Meg’s Story on ‘Tough Empathy’
There is a body of thought promoting the notion of ‘carefrontation’. It has been described as the art of delivering constructive, compassionate feedback to people as a way to explore alternatives to ineffective behaviour. In my research on leading to inspire others, one inspiring leader used the term ‘tough empathy’ to describe the notion more eloquently. Why? From a leaders perspective, providing feedback regarding ineffective behaviours is often difficult or ‘tough’.
Here is a wonderful story from Meg, a CEO in the fitness education sector. She shared this story as we discussed the notion of ‘tough empathy’ and moving people out of their comfort zone:
It was nearing the end of the course when Meg approached Joy, a participant, because she was sitting by herself and had dejected body language. Meg asked, “why the glum face?” Joy replied, “I have nearly finished the course and I feel like nothing might change.” They chatted again about why she started this journey and what she hoped to achieve. The Joy’s aspirations had scaled back and she said, “I have 2 children to look after, I am going through a divorce, and my life is crap.” Meg could have said, “you poor thing, you feel like your life is crap” and then try to console her. She chose not too! Meg opted to be a critical friend and apply tough empathy in an attempt to move Joy out of her comfort zone. Meg said, “stop feeling sorry for yourself. If you feel sorry for yourself, your children will only see a woman who feels sorry for herself. It’s not what you do for your kids, it’s what you become for them!” Joy was clearly taken aback and had a stunned look on her face … she pondered … after a few minutes of silence she said, “Well, best I do something with my life.”
A few weeks later Joy contacted Meg and said, “that moment we chatted at the course inspired me to act and move out of my comfort zone. I went home with my Certificate, took the hay out of the shed, and built a personal training studio. I’ve now got 35 clients and am a financially independent woman.” Meg chose to be critical friend and push the participant to explore an unsafe alternative. From her experience, Meg felt it was easier for people to identify safe actions and ultimately to let their momentum peter out. Eventually nothing changes. Meg summarised, “staying in our comfort zone makes it harder shift and easier to say, ‘no big deal’, if nothing happens. Often making people feel uncomfortable results in a shift.”
That story is a real example of inspiring others to take action through tough empathy! If Meg had chosen not to put in the effort and take a tough option that moment may have led to nothing. If we always choose “safe” leadership options, instead of working hard to establish connections with others, we may miss opportunities to inspire others and make a real difference in people’s lives.