? Not a forced smile when you see your boss, but a genuine heartfelt smile when you see someone you like. Or do you laugh when you see or hear something that amuses you? Or like me do you burst into song in the kitchen when a favourite song comes on the radio or playlist?
Do you take part in activities that engage you completely? Like playing a musical instrument, playing computer games, knitting, exercise, reading, talking with a best friend. An activity that is for the activities sake, that requires no encouragement, you do it for the sheer pleasure and contentment it gives you.
Do you have connections with people that is not just on a transactional level? People you have a shared experience with, that you can talk to, listen to, and be heard. Connection with people that have a level of interdependence, even if it is over the phone, or via zoom, connections with other humans is vital.
Do you have a purpose? Does your life hold meaning? The why question, why do you do what you do? I am a parent, a husband, and a coach. This element for me over the past few years has caused me the most challenge, as my purpose has shifted or has been challenged. As my children grew up my purpose as a parent shifted and I had to find new meaning in that. Nearly 2 years ago I stopped being a Nurse, and for a few months I felt lost and adrift, as this coincided with Ben my eldest son leaving home, which was then followed by a global pandemic, and the next August Jack my youngest leaving home. This for me is the one element I have to revisit and re-examine the meaning my life has. Hence the regular blogs I suppose.
What have you achieved this week? It does not have to big and dramatic, just a challenge you have set yourself. It might be doing 10,000 steps, finishing work on time, getting to work on time, or not swearing in the car on the way to work. Acknowledging small wins privately or publicly will shift your mindset to a more optimistic view. It does not mean you ignore so called failures, after all if you are like me that would be impossible as it is my default setting, it means you actively pay attention to what you do well and give it equal billing with your shortcomings.
It is worth considering PERMA every week, just to check in with yourself, to prevent you getting overwhelmed by all that is challenging in your life. It is so easy when we are busy to neglect one or two aspects of our lives, and before we know it everything has just got too much.
I thought I might write a snappier title for this weeks blog, but I could not think of anything, so here it is, same as last week with a number changed.
I have just been thinking about our recovery from the pandemic, and wondering if we are now on the up slopes and will emerge at sooner rather than later from the gloom. I think we probably are, but maybe we might have another dip before we can get out of it. And then once we have come out of the gloom there will be so much to do to recover in every sense. There are the mental and physical scars, but there is so much in our world that we need to rebuild, or re-think, like business, travel, healthcare, and education to name but a few. The next few years are going to be very challenging, and to be fair quite exciting for many of us.
So this week for me has been as is normal now, a mixed bag. Work has been exciting, anxiety inducing and challenging all in one. There is so much to do, and it doesn’t feel like I am getting anywhere fast, and that always sparks self-doubt, and the spectre of imposter syndrome. For the majority of the week there has been this nagging voice in the back of my head usually in the morning suggesting that I am really not up to this and I am completely out of my depth. Luckily I don’t think this voice has spilled out, and I hope it has spurred me on, but it is just unpleasant and I would rather not experience it. I am sure it is just an emotional response to the expectations I place on myself, and no doubt I need to stop comparing myself to others half as much as I do. Saying that I have had some very positive moments this week too, all of them have been when interacting with others and not when I have been working alone. Myself and a colleague reflected this week that our team now spends a lot of time isolated from each other, just as a result of social distancing. Something I think will need to be addressed, and I think naturally we are attempting to find ways of doing this.
We went to a gig for the first time in 15 months this week. There we 36 of us in The New Adelphi, all sat down at tables, but it was so lovely to grab hold of something familiar and normal. The bands all local were excellent. We were by a long way the oldest in the room, but we didn’t care. It was a wonderful optimistic moment.
But then as it is with most weeks the mood is dampened by the increasing case numbers and hospitalisations and the obvious delay of the relaxation of social distancing rules. This has to be done if we don’t we will almost certainly have another surge in hospitalisations that will have a devastating effect on Hospitals, that are already overstretched and trying to recover from the first 2 waves. I would even suggest the impact this time would be worth, as the number of sick patients with other conditions is higher than normal, so if we add an influx of sick covid patients, we run the very real risk of the infrastructure of the NHS collapsing under the weight. So it looks like we will have to stay as we are for a few more weeks until we can get a lot more people vaccinated.
