Updated: Jul 18
Relating and Empathy - Traits every leader needs today.
At RHP we use an engagement model called ReFRAME™. This is at the core of any coaching or training program we do that involves connecting and building engagement with others. ReFRAME™ is an acronym, the prefix “Re” stands for Relatedness and Empathy. This prefix is important because it is what we need to do to set the foundation before we “FRAME” our communication to others. We will break down “FRAME” in the following articles, but for now let’s dive into why Relatedness and Empathy are so important now in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment and how we witnessed NY Governor Cuomo demonstrate this brilliantly day in and day out during the Covid-19 epidemic.
We have evolved over millions of years to become a deeply social species. This means that when we relate to others we function at our best. We feel good when we are accepted by the tribe or group and feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We call this the “in-group”. When this happens, we are also motivated to work harder and support the groups we identify with.
A lack of relatedness can trigger a pain response in an area of the brain called the Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex. This is the same area that is activated when we feel physical pain. This is a threat response, and it is also aroused when people feel lonely and cut off from social interaction. Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful. 1.
When we are reacting under a threatened state we can’t think straight. There is an increase in stress hormone cortisol. In this state we make more mistakes, our thinking is rigid, and decisions are based on preconceived biases. Definitely not something we need more of in the world today!
Governor Cuomo did a briefing every day in New York during the pandemic, and he related beautifully to his listeners. He spoke personally about how Covid 19 was impacting his family and about the conversations he had with his daughters. He mentions “changing the oil in his car” over the weekend. These are the same kinds of concerns, conversations and daily tasks that we all deal with. Sharing some of his personal life allowed him to be more relatable and made us feel like he is “like us” instead of the head of state living in an ivory tower
The “e” in the ReFRAME™ model stands for Empathy. Empathy enables us to share the emotion and pain of others.
In her popular video Dr. Brene’ Brown talks about how empathy is a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with others you need to connect with something inside yourself.
Many leaders are afraid to do this because they think being seen as vulnerable is a weakness, but in reality, it is a brave and generous choice because in order to make this connection, you will feel discomfort to some degree.
Neuroscience research tells us, when you think about someone else’s perspective, many of the same brain regions light up as when you think about yourself (1). This naturally builds a bridge between you and the other person, making it more likely that your will connect better and be understood.
Theresa Wiseman is a nursing scholar who recently studied many professions where empathy is important has identified four qualities of empathy
Four Attributes of Empathy (2)
To be able to see the world as others see it
To be non-judgmental
To understand another's person's feelings, and
To communicate the understanding of that person's feelings.
We saw Governor Cuomo demonstrate these attributes daily, as he discussed the Covid-19 crisis in deeply personal, human terms. He shared personal stories about his mother and daughter and reveals his fears and vulnerabilities.
In speaking about his daughter:
“…I, as you know, had my daughter who was in isolation and I was very aware of what she was dealing and what she was feeling I had some of the best conversations with her that I have ever had …and we talked about things in-depth that we didn’t have time to talk about in the past, or that we didn’t have the courage or the strength to talk about in the past. Feelings that I had about mistakes that I had made along the way that I wanted to express my regret — I talked through with her…”
“I’m doing everything I can, but people are still dying and that is hurtful and humbling and painful. Just painful…”
What can we do?
Start with self-reflection:
Think about how it feels when you interact with someone who connects with you on a human level (increasing relatedness).
Think about how it feels when someone takes the time to understand and care about how you feel. (increases empathy).
Now think about how you can apply these principles of Relatedness and Empathy in your workplace.
Can you share a personal, family or even a business challenge and how it made you feel? These stories will help your team know you as a fellow human being – as part of their “in-group”.
Developing empathy requires connection and as Theresa Wiseman realized, that means listening to understand the other person's feelings and communicating that back to them. It takes courage because it can be uncomfortable to be present for others in this way, however it will build a deeper and meaningful connection.
Once people feel that they have a stronger social connection, their brains begin to secrete a hormone called oxytocin. This chemical, which has been linked with affection, maternal behavior, sexual arousal, and generosity, dims down the threat response and the reduces cortisol in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.
Perhaps it was the release of this oxytocin that ignited Governor Cuomo’s nationwide Cuomo fanbase. His emotional and empathetic press briefings have instilled a sense of connection, safety and comfort nationwide. It is this foundation of trust that relationships and organizations need to stand upon now so they can withstand the VUCA world we are living in today.
For more information, group or private coaching or to learn about the rest of the engagement model "FRAME" please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Professor Jason Mitchell, Harvard University 2009, Trends in Cognitive Sciences
2. Theresa Wiseman RGN BSc(Hons)(Psy) RCNT RNT PGDE, First published: June 1996