An Empathetic Approach
Life is messy. We strive for order. We set our goals and tick off our action items. We weigh our options and try to make good decisions. Nonetheless, the unexpected intervenes. We are knocked off track by challenges from the small to the life-changing: illness, accidents, bias, harassment, violence, financial woes, and more.
As much as we seek to avoid it, we carry these struggles with us. They affect us in our homes, in our communities, and they affect us at work. How leaders respond to the traumas that inevitably show up in their workplaces can determine the success or failure of the organization as a whole. An empathetic response instills trust, which in turn increases productivity, reduces absenteeism and turnover, and enhances engagement and satisfaction. Just as importantly, compassion makes it more likely that those in need will get help. It also bears noting that empathy lapses have shown up in more headlines and lawsuits than many would care to recount. This book teaches the skills to respond with calm and confidence to traumas at work, whenever and wherever they arise.
The LASER Method
How can we encourage people to come forward? One way is by ensuring that when they do come forward, the response they get is respectful and supportive. An essential first step to an open environment, a workplace where difficult issues can be discussed without fear and handled without discomfort, is a good response when those issues are raised. This is both simpler and more difficult than it seems. Trauma impacts the brain of both the speaker and the listener.
What we need to do to support someone in trauma, however, is not complex. There are five steps, each of which is discussed in detail in this book.
Active listening involves more than keeping your mouth shut. Controlling your own reaction, managing your body language, asking open-ended questions, hearing what is not being said, and winding down the speaker when the conversation becomes unproductive are essential elements of being a good listener. Step One covers all of these, plus how to prepare for a difficult conversation, take notes without interrupting the flow of conversation, and handle special circumstances involving mandatory reporting and threats of self-harm or harm of others.
Once someone shares a difficult personal story with you, it is important to acknowledge that gift. This is a brief moment that separates the speaker’s recitation of a difficult story and your moment to begin talking. When acknowledging, we should mirror the speaker’s language, speak with sincerity, and avoid distancing assumptions. This section of the book also provides tips on appropriate acknowledgments (and those that aren’t so great).
One of the most difficult aspects of victimization is the loss of control. You can help the speaker regain some measure of control by sharing information with him or her. Though you may be limited in what you can share by the need for confidentiality or because you do not in fact know what happened, this step discusses the four types of information that can be shared: process, values, facts, and what you don’t know, but hope to learn. It also discusses apologies.
This step is equally important for the speaker and the listener. The traumatized person is going to have to continue on his journey without you. You can help that person by providing him with resources. Step Four details sample resources and gives advice on the types of services of which managers and others responsible for employees or members of the public should be aware. It also includes a caution against the common urge to take over next steps for the speaker; instead, we should let the person in trauma chart his own course.
The final step is to ensure that the injured person has a way to come back later, when he or she cannot remember all that you said, thinks of more questions, or wishes for updates. To leave matters on a solid footing, it is worthwhile to give the speaker a way to reach you again, whether this is a simple “call anytime,” an email address, or a website where updates will be posted. “Return” is also a return to ourselves, and so this section includes information on compassion fatigue and self-care.
The steps are thus: Listen. Acknowledge. Share. Empower. Return. They can be remembered in the moment when adrenaline floods our brains with their simple acronym: LASER. The goal is to help you stay focused (laser focused) on what needs to happen in that interaction to support the person who is experiencing something challenging. The LASER technique can benefit all who are responsible for others, from top-tier managers at Fortune 500 companies to residence advisors in college dormitories.
Trauma and the Brain
If someone comes to tell you about a difficult event, that person is likely experiencing an elevated stress level. You may catch some of that stress, simply by observing. Here are some ways to recognize a stress response in yourself:
- A surge of anger
- Clenched jaw
- Desire to punch, stomp, or kick
- A knotted or burning feeling in your stomach
- Your voice raises
- You glare at people
- Restless legs
- You fidget
- You feel trapped
- Numbness in your extremities
- Your eyes dart around, looking for an exit
- You feel leaden, dull
- Your skin pales
- Your heart rate decreases
- Your heart pounds
- You have a sense of dread
Again, these are normal responses that your highly functional brain sets into motion to protect you. They simply aren’t helpful in the moment when someone comes to you for help, because they pull you out of the moment when you want to be present and supportive for the other person.
The first step to managing that response is to recognize it. Ah, my heart is beating really fast. That’s my stress response because this is a hard conversation. Or, I’m having trouble processing what he’s saying. I wonder if that’s because I’m catching some of his distress. Or, I can’t catch my breath. That’s my body trying to pump more oxygen into my muscles in case I need to run.
Just recognizing it will help you to get a handle on the reaction. You’ll start to think something like, Silly, really. Why would I need to run? And that will begin to calm you. Employing some deliberate calming techniques will help even more. The goal is to remind yourself that you are fine. You’re completely safe. Here are a few ideas:
- Specifically, breathe intentionally and slowly. Breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of six. Notice your stomach expand as you breathe in and contract as you breathe out.
- Engage the five senses. Make note of the color of the walls, the smell of coffee from the break room next door, the sound of laughter down the hall, the feel of your watch on your arm. All of this will help bring you back to the present moment when you are not, in fact, being attacked by a bear but rather are sitting quietly at your desk.
- Release the tension. Find a nonobstructive way to let out some of the energy surging through you. Flex and release your calves or your fists. Curl your toes. Clench your stomach and then consciously let it go.
- Focus on something calming. This can be a phrase, something in the room, or even a memory. Think to yourself, over and over again, I’m fine. Glance at the photo on your desk of your spouse or child. Picture a candle or gentle waves on a peaceful ocean.
- Double down on empathy. Sometimes our stress response shows up as disbelief, anger, disgust, or a shutting down of emotion. Recognize that this is your body trying to protect you from feeling, and instead, lean the other way. Ask yourself, How would I feel if this were me? Or, How would I feel if this were my sister? Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to bring yourself back to how that person is feeling and being present for him or her. This may be the most effective strategy of all, so long as you’re not ignoring your own stress response, because it brings online brain systems involved in caring and nurturing, which have the opposite biological impacts of those involved in fear and self-protection.
Use any of these, alone or in conjunction, when you notice your stress response kick in. This will help you to stay calm and focused during the conversation, rather than allowing yourself to be hijacked into an unnecessary stress reaction. Managing your own response will lower your stress level, which is a benefit on its own. Even better, your calm will be contagious and help the speaker to feel calmer as well. Finally, it will keep you focused on the person in front of you and what he or she needs, so that your response can be helpful and supportive.