The end is in sight. As my couch to 10k app says to me…”keep going, nearly there, you are doing great!!!”
I have had a week off this week. Jack was home last weekend for his 19th birthday, it was lovely to spend some time with him. We went out for lunch for his birthday, and what a fabulous afternoon it was listening to him and sharing our love for music. His friend Matt came to join us for a few drinks, and myself and Lisa sat back enjoyed their friendship. I hadn’t been in a pub since last October, it was a very strange and yet quite relaxing experience. It felt quite continental, having our drinks brought to us at the table. We used the phone app supplied by the pub chain which made it even easier, in some ways a little too easy. Due to a temporary communication breakdown, both Jack and Matt ordered drinks at the same time, which I am sure was quite irritating for the bar staff. As a consumer I was more than satisfied with the experience and would be happy for it to continue, once the pandemic has left us. However I realise as a business proposition for most bars this would be unsustainable unless they tripled the price of the drinks and food. After a long and very, very pleasant lunch we left and the boys prepared for the evening entertainment. Myself and Lisa went back home to relax in our garden.
The weather for the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend was glorious, we spent our time in the garden whilst Jack nursed his hangover and caught up with friends.
On Tuesday we travelled to Chester to spend a couple days with Mum, on the way we stopped off at Manchester to pick Ben up. We took Holly (our now 13 year old Black Labrador) with us, which is always a nerve wracking experience, as she is quite frail nowadays. It is safe to say she did not enjoy the journey, even after a prolonged stop in Manchester for her to walk around have a drink and cool down, she was still very unsteady and upset with herself when arrived at Mum’s.
It was such a relief to see Mum looking well, and what a lovely feeling it was to give her a hug, I was instantly transported to my childhood. I felt safe, cared for, and loved. Life can throw what it likes at me, it can never takeaway the love I have for my Mum. It was equally heart-warming to see Mum greet Ben and Jack, she has not seen them since the autumn. We spent the afternoon and the evening in the garden drinking, laughing and catching up.
The next day Lisa and the Boys went into town and me and Mum spent the morning together, gardening, and chatting. It was such a special morning just being with each other, talking about old times as well as what the future holds. There were a lot less tears than we both anticipated, it wasn’t a time for sadness, it was a moment to celebrate the richness of our lives, and we managed to get some gardening done. In the afternoon, Lisa and the Boys came back, followed shortly after by Louise (my big Sister) and Ava (her Granddaughter). Ava is the apple of Mum’s eye, it was lovely to see them interacting with each other, she brings Mum so much joy. As one year olds do she kept us all entertained during her stay.
After a very quiet Wednesday (we were all shattered), we woke up on Thursday with a tinge of sadness, it was time for us to go back home. I have always hated saying goodbye to Mum, now it is harder than ever. I reminded myself that, the reason why I hate so much is because we had such a lovely time, and that is worth celebrating, it would be terrible if I couldn’t wait to get away. The journey back to Manchester was as always subdued. As with leaving Chester it was hard to leave Jack behind (Ben was coming back to Hull for rehearsals with Vialetters).
It was a relief to spend sometime as a family away from the pressures of everyday life, saying that the pandemic is never far away, wearing masks every time we go in to a shop, or bar. Just before we left for Chester Ben told us that there had been a mini outbreak in the bar where is girlfriend works, both Ben and Liv had done self-tests that had come back negative. When we were in Chester Ben heard that Liv had to go for a PCR test as she had come up on track and trace, thank fully that came back negative. With the Boys living in Manchester and working in bars, we all did tests before we set of to Chester and whilst we were there. Then you have the news that is littered with stories about COVID and the prospect of a third wave.
