The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

An uncomfortable feeling

Empathy can be a very uncomfortable experience. Appreciating someone, understanding where someone stands or knowing someone else’s circumstances is often helpful when something not understandable happens in a relationship.

This can for example happen when people join a meeting and don’t look like always or seem to be in a very different mood than usual. This is a reason why upon starting a meeting I’ll include a way to have everyone share how they are doing, if they have something on their mind, or have something they would like to share with the team.

However, this also has the consequence that people may feel affected by other people’s situations. Especially when they experienced something challenging, team members can find it hard to meet them with challenging questions.

They may feel like putting the relationship first in these moments, but most often this isn’t true. What happens in these situations is that there is an uncomfortable feeling that the existing relationship may be hurt or somehow challenged. It comes along with the desire to make sure one knows the outcome.

People want to avoid this feeling of discomfort. And thus, someone else not being well becomes an excuse to let go of challenging that other person.

This is not about avoiding asking people how they are or to learn about something that might distract them from the meeting. Nor about stepping into confrontation under any circumstance.

Sharing that something may distract one from being present is allowing people to be vulnerable and to feel welcome as they are in the moment. It is there to help them be present to what the meeting is for or to decide that other priorities may be more important and leave the meeting. It is also there to help everyone get a sense of the mood in the room and be to assess differences in reactions, that is understand why something may feel more uncomfortable than usual.

It may be useful in such situations to drop that bad joke one had in mind, or the sneer of contempt, or some other personal disapproval. But is it even helpful when everyone is fine? And is there a good reason to drop sharing something that helps the person do a better job? Even if it isn’t a comfortable thing to talk about?

Empathy isn’t about sugar coating what is being said. Nor is it about doing something for the other. It invites the willingness to be present and to find a way to help the other. Even if this means overcoming one’s own feelings of discomfort.


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