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Updated: August 22, 2022 outside the box

Practice more empathy

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker

Generally, I need to watch and try something in order to learn, as I’m a visual and tactile learner. In most cases, I can’t just listen and then do. This pertains to sports, when my coaches would show me and walk me through moves and plays, we had success! In discussions, and especially during debates, I process this way, too. I come to the table with some facts and ideas already honed, but as the debate unfolds, I think out loud in real time to meet my opposition. Admittedly, sometimes this works well and other times my words become redundant and circular. Either way, I learn, strengthen my postures, and improve going forward. Most people do better with practice and repetition. 

The learning and mastering of a concept is acquired over time. This is why marketing materials, including promotional letters, logos, and company mottos are prescribed to the public repeatedly; because over time, the words and images will be absorbed by the receiver, even if only subconsciously, and what was once dismissed will be received. To this end, as leaders we should be very intentional about what we market. Who are we reaching? Who are we inviting in, and who are we leaving out?

There are many different ways to learn and process information. Valuing individuals’ differences and adapting accordingly is the stretch we must make. We need to recognize and teach to different learning styles and understand the complexities of neurodiversity; and that lived experiences bring a multitude of diverse viewpoints to any given idea, problem, situation, and innovation. This will propel us to do better together, at anything we navigate personally and professionally. We need connected systems to secure equity and to practice more empathy.

The other night I watched Dave Chappelle's Netflix special, the last of a series: “Dave Chappelle: The Closer”. Chappelle’s astute social-political insights and commentary are pristine. Even if you don’t agree with his politics or delivery, his analysis of race, and class, oppression, and social conflict and justice is at times mesmerizing, if not genius. In an unforgiving cancel culture, where even Mr. Chappelle has been dragged, he has never wavered in his opposition to it. Rather, like most comedians, he cancels its premise, which is political correctness, to exquisitely dissect really challenging topics. Most of his commentary, whatever the headline topic, addresses racism and, at its root, anti-Blackness. He speaks on a number of social political topics and closes his act with the importance of centering empathy as a tool to elevate belonging for all, emphasizing human connection. He centers empathy not as a problem-solve for systemic and structural barriers, power imbalances and oppression, but a tool to build from.

Empathetic leaders value connecting with others; and they act beyond compassionate. Empathy is a wonderful human trait and a superpower in business. Empathetic leaders can better meet the needs of all of their employees, because they can better understand what they actually need. This is especially important when the needs of others in your organization do not overlap, let alone connect with your own needs. Without empathy, leaders can fall into the trap of only connecting with, growing, supporting, establishing policies for, and meeting the needs of the people who are like them. This impacts the bottom line. Diverse employee bases and teams bolster greater innovation, creativity, and problem solving, leading to higher profits. Without more empathy, you will not sustain diversity in your organization. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This is not about feeling badly for others, it’s not about feeling guilty, nor about being sorry or agreeing on something. Being empathetic is more important and harder to attain than compassion. It is about understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and needs of another person.

Bonnie J. Walker is a diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging practitioner and consultant.

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