At the moment no matter what we do there is always this pandemic looming in the background. It just feels like a shadow cast over our lives. I suppose we all have had different moments over the past year and a bit when we have just had enough, when our resilience begins to crack. That is why I was grateful for the week off, but still that weight is still there on my shoulders. So I have to concentrate on small things that I can control, like going for a run, recognising and understanding my emotions, and writing this blog. All of these things put me back in control of how I respond to the events of the world around me. It gives me the mental strength just to carry on, and keep doing what I need to do. Although I do wish it would piss off now.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and I asked her what she enjoyed about my podcasts and blogs and what got in the way, of enjoying all of them. Now normally I would avoid asking questions like that, but I trust her opinion and as I was thinking of recording a few more podcasts, I wanted to understand what would get her to listen.
The podcasts she enjoyed were the ones that were spoken from the heart, and full of personal experience. It makes perfect sense, when I think about it, and to be honest it did not surprise me. The numbers confirm it too, all the blogs I have written and podcasts I have recorded that are about my personal experiences have higher reading and listening numbers. I suppose they hold more relevance to people, and maybe I preach and lecture less when just talking about what is going on in my life.
We then talked about recording another podcast about mental health and well-being that reflects what I have experienced and learned over the past year. Now I will record something in good time, but I thought I might write a few things first, maybe just to put into some kind of order, to help me make sense of what has happened and what might happen next, as well as maybe help you make sense of what is happening to you.
It was probably February when a sense of nervousness started in the hospital and probably in healthcare settings around the country and no doubt the world. What had been happening in China and what was beginning to unfold in Italy, had a lot people worried about what was coming our way. What we could not imagine was how much our lives were about to change. A change that would impact every aspect of our lives. Now matter how resilient you think you are everyone had something that sent them emotionally over the edge. We all had some change to how we lived that we really struggled with. I would find something everyday to get emotional over. But in February and March I was just scared about what was coming, and whether all of us (my family and friends would make it through to the end).
In early March my work life changed completely, in fact the hospital changed the way it operated in what seemed an instant. The initial nervousness had shifted into action. It was incredible to witness. I moved from working in Organisational Development to manning a staff advice helpdesk. I did that for a couple of weeks. If I am honest that was probably one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I felt completely out of my depth. The thing is, everything we were experiencing was completely new for everybody, at times it felt like we were fumbling in the dark, sometimes we got it wrong, and other times we were right. On reflection the times I got it right was when I didn’t try to advise, and spent time listening to the person on the end of the line. All the general straightforward calls were handled by the usual employee service centre staff, and then there were one or two of us experienced clinical (or newly ex-clinical) staff to field the more complicated calls. It was easy to fall into the trap of advice giver, and that is often when things went less smoothly. We learned quickly to spend time listening to what they had to say. That in it’s self brought challenges, it was difficult taking calls from emotional, unwell, terrified people, whilst trying to manage your own emotions. I kept having to remind myself that this was new for all of us, and to give myself a break.
After 2 weeks I started with a persistent cough. I was on a day off, when it started. I kept on saying to myself, it will go in a minute, I am probably just being over dramatic. I will give it another 5 minutes. I felt quite well! Lisa was due to be at work, so I knew I could not pretend it was not happening. I had to jump and ring in. So that was it for 7 days for me and 2 weeks for Lisa and the boys. I was fine for the first day, apart from the cough. There was no testing back then so we all stayed in, I got sicker and sicker and nothing happened to them. I kept on questioning myself, wondering if I really had it, and then I would try to do anything or the coughing would start. Some days I felt fine and other days I felt like I had been run over by a juggernaut. On a few occasions around day 7 or 8 of the symptoms I was quite scared, I had never felt so ill before. Then after I returned to work, the brain fog kicked in, followed by coughing fits, headaches and waves of emotion. It was May before I was back to full-time work, and August before I felt anywhere near normal. A lot of what happened between March 24th and August is a bit vague to be honest. I am grateful that I wrote a blog during that time, at least I have something to spark my memories.
