Empathy Starts with Curiosity; Thinking like a Leader

May 22, 2020

“I’m feeling deeply unsettled,” my client we’ll call Keller, the CEO of an investment firm, said to me.

“Of course,” I could reply, “we’re in unsettling times. Especially for you, a CEO whose organization is disrupted. You’re worried about cash and operational continuity. And you’re in the investment community. How can you not be unsettled in the face of such dramatic and unpredictable market swings? I totally get it.”

That would have been the most obvious thing for me to say. It would reflect my empathy, my understanding, my connection, my own knowledge and expertise. We’d both feel good about the exchange. But it would have been a mistake.

A mistake because, especially in this very new, very unique moment, there’s a response that’s even more powerful when someone expresses their vulnerability. A response that’s important and necessary before empathy. And that’s curiosity.

Because the truth is, I don’t know what’s going on for Keller. In fact, Keller hardly knows what’s going on for Keller. We’re on new ground here. And while everything I could have said could have been true, I don’t actually know what is true. Which means that before demonstrating my understanding, I have to develop it. I need to ask questions and be open and listen and learn. Which takes humility. Humility is not knowing. And that, eventually and almost always, leads to empathy which leads to compassion.

So when Keller told me he was feeling deeply unsettled, I asked him to tell me more. I’m glad I did.

See, Keller didn’t talk to me about his role as CEO, his operational challenges or his investments. He’s a solid leader, and like so many other solid leaders I know, he’s sure-footed and capable in times of crisis. No, Keller wasn’t struggling as a leader. He was struggling as a human being. Keller talked about feeling scared and lonely and sad and a little lost. He’s feeling the weight of these times, of the uncertainty in human life. He’s feeling the challenges of his family and the psychological shift of being alone in his house versus in an office.

One of the effects of social distancing and working from home is that we are left, much more than usual, with ourselves. Who are we when we are no longer reflected in the faces of the people around us? Who are we without all the external recognition? No fancy clothes and cars to project an image. No praise or even rejection. No feedback at all to define us. This can leave us feeling lost. Or, as Keller put it, unsettled. Maybe you’re feeling a little of that?

I know I am. In a day, I feel everything, often inexplicably. Joy and sadness. Thrill and anger. Frustration and ease. And, of course, fear. But also, of course, excitement and connection. To feel it all requires courage. Emotional courage. Which is why, as important and difficult as it is to stay curious about others, there’s something equally important — and far more difficult — to do: We need to stay curious about ourselves.

That is what is required of us now, in this new moment. A moment that is not simple, clear, or expected. Being curious about ourselves is how we begin to know — really know — who we are. That can be scary. But also, possibly, exciting and freeing. The hardest part? Slowing down enough to actually feel. Do you have the courage to slow down?

You need courage because slowing down will, by its very nature, bring up unfamiliar and unsettling feelings. And, to avoid feeling, we typically move. Over the past few weeks I have often felt lost, surrounded by people scrambling to move. They are making plans, pivoting their businesses, voicing opinions, networking, setting direction, filling their schedules with Zoom calls. I’m on some of those Zoom calls and when, after listening to how everyone else is pivoting, people ask me how I’m pivoting, my answer is, “I don’t know.”

I don’t know what to do. I am not driven to act. And that scares me. What if I’m left behind? And then it occurs to me that avoiding the fear of being left behind is one of the reasons I act. But it is the wrong reason to act. So I tap into my courage and I don’t act. And when I don’t act, I am, literally, left behind. All I’m left with is me.

And then it occurs to me that, maybe, painfully, this is part of what this moment is about: I am learning about myself. More importantly, I am learning to tolerate myself, to stay with myself, even in my fears, even in my insecurities. And when I see that I am capable of staying with myself in my fears and insecurities, I no longer have to act to avoid them. Which leads to a new confidence, an irrepressible power, and a profound freedom to act — not out of fear and insecurity — but out of purpose and connection and strength and longing and love.

There is a way in which this pandemic may be calling us to slow down and listen. What if we resist the urge to act — to just do something — and, instead, stop doing? Just be present. What you discover may surprise you. When Keller slowed down enough to feel, his ultimate experience wasn’t depression. It was optimism. “A journey of self-discovery and radical acceptance,” he told me, “an attunement with the soul.”

So, I ask you, in this moment, can you stop everything for a beat, take a breath, and be curious? What are you feeling?

This article was first published on HBR.org

author image
Peter Bregman
Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps successful people become better leaders, create more effective teams, and inspire their organizations to produce great results. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Leading with Emotional Courage. He is also the host of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To identify your leadership gap, take Peter’s free assessment.


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