The article below is from a special episode of the Humans in Healthcare podcast by Shearwater Health’s Chief Marketing Officer, Nathan King. 

Empathetic Leadership in 2020

The cliches and jokes about 2020, 11 months in, are endless.

We are a shaken world, off balance, scared. We are not the selves we thought we were.

And yet, we have to keep going to work. We have to continue feeding our families, educating our children. Some of us keep dreaming of a future. But dreaming is different now, more remote, more guarded. At work, it is different now. Conflict is more tense. People are less predictable.

We are group of people that has to lead. We have to show up, to do the work. Our healthcare professionals especially. They have to care for patients, COVID or not, with the same resolve that they always have.

True leadership skills are showing themselves, like cream rising to the top. One word keeps banging around my head, on good days and bad. It is a simple word, qualitative, often disregarded as too intangible, too squishy, to be any good to work on. I can focus on more tangible activities. The next marketing campaign. The forecast model. The performance management platform. But those hard skills have been demoted this year.


The Importance of Empathy

The word that keeps coming to mind is empathy. It’s the one that needs a fresh look, to be brushed off, renewed, and used.

In retrospect, it’s been lying there in plain sight but some of us aren’t in the business of practicing it. Those who aren’t counselors, schoolteachers, or caregivers. But we can’t ignore it. Now I see it everywhere.

The author of Never Split the Difference, a book about negotiation by a former FBI hostage negotiator, put it this way:

It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates [Empathy] and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.

Such a contradiction to who I want to think about when negotiating. Showing up with a flower, not a knife.

In another realm of the business world, marketer Ann Handley (author of Everybody Writes) has this to say:

Empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all of your content, because having a sense of the people you are writing for and a deep understanding of their problems is key to honing your skill. Content created merely to further a search engine ranking is a waste of time and effort. What matters now is creating useful content that solves customer problems, shoulders their burdens, eases their pain, enriches their lives.

Empathy is big. Everyone is trying to get it on it.

But how?

Cultivating and Practicing Empathy

You can see evidence of “empathy” in the eyes of marketers. They have been awkward in how they’ve put it out there, because empathy is hard to express. Here’s a humorous poem from Twitter describing the struggle of marketers:

It’s not possible to fake empathy. You sound canned, like these unfortunate marketers who are unable to actually connect with their customers.

I had the chance to talk to Chief Nurse Executive, Claire Zangerle, who said:

It’s all about putting yourself in that patient’s shoes, thinking about if this were your family member going through this particular situation. How’d you feel as a nurse? Or how would you feel as a human being?

It takes imagination, being the other.

It reminds me of the most famous quote on Empathy, a simple one, and one that has stood millennia as the essence of empathy:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

You don’t have to be religious to get the point. You are consumed by you all the time: what you want to sell, what you want to do with your time, or what you want your boss to accept from you.

Empathy turns that around: it’s about other people.

Another podcast guest, Michael Hite, shared that Empathy starts with leadership and trickles down through an organization.

As people waver under the strain of a world turned upside down, those of us who lead, who provide patient care, who seek to establish normalcy, all have the same opportunity to rise to the challenge.

Here are some practical ways to show empathy:

    1. We employ hundreds of nurses in the U.S. Recently, our corporate team each took several nurses and wrote letters to them, thanking them for the commitment they’ve shown this year. I found that the simple act of expressing gratitude gave me sincere Empathy for the stresses these nurses have felt due to the pandemic. Who can you thank?
    2. As Claire said, just imagine that what people are dealing with is your problem. Put yourself in the shoes of someone you are working with, negotiating with, or in conflict with. Use the example of the nurse and the patient: especially if you are not a clinician, what must it take to serve a patient well? How would you put yourself in the patient’s shoes? What about the person that is in front of you today?
    3. When interacting with others, ask questions before pushing your opinions. Two easy to use questions for any scenario: When someone expresses a firm assertion of what should be done, pause and ask, “What makes you think that?” It invites better understanding. When someone brings a concept to you, try to understand the complete picture of what they are suggesting: “How will it work?” is a great question to bring out that detail.

This is the season of thanksgiving, a time when we can be thankful for what we still have, which includes the people we are around, the people we care for, and the people we lead.

Don’t leave empathy behind on the path to progress in 2021.

Humans in Healthcare is produced by Shearwater Health in Nashville, TN, and hosted by Chief Marketing Officer, Nathan King.

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