When I went back to work, I went back to Organisational Development, only now we were working with the Clinical Psychology team and the Chaplains providing staff support, both in a virtual setting and in person. This evolved and developed over time as we adapted to what was presented to us, and learned to work to each others strength. Professionally the time from August to now has probably been the most fulfilling of my career. I have met and worked with some incredible people. Listening to the stories of staff across the hospital (non-clinical and clinical alike) has been inspiring and humbling, and has taught me so much about being a coach. It has however been an incredibly challenging time, balancing work and personal life. Regulating my emotions has been at times very difficult, hearing the emotions of the staff I have been talking to, whilst sitting with my own emotions has been demanding. As you will know my Mum has cancer and lives on the other side of the country. Despite speaking to her everyday, there have been times that have pushed us all to the emotional edge. When able I have been to visit her, for both of our well-being. We needed to see each other, talk about feeling so sad, and remember that the sadness comes from the fact that we have such an important loving relationship, that we never want it to end. Reminding ourselves of that is so helpful, it makes every moment we have talking to each other or time spent in each others company so precious, even if we are crying. You will also know if you have read my blogs before that both my boys have left home and now live in Manchester, that has happened the past year too, so that has caused heartache for both myself and Lisa. We are incredibly proud of them but at the same time so sad that they have gone, especially after the first lockdown as Ben came home and Jack was in the last year of sixth form. By August both of them had left and were living together in Manchester. The fact that they share a house is very helpful. We know they have each other to rely on. We are also so proud of the young men they have become. Since they have both been in Manchester, they have recorded and released their own music, as well as studying for their respective degrees. Again the feelings of sadness we both experience are because we love being their parents. The role of a parent is to nurture and develop the adults of the future. We are proud because we have helped shape 2 adults that share a lot of our values.
In March I started a project, on reflections of leadership through a prolonged crisis. I was interested in understanding what kept people going during such a challenging time. I interviewed around 30 leaders, from a variety of businesses and NHS organisations. Now I am still analysing the results of the interviews, so I am not going to pre-empt what the projects shows apart from one thing. That was either said or implied by everyone. It was hard, they were scared, they were unsure what the outcome would be, but they did it anyway.
The past year and half has no doubt be the most challenging of my life, and no doubt yours too. But that sentence above really resonates with me. It is hard, I am scared, I don’t have a clue what is going to happen next, all I can do is keep checking what I value and keep working towards that. One of the interviewees said to me. “I had no choice, so I just got on and did it.” When we are clear about what we value, and always work within our values, it makes it easier to have that level of conviction and determination. I keep reminding myself what is important, what I value, so I can continue to just do it anyway.
That was my first reflection on how I looked after my well-being over the past year and half. I suppose this has reflected on how acknowledging emotions and living within your values can help you pick yourself up and carry on. I found the process of writing this as ever very helpful I hope you find something helpful within it.
On the evening of the 28th May 2002, we had tea, Ben was bathed and in bed, so I decided to spend some quiet time playing Championship Manager (now called Football Manager and still a bit of an obsession of mine) on my desktop. I was upstairs in our bedroom, as my old computer room had been converted into a nursery for the impending arrival of our second child.
The weather outside was awful, it has pouring down. Lisa was pottering about downstairs, she had mentioned earlier that she wanted some stones from the front garden, some nice rounded ones for some plant pots. I did not quite understand why and had not really paid much attention. Just as I had started the game she came upstairs. “Are you going to get me those stones?” I looked out the window. “Have you seen the weather?” “But I need them now!” She exclaimed with that impatient pregnant woman look. I looked at my computer screen, sighed then huffed and puffed, and went downstairs, expressing my displeasure as I went. I pulled on my shoes and coat was handed a plant pot and stormed outside in search of nice round stones. “Make sure they are nice.” she requested with a smile, that was not returned by myself. I stomped around the garden collecting round stones getting soaked to the skin. On completion of my task I went back into the house dripping and pissed off. “Here are your effing stones.” I went back upstairs and resumed my disastrous management of Manchester United. After about 30 minutes Lisa came back upstairs and started running a bath, and was then open and closing wardrobe doors and generally banging around. I turned round and in a sarcastic tone said…”what on earth are you doing? Have you gone into labour or something?” “Yes I think I might be!” “Oh! Oh!”
