Leadership: Using Empathy ‘I Hear You Saying You Are Frustrated’

So anyone who lives in the US (or really, in the world) knows that there has been a recent election in the US.

It was, or is, a very tight race, with lots of people voting for the candidates whom they feel best represent their interests, their level of comfort, and numerous other reasons that compel people to vote.

Record numbers of people have voted, which affects local races, the Senate, Congress, and the election for the next leader of our country.

As a leader, both in parenting my children and as a leader in my work environments, I tend to have a lot of opinions about characteristics of leaders and what I find useful in bringing out the work/change in others that we are working together to accomplish.

A story of when I was first hired to be a supervisor of staff in a previous role:

I was 28, and my two children who were born on the same day were just about nearly 1 years old. I had been providing mental health therapy to families who were involved with Child Protective Services, and had learned about a program called Healthy Families. A difference between Healthy Families and the work I had been doing was the timing of the intervention to assist kids who were at risk for being abused or neglected by their caregivers. The program is intended for families who have a certain level of assessed need.

Healthy Families targets families who are going to care for an infant, and has to begin within the first 3 months of the child’s life. The research has been pretty clear that children who receive prevention/protective services fare better in terms of lowering their likelihood of being abused of neglected compared to those families who do not receive that support. The criteria to qualify for services at the time period in which I was working was a pretty low amount of documented risk, and families chose to be a part of the program.

I was hired to supervise this program that was new to two of the counties in which I had been working. I was promoted from my position as home based therapist/caseworker, to Healthy Families Supervisor.

A few benefits to me were the following: I had a predictable time to finish work each day, which was generally before the day care my children attended closed; I was able to be a part of something which I truly believed in and wanted to support; and I could utilize my skills/training in mental health to supervise entry level staff. I went from being a peer to several other employees, to having no peers. I got to jump in and lead two staff who were new to the company and learn with them how to implement the program. I was also able to retain just a few clients I had been meeting with for counseling and of course, continue to parent and lead my children to be functioning adults.

I noticed that utilizing empathy when a staff is feeling frustrated helped them to perform better.

If I had a staff who was stressed about trying to schedule the number of families that they were seeing, particularly taking into account the distance the families lived from each other, I could identify the emotion that the staff was feeling by naming it and then having a discussion about their interpretation of what could help.

Example: I hear that you are feeling frustrated about getting all of your families scheduled. It sounds like you are concerned about driving distances between each client, while you are also wanting to make sure to get them all scheduled. That must be stressful.

The above is an example of empathy. I’m verbalizing that I hear that they are frustrated, which they may have specifically stated, and I am summarizing what I am hearing that they are frustrated about. I am then stating the stress that I am interpreting that is causing them.

One difference that we have is that we tend to use different words to express our feelings. I might say frustrated, and the staff member may correct me and state they are not frustrated, they are irritated. Or angry, or sad about it.

Me naming the correct emotional label was less important than me indicating that I heard what they were saying, with an opportunity for them to correct me if needed.

Leading with empathy can be very effective in getting desired results both at work and in the home enviornment with parenting children.

With kids, I will give a different example, which involves my then 4 year old son.

He was hungry, or wanted to play something different, or had some sort of need.

I don’t remember specifically what we were having a disagreement about, but I do remember getting quite frustrated and raising my voice to a higher volume. I was repeating myself, and he was repeating himself, and we were not communicating well

He stopped and yelled my name:

Mom!! I get frustrated when you use that voice to yell at me!’

As you may be able to tell, he had spent four years of his life (so far) with a therapist for a mother. He wasn’t getting his needs met, which for arguments sake was a snack before dinner.

I wasn’t getting my need met, which was for him to accept that I had told him ‘no’ and to move on to something else

We both started using loud voices, which can be hard on our ears and unpleasant to hear.

When he yelled my name, I stopped and listened. He was able to express his feelings, and to name his own emotion. This story includes an ‘I-statement’ and it indicates that he was listening and hearing my loud voice.

As we all work toward having peaceful moments, I encourage you to think about how you can show empathy for others.

How can you, as someone who is hearing someone say something, indicate that you are hearing what they are saying and understand what they are saying about how they feel?

In graduate school, at the University of Cincinnati, we had a whole course on practicing reflective listening and using empathy. We practiced with each other, and it felt awkward at first.

As you are working to get your needs met and yourself heard, how do you respond when someone shows empathy to you? Do you feel more heard and listened to when the person you are speaking with names the feeling you have or reflects back what you have said?

I challenge you to work to increase the amount of empathy that you show. I encourage you to speak in ways that show the person you are talking with that you hear not just the words they are saying, but also the emotions behind it.

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