Tag Archives: compassion

Bringing heart to leadership in difficult times

I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news.  On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably:  Marshall Rosenberg.  Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication:  A Language of Life.

New concert hall boost for London
New concert hall boost for London

Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle.  Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.)  Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO.  It seems the politicians have been listening:  in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.

There has been wider news.  There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech.  Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety.  British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism.  There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe.  In the UK, election fever is starting to build.

In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down.  Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago.  The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.

Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?

Businesses continue to struggle:  yours, too, may be struggling.  It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.

As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.

The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities.  This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.

What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished.  At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.

How do you weather such difficult times?

Turning the screw on under-performance

It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.

This was the approach that Sheldon took.

Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish.  Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets.  The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.

Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too.  One team member was new and struggling.  This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy.  What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.

Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find.  Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash.  If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.

The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.

With love, not fear

One of the articles I recommend most often to leaders and aspiring leaders is Daniel Goleman’s article Leadership That Gets Results.

In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led.  This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees.  It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.

There’s more.

Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.

There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either.  Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.

Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform.  They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.

Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation.  Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.

Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond.  What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once.  He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.

Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.

So was Sheldon.

So, too, were members of the senior management team.

About Marshall Rosenberg

On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body.  I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.

Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together.  Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days.  A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.

Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit.  He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills.  During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.

It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills.  He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.

At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others.  The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.

I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed.  I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.

Leadership with heart

This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.

At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.

Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.

As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.

The experience of his staff was also changed by this.

So, too, was their performance.

Marshall Rosenberg, 1934 – 2015.

Bringing care to times of conflict

In recent months I have found myself in the midst of a disagreement – a rather long, drawn out affair which started just when I was recovering from the experience of supporting a friend in crisis.

The experience has reminded me just how hard it can be to navigate conflict in the workplace, so that I’m going to try to talk about conflict today.

It all started with…

Have you ever found yourself, quite unexpectedly, in a situation of conflict at work?

Perhaps you did something, in good faith, which stimulated anxiety or anger in one of your colleagues.  If you’re lucky, the colleague is someone you know or someone who is skilled in handling his or her emotions constructively.  Perhaps, though, your colleague is someone you don’t know, so that you don’t have a track record of mutual respect to fall back on.  Or maybe he or she has a different track record – as someone who is prone to unexpected explosions, to trying to put people “in their place”, to… you get to write the list.

There are any number of things about your colleague’s behaviour that make the situation worse.  Firstly, in the midst of an explosion – maybe a full on amygdala hijack – your colleague absolutely believes his or her own story.  It’s not just that he or she is concerned that something might happen as a result of what you’ve done.  No.  The action you’ve taken is bound to lead to x, y, z…  If you’re not careful you, too, are at risk of getting swept up in a line of thinking which has not yet been closely examined.  Maybe, too, your colleague lacks the sense of perspective, after the fact, to examine his or her own thinking…  the case against you is proven before the facts have been gathered.  He or she may even do his very best to make sure that facts are obscured or kept out of view.

If you’re deeply unlucky, you may find that the person who is treating you in this way has a long history of similar outbursts which have, over time, been unchallenged.  Unless your organisation has a firm anti-bullying policy or a culture which is quick to address these behaviours in general or the behaviour of your particular colleague, they will continue.  What’s more, your colleague’s sense of righteousness will grow and, with it, the post-toddler temper tantrums.  In the mind of your colleague, you deserve to be treated in this way  – he or she is right, after all.

Hey, in really tough cases, your colleague may even be the boss.  Your boss.  Or the ultimate boss – the boss of all bosses, the CEO.

What’s more, whilst your colleague may not be skilled in handling his or her skills constructively, he does have other skills…

…He’s highly skilled in making unilateral decisions with no thought whatsoever for the impact on you…

…She’s hard to pin down.  When you ask a clear question or make a clear request, she has a way of ignoring them as if you had never asked…

…He’s highly selective when it comes to the facts, ignoring some, putting others forward repeatedly and vociferously, withholding some… hey!  Even distorting a few…

…She’s really strong on holding you to account for any mistakes (real or imagined) whilst being, of course, totally blameless…

What makes it hard?  Well, you, too, are human and may struggle with the emotional roller coaster that your conversations or correspondence stimulates in you – from fear to rage, anger to anxiety.  You may, even, have your own sense of self righteousness.  And if your colleague is also the boss, maybe even the ultimate boss, you may fear that your only options are to roll over and take the punches or to leave your job.

Tempting strategies that don’t hit the mark

Reflecting on my own experience in recent weeks, I’ve noticed that it’s tempting to follow certain routes.  They’re tempting – they really are tempting!

Outrage, disbelief and feeling hard done by.  Did that really just happen?!  I can’t believe that anyone would do that!  Don’t get me wrong, you feel what you feel.  The person did what they did.  It may well have been a crazy thing to do… in your map of the world.  However, nothing changes as a result of you feeling the outrage or knowing that every rule in the book has been broken – whether the real book of your organisation’s rules and procedures or the metaphorical book of what people do who are emotionally intelligent and effective in their roles.