I didn’t drive, so Lisa’s Mum and Brother came. Her brother stayed to look after Ben and her Mum dropped us off at the Maternity hospital. Sue arrived at our house suitably stressed to be greeted by a very calm Lisa who was blow drying her hair. I can safely say she was the only one that was calm at that point.
That night was a long uncomfortable night for both of us. Me in a chair and Lisa having periodic labour pains. The long night, was followed by a long uncomfortable morning (for Lisa) with our new baby reluctant to make an appearance. By late morning it was clear he would need some assistance to come into the world. Lisa had, had a section when Ben was born, and we were all worrying she would need another. They decided to move us to Theatre and deliver him there. Jack eventually came into the world just after lunch on 29th May 2002 delivered by forceps. He was gorgeous! Granted he had a bit of a squashed head, but he was such a cute baby, who turned into a cute toddler, who turned into cute little boy, who turned into a handsome, sensitive, caring, talented, creative young man. Happy 19th Birthday Little Fella. We are so proud of you.
It is has been a few months since I created a playlist and shared it with people. So here we are.
I am certain I am not alone when I say music plays such an important part in my life, whether that is listening to old favourites or discovering new music. I listen to music every day, and I cannot imagine a day without music. It provides the back drop to my life. Last night I watched an episode of Classic Albums on Sky Arts that showcased the the making of Dark Side of The Moon by Pink Floyd. What a truly amazing album, I woke up this morning with Comfortably Numb going round in a loop in my head. Yesterday was also the 50th anniversary of the release on What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, so I listened to some of it on the way to work, leaving me a wonderful earworm of the title track for the rest of the day.
I play music when I feel sad, angry, happy, hopeful, excited and when not really feeling anything at all. When I feeling sad, or a little lost I play something familiar and comfortable, like my gizza cuddle playlist, that is packed full of songs that make me feel safe, songs I hear a lot on the radio, or are just on in the background around the house. When I am feeling nostalgic I will reach for my memories of my school days playlist, packed full of songs from the 70s and 80s, that just makes me smile.
Music can transport you to a different time, or it can help you stay in the moment, it can spark memories that help you make sense of what is happening with you and it can create a mindful space where you in touch with what you are hearing, seeing and feeling right now. The most wonderful thing about music as with all of the arts, is that there is such a variety available that there is bound to be something that resonates with you. No matter what the music is and what the musicians experienced when creating it, you experience and interaction to that music is unique to you. David Gilmour when describing Dark Side of The Moon, that he wished he had had the experience of putting his headphones on and hearing the album for the first time in it’s entirety. He is right, there is nothing quite like hearing an incredible piece of music for the first time. I remember buying my friend Julian The Bends by Radiohead for his birthday, and us both sitting in his flat listening to it for the first time, it was a truly special moment. That is why I suppose I love creating playlists of new music, like the one above, some of them I heard for the first time when I was putting the playlist together, others I have heard a few times. Some made an immediate positive impression on me others interest me. It is such a relaxing activity, and gives me permission to concentrate on the hear and now, rather than ruminating on the week, or worrying about things that have yet to happen. Once I have created a playlist I love to share it. To offer it out to the world makes me feel happy. Some of you will be not be interested and will not listen, some of you will be mildly interested and might give it a listen, a few of you might be interested and give it a listen and discover something you never heard before, and want to find out more. All is fine, I just love to share.
Now I am not going to tell you what to like, but here are my highlights (the songs that stand out for me)
I say this to myself most weeks, normally just before I start a coaching conversation. Before I start coaching someone I get a tension in my stomach, a performance anxiety comes over me. I want to do the best for them, I want them to see me as being helpful, as being a wise benevolent coach. If I am not careful I can end up taking this mindset into the coaching. So I have to do some preparation and the first thing I say to myself is…”if it is not yours to fix, don’t try to fix it!” I remind myself to be in service of them and not my ego. It sounds easy but, it is far from it. The key is remaining curious about their experience, that helps my client to be curious about what is happening to them. I have to check myself so I don’t start to get stuck in the issue with them and try to assess their situation for them. When I remain curious the conversation flows, I do often offer experiences and data that may contribute to their plans but only when asked by the client. This comes when they have been able to explore their own experience.
