How Even The Most Principled Leaders Lose Sight Of Their Dialogue, And How Empathy Offers Hope

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Co-Authored with Agata Antonow

I was sitting at a conference devoted to the sorts of forward-thinking business leaders who are dedicated to creating a better world by building communities and helping others. And what one young woman described didn’t fit that vision. When I listened to her as she began to speak, I was shocked.

Her own experience at this conference included situations where she had been flirted with, addressed inappropriately, belittled and made to feel uncomfortable.

As other women described being dismissed, being hugged when they didn’t want to be hugged, or being told they were pretty instead of competent, I sat there, wondering if I was contributing to the problem. I am a hugger. Was Iunconsciously playing a role in making someone feel ill at ease?

I thought about how these women experienced the events they described. How would I react? Some made me feel deeply uneasy. Others made me curious about my own reactions to the same scenarios. I don’t mind being told I look good. Should I mind? I can certainly understand wanting professional acknowledgment of accomplishments and intelligence. I want that, too. I just don’t share the same sensitivity. It’s not wrong to feel that way. It’s just not how I’m wired.

As I listened, I wondered what we could do to create a better and safer experience for all women.

How can we allow each person to have a say without silencing any voices? How can we get individuals of all ages and backgrounds to take part fully, joyfully, and safely? If we couldn’t provide a safe area for everyone in this self-proclaimed conscious space, what was the greater business world like?

The organizers acted quickly and encouraged women in the audience to tell their stories. They invited the men present to listen actively, without responding. As I listened and spoke, I considered the times I had been made to feel smaller in these settings, not necessarily because I am a woman but perhaps for some other, unknown, reason. I remembered the times I had been speaking to an executive only to have them walk away dismissively to speak to someone else.

How can we allow each person to have a say without silencing any voices?

This led to an interesting discussion about what to do. Should repeat offenders be tracked and reported? Was more policing needed? Some members of the audience spoke persuasively of the need for more discussion. I could see the benefit of this “no documents, more dialogue” approach, which put a focus on engagement rather than placing everyone into a dialectic of who was right and who was wrong.

It made me think about the coaching work I do with organizations that are trying to embrace diversity. When you combine different generations and groups of people, you create potential conflicts, especially in situations where not everyone has developed their emotional intelligence. Some individuals may be used to speaking or acting in a certain way and may be unaware of their impact.

Even in a conscious company, you can’t escape the nature of human beings as we are — with all our wonderful traits and also our shadow sides. It’s not always malicious, either. Offhand remarks may be made because an individual does not know what is appropriate in every case. It’s just one reason why curiosity and awareness are key.

I have noticed empathy does remarkable work in these situations. While most of us think of empathy as something we either have or we don’t, it is a skill that can be taught — a skill I have taught — step by step. When someone has empathy for another person, they are less likely to belittle them and more likely to try to conceive a situation from a different point of view. This stepping into someone else’s shoes is an important part of preventing subconscious disrespect. When someone asks, “What if I were the one being treated this way?” they are more likely to modulate their behavior.

Empathy also works to empower those who feel unsafe or underrepresented. When we consider how someone may have been raised or how they acquired certain worldviews, we can start to see their behavior is separate from us, and that behavior loses some of its power to hurt. It is not personal. We take back our own voice when we consider stepping into someone else’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them (maybe especially if we don’t agree with them).

Empowered, we can start to reclaim ourselves.

Instead of seeing that person as someone with the power to hurt us through their words or dismissal, we see them as part of a narrative of their own and as someone with their own failings. Empowered, we can start to reclaim ourselves. Instead of focusing on retaliating and hitting back, we step back and try to create a new way forward.

Make no mistake: It’s a radical act. Working to a place of empathy when we have suffered a sense of slight or a betrayal can be one of the most challenging things we do. And for this approach to work, everyone needs to be trying to cooperate. Everyone involved needs to value empathy. Safety must be addressed to ensure those who extend understanding are not harmed again. And if individuals don’t see the value of allowing for others’ experience, well then, maybe it’s time to do the organizational work to create a more respectful workplace.

The idea of listening and giving those who have been hurt a voice is the first step. If we can listen in stillness and with curiosity to someone else’s experience, with no expectation for rebuttal or response—just to listen—we can try to imagine ourselves in their position and start building those bridges of understanding that can shape our behaviors and communications.

It’s a small first step. But it’s a mighty, noble one. It is a step that starts with honoring both the speaker and the listener, who are engaged in building a new possibility together.

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