Trying to prove you’re right.  When your sense of injustice is strong, the desire to put your case can be strong, as can your yearning to be heard and understood.  There is, though, no guarantee that you will be.  In the midst of panic or blind rage, your colleague is not in possession of the facts.  No, he or she can only relate to his own fears – the inner story of his or her imagination.  After the blind rage is over, he may still stick to the story he created when this whole thing kicked off.  Holding out for a fair hearing?  It may never happen.

Relying on policy or procedure.  You have a procedure in place that covers this kind of thing?  Maybe a grievance procedure or an anti-bullying procedure.  By all means use it and still, it may not work.  Especially if your colleague has a role in carrying out the procedure, there’s a risk that it may not be followed or that it will be followed in ways which simply confirm your colleague’s view of you.

Relying on senior management.  I’m sorry to disappoint you.  It’s possible that bringing the matter to the attention of the very people who ought to be managing your colleague will help.  It’s possible, too, that your colleagues are as ground down as you are in the battle to uphold company policy, dignity (yours, theirs), good sense and whatever else you’re longing for.

Jumping ship.  It’s possible to just walk.  To find another job.  To move.  To say “Fuck you!”  Possible. Tempting.  There is, though, the risk that you are the loser when you choose to walk away.  It was your job – and you lost it.  How unjust was that!

Resorting to anger and hatred.  Don’t get me wrong, this strategy can be as juicy as they come.  You may even find all sorts of people lining up to join in.  Think his behaviour is outrageous?  So do I!  Wonder if she’s got issues from childhood?  What other explanation can there be?!  Think he ought to know better at his level of seniority?  For sure!  But this, though it may give you some relief, will not, ultimately help you to find peace.

Care changes everything

These strategies do not work and yet, in a way, they do… provided you can bring the quality of care to your situation as it unfolds.

In my own experience, I noticed how, from the beginning, I was able to notice my needs… a longing to be heard and understood, a longing for courtesy and consideration, a deep desire for the kind of collaborative approach which might address real concerns whilst leaving everybody’s dignity intact.  What I noticed – what I notice – is how, over time, touching base with my needs has brought a sense of peace, even when they are far from being met.  Even as I write, the very act of naming my needs is bringing a quality of tenderness to my heart.

As much as I have been making a stand for my own needs to be met, I know this is not enough.  At times, throughout this process, I have taken time to put myself in the shoes of everyone else involved.  I may think that my colleague has taken a hammer to crack a nut (and, what’s more, a nut that was already open).  Still, I recognise how much this has added to his or her workload and at a time when he or she is at full stretch.  I may think that a wider group of people should feel uncomfortable and step up in the role each one has taken on and, still, I can see how hard it is to address the very behaviours with which I, too, struggle.

With care, I have found a sense of peace and liberation.  It’s not that things have gone the way I hoped – not at all.  Still, at each point in the process, I have learnt more about the personalities involved.  That step didn’t give me the information I asked for, even though, clearly, I’ve made a legitimate request.  Still, I’ve taken action to care for my needs.  I’ve taken care to acknowledge the needs of others.  Over time, I’ve come to understand the issues.  I’ve come to know what’s mine – and what’s not mine.

And what are friends for?

I could not finish this posting without adding that friends, too, have played an important role.  In the moments when I’ve thought “has this really happened?”and “am I mad?” I have called on an inner circle of supportive friends.  They have brought humour to the situation.  They have confirmed that, yes, this is way off piste.  They have helped me to keep things simple as I work out each step of the way.  Above all, they have brought care.

It is this care that has made things all right, no matter which way things go.


Smoothing your path with compassionate collaboration

2013 was a challenging year for me personally and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I made a somewhat chaotic start to 2014.  Exhausted, I have faced any number of new tests at a time when I feel my energies are depleted.

At work, in a state of exhaustion, I have faced inner struggle as my body tells me I need to rest and my inner Company Director tells me I need to crack on.  In need of space, I’ve found it hard to handle some of the challenges that face me personally and have had some difficult interactions with loved ones.

Only the other day, I missed signs that, triggered by something I’d said, a very dear friend was close to losing his temper with me – something he has never done in the quarter century we’ve known each other.

Conflict – a part of our human experience

It seems I am not alone.  Whether in the work place or at home, conflict – discord between ourselves and others or conflict within ourselves – is a regular part of the human experience.


In case you doubt it, I invite you to take a moment to notice what’s going on for you at this time.

Starting with yourself, are there any parts of you that are in conflict with each other?  Are you striving to move forward in some way and yet procrastinating?  Are there things on your “to do” list that, somehow, you are trying to avoid?  Have you set out your New Year vision for more exercise, healthier food, seeking a new job… and yet find that your actions belie your intentions.  If you recognise any example of this in your own life, you probably know just how much frustration, confusion, fear and other emotions you feel as part of this inner conflict.  It could even be that you feel strong emotions – fear, perhaps – about feeling those emotions.  You may even be trying hard to pretend that you’re “fine”.

