Some COVID-19 Lessons About Perception, Empathy and Decision-Making

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed much about who we are, our resources, our strengths and limitations. We will be dissecting our responses for years to come and hopefully, doing some profound “lessons learned” analysis nationally and globally. Many of us are reflecting on what our reactions, individually and collectively, have exposed thus far. I’ve observed two things in our everyday lives that have been magnified by this crisis: how we receive and interpret data; and, the role empathy plays in decision making.

Initially, where people turned for information impacted their perception of this situation. The news outlets reported different interpretations of how COVID-19 was unfolding abroad and what the potential impact would be here in the U.S.  In 2020 people have broad access to diverse information being dispersed with a wide variety of agendas, research, and expertise behind it.  To stay responsibly informed these days means not just to read the paper or watch the news but to do so from a variety of sources. Those of us who have jobs that involve research or interpretation, must be especially vigilant about the diversity of resources we use to arrive at our conclusions.

Once we all see the same data, the confusion does not end. In the earlier days of the COVID-19 outbreak, I talked to and heard many people greatly comforted in hearing the death rate was only about 1% (the true number is yet to be determined). Others heard this information and asked, but how contagious is it?– 1% of what? Similarly, many were comforted to learn that for the majority of the population the manifestation would be like a regular flu or something even milder. Others saw this fact as one of the core dangers; something that is mild to most and deadly to a few is harder to identify, track and contain.

It’s like the famous drawing that some viewers see as an old lady looking down while others see a young lady looking away. Same picture, different perceptions. As horror stories emerged of overworked doctors and nurses having to turn away people who needed treatment, there were some who thought “this is a thing happening way over there” and some who thought, “this is a thing about to happen here.” It is tempting to focus on who was right and who was wrong, and in certain instances that is appropriate. But we must also remember that people will always see and react to things differently. This morning my brother shared a statistic he heard about the percentage of people likely to be infected and the death rate compared to other outbreaks. My response was, “That is terrifying!” He replied, “Really? How do you not see that as comforting?” This crisis is a reminder of how important it is both that our teams and organizations consist of people with true expertise, and also with a range of experience and ways of seeing and interpreting the world around them. We must have multiple and diverse perspectives to arrive at the most responsible decisions and to understand how best to communicate them.

There is no shortage of research and discussion about the important role of empathy in effective leadership. I’m not going to talk about that. There are enough people focusing on leadership or the lack thereof through this crisis. The opportunity here is to reflect on our own processing over the course of the past weeks and the extent to which empathy has played a role in the personal decisions we make. If we learned we were of a group that would be minimally impacted if we caught this virus, did we breathe a sigh of relief and move on? Have we been curious about people’s experiences around the world beyond how those experiences might impact us personally?  It seems the tipping point in a collective understanding of our individual responsibility came with the “flatten the curve” graphics and messaging. (An important lesson in the necessity of clear, impactful communication.)  The picture of overwhelmed hospitals with medical workers and patients not having enough protective gear, respirators and oxygen, broke through and struck an empathetic chord that reverberated and spread. Even now, some people are having trouble making individual sacrifices because they don’t feel this situation as a threat. There are, of course, multiple reasons for the choices people are making, but there is no doubt that empathy, the ability to sense or imagine someone else’s experience or feelings, plays a crucial role in our ability to understand this crisis and make sacrifices to protect each other. COVID-19 has reminded us how connected we are and how our individual decision making often has broad impact. As we consider the decisions we make for our teams, businesses and customers, we can reflect on this example of the role empathy plays in our ability to perceive complex situations and make sound decisions.

A couple weeks ago the guy sitting in front of me on my flight was watching FOX news. Seven minutes later he tuned into MSNBC. The next time I looked up it was CNN. “Good for you,” I thought. There are not many of us with the disciplined curiosity to take in information so broadly. Even if we have no respect for one of these sources, there’s great value in understanding what others are hearing and how they are arriving at their perspectives. Even when seeing the same thing, even when the expert shows us the data, we humans will always interpret things differently. We must actively seek out those varying perspectives so we can help each other towards a common picture or goal that will enable us to think beyond ourselves and our own frameworks to make thoughtful, broadly informed decisions how to move forward. Then we do our best, which sometimes, will be enough.

