Team Architecture: Fostering Empathy

You can listen to a reading of this blog post here…

“One equal temper of heroic hearts…”

Ulysses, Alfred Tennyson


What makes a team? Once forged, what keeps them together? What makes some teams great and others mediocre? There are countless books, documentaries, studies and low-end blog-posts (me) on this topic; from sport to business, people are obsessed with how to cultivate cohesive and enduring team cultures.

This has always been an area that has interested me. It has only recently been something that I have tried to initiate in teams I have coached.

When I wanted to explore the stigma around mental health, I wanted to do so in a way that was sensitive, informative and supportive. I want a team that can share how they feel but I was cognisant of not coercing them, preferring for them to prompt this dialogue. I was keen to avoid overwhelming them if this space is not yet a safe environment for them, while at the same time, trying to create such as space should they wish to share.

If this project is to have any real success, we (as a coaching team and leadership group) need to cultivate a culture where these young men are free to share how they feel. To encourage such sharing, I need to be willing to share my own thoughts and feelings and I need to equip the team with the requisite skills to listen. This is what I have tried to do, such as in previous posts, and will look to do where possible in the future.

I wanted to explore the idea of empathy because I feel this is something that will help develop lasting bonds of friendship. So today’s session began with a discussion on the difference between ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Empathy.’ There was much debate on what qualified as each but we agreed that empathy was where you could connect with someone about your feelings.

Dr Brene Brown has an incredible talk where she outlines her definitions of Empathy and Sympathy and the very distinctive differences between them. In this clip, she explains that it is empathy that drives connection and consists of:

  • Perspective taking (seeing things from someone’s point of view)
  • Recognising someone’s truth (accepting who or what they are, feel or believe)
  • Reserving judgement – where possible!

But she captures it best in the immortal line:

“Empathy is feeling with someone.”

The video is here and well worth the 3 minutes of your time:

If we want people to be comfortable sharing, we need to equip them with the right language, framework and opportunities to be able to communicate such emotions. We have to try show them how to be more empathetic and to recognise where this occurs so as to highlight and praise it where appropriate.

Dr Brown’s dissection of sympathy is also intriguing as to the potential it holds for damaging relationships. The lines that start with ‘At least…’ are good examples of this. It reminded me of my own poor track record of being empathetic…

I often have to fight two main things when people tell me their problems: my ego and; my overwhelming desire to want to ‘fix’ the problem – perhaps these two are one and the same…

I call the first part: ‘Emotional Top Trumps’. This is where we want to “out-misery” the person who is confiding in us – “Your day was tough eh? Wait till I tell you about mine…” or “I remember this one time I had it way worse than you…” This is not helpful and simply re-focuses the attention on me instead of the person who came to seek some form of support.

The answer is…the Ego Shark…

The second point, trying to ‘fix’ the issue, is flawed from the off as it suggests I have some wisdom or ability far exceeding the reality. People are not a Rubik’s Cube that need ‘solving’ and the more I remember this, the more empathetic I can hopefully become.

Such a discussion on the difference between empathy and sympathy was so integral before introducing the issues around mental health, especially as my own experiences of such difficulties are limited. Of course there are those to whom I am close,  have, and still have, their battles and demons. I have days where I find life tough and my mental health is tested, but not to the same extent of many others I know.

This was the space where I wanted to prompt these young men before exploring  the stigma around mental health. This was because if there was someone who identified something in themselves when we opened up the discussion, I wanted them to know they could reach out to someone and that they are not alone. But more importantly, those they would reach out to would have some sense of how to be empathetic in that situation.

And so, I have set the group a task of watching Niall Breslin’s speech on Mental Health that he gave a few years ago at a Love Dublin function. As a former rugby player, I felt that Bressie’s insight into some of the issues I am hoping to challenge would resonate with those I coach. His searing honesty is something that leveled me when I watched it and gave me an insight into a world of pain, I could not fathom until he described it.

It was hard to really understand how someone who appeared to have it all, a professional sports-person and a musician, was being torn apart from the inside.

The speech is not an easy watch at times, and the details are harrowing and vivid. But it is important for people to know that there are those around us who we love, where such battles are raging every day.

But there are wonderful moments too such as when we get introduced to Jeffrey which helps to demystify such a common struggle that millions face.

To try and support the group with some of the issues raised in the speech, there was a short clip on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) which was a helpful to Bressie. By including this, I wanted to at least make the group aware that there are ways to overcome and manage such darkness and suffering. That for some, CBT allows them to live happy lives and that, as Charles Bukowski, in ‘The Laughing Heart’ tells us: “there are ways out, there is light somewhere.”

Towards the end of the discussion, there was a wonderful moment when we explored what would happen if someone came to you with an issue that you have no personal understanding of: a trauma or pain beyond our own experience. It was encouraging to hear them cite the support network established within the school if they needed help. We went back and forth around the group until one of the team said: “You can’t fix it – there’s nothing you can do but be there for them so just let them know that.”

Imagine what better people and better teams we could be if we could get all of those we coach to think and act like that…

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