Now when I have general conversations and they present a problem I find my anxiety and tension raise it’s head and I can start to get into a knowledge battle with them and myself. My righting reflex kicks in and I start to feel anxious about solving their problem. This never ends well, basically I am telling them that I think I am better than them and know how to live their life better than they do. This is utter rubbish and is arrogant. Now I cannot go into coach mode every time I have a conversation but I know what I can do, I can stop talking so much and I don’t just mean outwardly. I can stop talking to myself, assessing their predicament and formulating my well crafted solution to a problem I have very little practical knowledge of, and start really listening to what they have to say. If I care about the person in front of me I should be curious and genuinely interested in their experience, and help them create as clearer a picture of their problem as they can to help them come to a conclusion. They have after all asked me because they think I will be helpful, so the least I can do is give them my full attention, and show sincere fascination in what they have to say. Rather than making statements I try now to ask questions just like I would when I coach that help me understand what is happening. By raising my awareness I help them raise their awareness and maybe see something that they had overlooked. It really does work, it is incredible to witness someone realise what they need to, just by being listened to and you just asking a few curious questions. Next time someone starts to talk to you about a problem rather than offer a solution offer your ears, and be curious, you will find your anxiety about your desire to fix will drift away.
When I was a Staff Nurse in the 1990’s I did not want to be a strong leader. Strong leaders were everything that was wrong with the old ways of leadership. In my mind and in the mind of lots of people strong leadership meant command and control, it meant dominating, and leading with fear, but being fearless. I wanted to be a kind leader, that led from the front, but paid attention to the needs of the staff, I would be empathetic to their plight. I would pay attention to their needs. The opposite of a strong leader…oh no hang on not the opposite!
But if truth would have it, I was a weak leader. I did not set out being a weak leader, because being empathetic, and paying attention to the needs of the staff are key elements to strong effective leadership, and has been proved time and time again to be more effective than command and control. The problem with empathy and compassion in any part of life is that if a certain ingredient is missing then it is either not sustainable or worse can create division and incivility.
Lets start by looking at the definitions of empathy and compassion. I got these definitions from The Cambridge Dictionary via google today (03/05/21)
The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences, by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.
A strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them.
To start with lets look at empathy. Empathy is an amazing tool to have in your toolbox, it is wonderful for building rapport and creating connections with people. The problem is, that it is very powerful so has to be handled with care and used sensitively. If you don’t it can cause you harm and harm others. Empathy if used unwisely causes division and polarisation. It is often used by the media, both social and journalistic media to encourage us to get behind a cause. Over recent years there have been a number of high profile cases where children with terminal conditions on ventilators have been caught up in legal battles between their parents, and the hospitals where they are being cared for. The legal battles were always a result of differing viewpoints on the baby’s prognosis, with the parents not being able to come to terms with the terrible reality of losing their child and the hospital wanting to withdraw treatment so as not to prolong the child’s suffering. These cases are always very distressing and create huge amounts of emotion no matter what your view of the situation is. The majority of us though have experience of loving children, whether they are our own children or the children of relatives or close friends, and conversely most of us are not clinicians faced with making terribly difficult decisions based on what the future outcomes of this baby are. So when we read about these stories in the paper and on Facebook, or we hear about them on the news, it is easy for us to feel empathy for the parents. We have felt the love they feel for their baby, and we can imagine what it feels like to have that loved one taken from you. Even imagining it causes pain, so what must it be like to live it? This can and does cause people to have very strong feelings against the clinical staff and the hospital caring for this baby. This level of empathy has lead to threats against medical and nursing staff, violent protests outside of hospitals and courts and ultimately leads to more pain and anger on both sides of the argument, and all the time there is still a baby that requires love, care and attention. If you about recent armed conflicts, many if not all of them have been fueled by empathy. Either as a result of protecting groups of people from a perceived oppression or to right a terrible wrong. During the conflict, the fighting is so sustained and aggressive because of empathy, most soldiers will explain that they do not fight for the flag or the nation, but for each other. So empathy adds fuel to the fighting.