Are you in conflict with anyone else, either in the way you are interacting with each other or in the way you are thinking of someone or feeling about them – be it a colleague (or colleagues), a friend, your partner or other family member?  Maybe you haven’t said anything and still, you’re fed up with the challenges you face when working with someone or some group of colleagues in your organisation.  Maybe you just can’t face going home once again to your teenage son’s sock pile, or to your partner’s admonitions that you’re late home – again.

Maybe you’ve even had a conversation with someone in the last ten days which was tense, angry, difficult.

On the path of most resistance

Recently, I was witness to an example of a conflict between a manager and one of his members of staff.

The manager, Greg, had found out that Jane, his staff member, had said no to a request from one of the organisation’s major clients.  It was her judgement that the company would struggle to meet the client’s requirements and, what’s more, to do so would be unprofitable.

The first she knew of any problems was when Greg sat her down and instructed her to make arrangements to meet the order – that day.  Jane knew that her team could not do that without letting down other clients and, what’s more, she was confused.  Why the instruction when she had a clear agreement with her boss to say no to any requests which would prove unprofitable to the organisation?  She asked for an explanation and was told Greg would get back to her following a meeting he was scheduled to attend.

This brief exchange left Jane feeling shocked and concerned.  She did, though, want to make clear that she wanted to find an outcome that worked for Greg and for her other clients.  She decided to drop him an e-mail to that effect and to let him know when she was available to talk about how they could fulfil existing orders and make room for this one.  She also included figures so that Greg could assess the profitability of this order.

She was shocked when Greg responded to say that he didn’t want to see her in the office for the rest of the week and would contact her by the end of the week to discuss any further disciplinary action.

Greg’s action put him squarely on the path of most resistance.  Rather than work with Jane, who had expressly told him she wanted to meet with him to find a way forward that worked for them both, he chose to work against her.

Fear – and the power of compassion

Greg didn’t know it, but he acted out of fear.

His great fear was that saying no to his largest client would damage a long-standing relationship.  And because it was Jane who had said no, when fear kicked in, he decided she was in the wrong and tried to exercise control.  Jane, who was more than willing to collaborate with Greg to find a way forward, was not happy to be suspended without good grounds.  Instead of holding a meeting to discuss a way forward that worked for everybody, Gregor’s action led to a lengthy process which consumed time and energy without actually working well for anybody.

In truth, we all have our inner Gregs and Janes.  The same kind of conflict occurs when we sponsor one part of ourselves at the expense of another.  Yes, we (that’s you and one part of you) think it’s a good idea to do do x – but goodness, how frustrating that one part of us is standing in the way!  What a stupid part!  It’s totally irrational!  Let’s push a little harder… push through…  The trouble is, whether we are dealing with inner conflict or conflict with some other person or group of people, this approach increases the struggle, the effort, the time needed to find an – often imperfect – way through.

In my work as a coach, I have found that struggle ends when compassionate collaboration starts.  In my conversations with clients, I invite them to notice what each part of them is really wanting.  As clients let go of judgement and start to really listen, they open up the possibility that parts of them that have been in conflict can begin to collaborate.  The question “which part of me is right?” gives way to a different question – “how can those different parts of me find ways to ensure all our needs are met?”

In her conversations with Greg, Jane recognised that he felt a great deal of fear.  She decided to stick up for her needs – but not at the expense of her manager’s.  She tried to understand his fears whilst also asking for revisions to the guidance he had given her previously, so that she could support him in managing the company’s relationship with a major client.  She also launched an appeal against the disciplinary action he had taken.

 Surprises on the road to ease

Sometimes, the choice to be present to everyone’s needs – to collaborate from a place of compassion – throws up solutions which surprise everyone concerned.  Jane could not know ahead of time, for example, whether her discussions with Greg would throw up new solutions or lead her to conclude that she didn’t want to work under such a regime.

In my own life, gaining clarity about my baseline requirements for working with one organisation recently led me to realise that yes, we want to work with each other but no, we don’t have the basis for any kind of agreement that would work for me.  I was surprised at just how relieved I felt as I leaned into this clarity and let go of trying to find a way to working together work.  I knew I would prefer to be on good terms than to work under an agreement that didn’t give me what I needed.

As I shared that, no, I wouldn’t work with this particular client, I let go of struggle and stepped into ease – and a new set of possibilities.  I was able to do this and to stay on good terms with a potential work partner because I gave full weight to my needs – and theirs.

It takes time and commitment to practise compassionate collaboration.  At the same time, to do so opens up ways to increase your effectiveness and create ease in your role as a leader and beyond.  I don’t want to understate the effort and discipline involved to develop in this area but I do want to offer you a first step:

I invite you to identify just one inner conflict or conflict with others and to get curious about what you need.  Get curious, too, about what others need.  And whether out loud or in your own heart start to say – to yourself, to others – “Hello.  I see you.  Your needs matter.”