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Connect to the Pain of Others

Why empathy is a core competency of leadership, a vital part of being human, and part of our common humanity.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

When leading trainings in the business world, or really anywhere, I’m often reminded that being a human being is a tough gig! Perhaps never more so than when I teach the practice: Connect to the Pain of Others.

When we engage this practice, we create the space to experience challenges, to become more aware of our inner critics, of loneliness and longing, and of change, impermanence, sickness, old age, and death. We become more aware and awake to the reality of this human life – not in a morbid way, but by not avoiding what is true.

I’m reminded of the famous quote often attributed to Plato:

Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.

At work, connecting to another’s humanity or another’s pain creates bonds and builds trust, and fosters more real and open communication, and greater creativity. Beyond the workplace, connecting with the pain of others is a crucial practice for creating a more peaceful world and quite possibly the only way we will stand a chance of surviving and even thriving on this fragile planet that we share.

Once people begin to drop beneath the surface of their feelings they can connect to the depth and pain of others on the level of a shared common humanity. It’s beautiful and moving to witness this – even in more formal corporate settings. I feel so fortunate and lucky to do the work that I do!

Connect To The Pain of Others is the fifth practice from my new book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons From Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen. Below you’ll find an excerpt from Chapter 5, I hope you find it useful.

This practice may be one of the most important competencies in the art of stellar leadership as well as in creating a more peaceful world.

I’ve experienced often the transformation that can occur in a short amount of time when people deeply see one another and open to our shared humanity: to the universal desire to be happy and connected and to the universal experience of pain when we are not.

The potent practice, Connect to the Pain of Others, is key for leaders as they cultivate a group’s sense of purpose and as they foster the personal development and inner strength of each member.

Like Practice #4, Connect to Your Pain, the “pain” referred to in this practice is really the universal human experience of discomfort and loss. While it includes physical pain and each person’s individual circumstances, the deeper focus is recognizing the type of emotional pain everyone shares: of impermanence, of change, of disconnection, and of the awareness of impending loss, old age, sickness, and death. And it includes the pain that is particular to our sense of self — feeling like a separate individual and yet aspiring to be connected within a community.

From the perspective of evolutionary biology, we evolved and are built to feel the emotions of others. This is the definition of empathy, and it includes all feeling states, both physical and emotional. Indeed, we are connected to others beyond what we usually realize or imagine, which a host of scientific research has shown. We are influenced by the hormones and body chemistry of others, to the extent that women who live together tend to have synchronized menstrual cycles. It’s proven that positive and negative emotions can be contagious. These things reflect our common, shared experience so much that it almost goes without saying that our feelings and emotions are powerfully interconnected.

A mistake we can make is thinking we don’t have to share the pain of others.

This is particularly true for leaders, and there is some evidence that greater leadership authority is correlated with a decrease in empathy. Somehow, though humans are built to recognize emotion in one another, we sometimes think we can remain separate from it. Why do we do this? I’m not sure, but there are several likely reasons. One is that separation can seem to free us from obligation: If you are separate from me, and your pain is not my pain, then I don’t have to do anything about it. Another common reason is probably that we don’t want to feel our own pain. We may go to great lengths not to experience or share someone else ’s pain, such as their loneliness or grief, since that means admitting to our own. This is why being an empathic ape is easier when others are happy and much harder when they are not.

Yet empathy is a core competency of leadership, a vital part of being human, and part of our common humanity. As I hope you’ll find, learning to skillfully connect with the pain of others actually, and paradoxically, supports and increases our ability to feel a deep sense of safety and satisfaction; it fosters a profound feeling of belonging. It ultimately enables our freedom to express our deepest truths and help others express theirs. This practice is aimed at training your mind and heart to connect more deeply with others by acknowledging and experiencing other people ’s experience and perspectives, to see and feel our human similarities, and to cultivate compassion, or the practice of offering kindness.

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