That is what empathy can do on a collective level if care is not taken. On a personal level empathy can cause pain and exhaustion. Imagining peoples distress and putting yourself in their position is painful, it takes it’s toll, and in the end you wither become exhausted and unable to show empathy or you avoid it to protect yourself. When I think of my time as a new leader. I jumped into being empathetic and compassionate as a leader without any thought for my own safety. I never thought it would be detrimental to my health. No one told me that without the right precautions empathy was bad for you health and bad for the world.
Regulate Your Emotion
The good thing is that like many powerful tools if you are prepared and know how to use it, it is incredibly useful. All we have to do is learn how to regulate our emotions.
Before you use empathy or compassion you have to do some work on yourself. The first step is to understand your emotions, and accept them. In other words stop denying them space in your mind. Stop labelling them good and bad emotions, just label them as your emotions. Emotions are sending you a message about something that is important to you. For instance the feelings of sadness and loss, when someone we love dies is because our relationship with them was important to us. It held high value, and not having that relationship causes us pain. That is the price of loving, however most of us agree that the emotion is love is far more valuable, so we are prepared to pay the price, so we can experience that feeling. Labelling our emotions and listening to what they have to tell us, helps us regulate the impact our emotions have on us. Recently I have been speaking to nurses who have been working on COVID wards during the pandemic, and hearing their stories have provoked some strong emotions for me, including sadness, and guilt. Sadness comes from imagining how they feel having cared for patients who have died and then multiplying the impact of that feeling, along with my own emotions regarding loss, and feeling guilty because I am an ex-nurse not physically nursing. Both emotions needed attention and understanding what messages they were telling me. I then was able to take some time out to attend to those messages to ensure I could continue to show empathy and be compassionate.
Once you you have started to label and understand your emotions, it is important as I did to attend to what is important to you, to replenish your batteries. This is something I have mentioned before but it is so important during times when our lives are stressful and we are being empathetic and compassionate to to those around us. That is allocate yourself and hour of happiness or contentment everyday. Something that brings you pleasure and a sense of calm. Something that reflects what you value will always create that feeling.
Regulating your emotions in this way allows you to continue to be empathetic and compassionate without burning out. It also alerts you to when you might be being sucked into a collective empathy that is divisive, as the stories that provoke this empathy stir up strong emotions, so spending a moment labelling and being curious about your emotion slows you thinking down and gives you chance to have a more considered view from both sides of the argument. When you understand your emotion you are much more likely to be able to hear what others are feeling.
Being a Strong Compassionate Leader
Being compassionate is not the opposite to being strong. Being a compassionate leader requires strength.
Being compassionate means that you want to help improve the situation for someone. Doing the right thing will often require difficult conversations, it is not just doing nice things to make people feel better, it is about improving outcomes for people and for teams.
As a result compassion is about being able to regulate your emotions, so you are able to make decisions and take actions that are in the best interest of the individual and ultimately the team. If you are reluctant to show empathy, for fear of either becoming emotional, or because you are just too tired, you will not be able to hear what the people in you team require for them to do their jobs effectively. By not regulating your emotions you are more likely to either try to please someone rather than do what is right, or dismiss their concerns so you can protect yourself from their emotion. Both responses are short-term self serving and ultimately weak leadership. If you have spent sometime labelling and understanding your emotions you are much more willing to hear what people are experiencing, show them empathy and be able to develop with them a compassionate response that supports the individual and the team.
Empathy and Compassion are only effective when accompanied with emotional regulation.
If you would like to explore more about you own emotional regulation and developing your leadership. Send me a message. (email@example.com)