We all know someone who is easily moved to compassion and carries empathy on their sleeve. When you tell them a story, they lean in and connect viscerally. They light up and express joy as if your happiness was an indication of their own when you share good news like, “we’re having a baby!” And, when we share something discouraging, they’re moved to concern through every fiber of their being. These people feel WITH us, and we connect with them on a far deeper level.
Naturally speaking, people who carry this level of empathy are pretty rare. And, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not one of them. In my early years, I was very competitive, and still carry a natural bent toward checkboxes, action steps, and performance to this day.
And yet, if PEOPLE MATTER more, there are certainly times when what needs to happen next is to relate and connect with levels of empathy, understanding, and compassion.
Over the years, one handhold that has helped me along in this journey has been utilizing what I call “Empathetic Imagination.” It’s been a powerful tool in growing my empathy and understanding as a leader and friend.
When we hear of a tragic story, it’s common to be moved to care and compassion for the person as we consider the impact of the situation. And yet, the truth is that regardless of how many people we spend time with and how much they choose to share with us, we’ll never know all the stories that have and are impacting those around us.
By recognizing the reality that we’ll only ever know a very small percentage of what’s gone on and is going on in the lives of our team members, using our imagination can help grow our hearts as we lead people from all walks of life.
“Using our imagination to envision the potential difficulty and trauma our team members have faced or are facing can be a powerful compass in helping us to care for and connect in a far deeper and more meaningful way.”
Here are two examples on opposite ends of the spectrum:
Let’s start with a larger context like a team meeting with 15-100+ people. We can start by taking what we know about our closest friends and family and multiply that across the people in the room. What financial challenges, career struggles, issues with marriage, children, or friends are going on in their lives in this season? How would our posture and approach as leaders change if we knew about the real struggles our team members are facing? The reality is that imagining the trauma, heartache, grief, and conflict that people could be facing is incredibly powerful in changing the way we lead and love people.
The second example is on a much more day-to-day level. There’s a conflict or misunderstanding within the team and whether I’m involved or simply providing a recommendation, the same reality applies in helping team members identify, relate to, and lean into the dialogue in healthy ways. Here’s the big question, “would you feel any different about this person and situation if you knew something really difficult was going on in their life right now?” Sometimes, it’s appropriate to provide context, and other times it’s most kind to just convey the sense that, “there’s more going on and I’d just ask that we move forward with patience and grace.”
The reality is, big meeting, small team gathering, or one on one engagement, it changes everything. I have seen it in myself and others. The response to a real or imagined scenario is commonly, “oh man, let me process that, re-adjust and come back with a different attitude and posture.”
Whether we believe it or not, our visibility into the challenges those around us are facing is VERY limited. I hope this using our imaginations to stir our approach can lead to fostering more deeply connected and supportive teams.
Cheers to seeing and caring for people well in the midst of their stories!