Who Can You Go Talk To About This?

“Who can you go talk to about this?” is one of my most frequently asked coaching questions. Often when we get stuck, feel unsure about something or like things are not going well, we go inwards instead of reaching out. The question itself is a reminder that we are surrounded by people who know things. People who surely have useful ideas about what we are wrestling with, and who are navigating our same organizations and careers. Often the answer to my question is, “I don’t know.” So we consider, who might have even tidbits of useful information? Who might be able to help nudge a ball forward? Who might be able to point us in a helpful direction?

Our organizations are filled with people who can help and who likely want to help. Often there is no structure in place for people to help us, nor is there a clear way for us to seek out the information we want. A lack of structure does not mean our leaders and organizations intend for us to struggle silently. We must look for ways to get what we need and almost always this means us figuring out with whom to talk.

It’s tempting when we feel defeated, lost, overworked or unseen to sink into victim mode. This thing is happening to me. This place is doing this to me. These people won’t pay attention to me. Even when aspects of this are true, allowing ourselves to settle into this role is dangerous. It dissolves our ability to take action, seek information and generate the change we want. I catch myself going into victim mode when I get angry and frustrated—this is human. And always, what I must do to pull myself out is take action. Usually this means starting a conversation something like: “I think we need to get clearer about how this decision impacts everyone…” or “I’m feeling like I need more information/context to do what is being asked of me…” or “Can we talk more about this…”

Common limiting beliefs that keep us from a variety of professional conversations are, “Oh, I don’t want to bother that person,” or  “I don’t think they can really do anything about it anyway.” Push past those. We are tribal; we need each other. People need to be needed as much as we need them. A client recently told me, “ I love it when people come to me for advice and guidance at work because believe me, making my rich clients richer is not what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

I’ve never had a client regret having a conversation they’d previously been nervous or uncertain about having. They always gain more information, more clarity, more courage, sometimes better relationships and better roles. Sometimes they get clearer that they are in the wrong role. They never say, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t put myself out there and asked those questions. I wish I hadn’t learned more about this organization and that human who is in it with me. I wish I had stayed privately wondering what I should do and what’s really going on around here. I wish I still knew less about what’s possible for me here.”

So, initiate more thoughtful conversations. Show you are trying to be efficient with people’s time and they will give you more of it. Be a little vulnerable. (if you haven’t already, check out Brené Brown’s masterful work and research on courage and vulnerability) You might be surprised how much people will offer up if you ask thoughtfully. You might discover that people are quite curious about your perspectives as well. You might find out that the only thing between you and feeling a whole lot better and more empowered are the right conversations with the right people.

Kindness Matters

The value of being kind to oneself and others is often underemphasized in our daily life. Last year I wrote ten dating guidelines (and did a fun podcast on them). The first guideline is: Be Kind- to yourself and to “them.” Being kind is also a great place to start a new decade, a contentious election year, and any coaching process.

In the dating guidelines, being kind to them means not deciding every date gone wrong or person not right for us is a complete jerk. This keeps us open to the many nuances of why someone may not be a good fit for us, useful information when we are looking for partners.   Similarly, when struggling in our relationships at work, it doesn’t serve us to demonize those we don’t get along with. The moment we turn someone else into the bad one and ourselves into the good one (or victim), we diminish our capacity to influence the situation productively. An inclination toward kindness in assuming good will and good intentions in others, pulls us out of us versus them mentality. It empowers us to resolve difficult situations more quickly and invites others to treat us with the same respect and benefit of the doubt.

The best way to build the habit of being kind to others is to be kind to ourselves. This is critical in any effort to be and do better. In my dating guidelines, kindness is first because dating is a vulnerable process. We put ourselves out there over and again while trying to be fun, authentic, brave, nice…sometimes when we don’t feel like being any of those things. We are repeatedly forced to see ourselves through other’s eyes and reckon with their perception. If we are not kind to ourselves, this can become very un- fun very fast. Generosity and kindness with myself enabled me to have fun and feel in control during the ups and downs of many years of dating.

If we want to live in self-awareness, improve and evolve, kindness to ourselves is foundational. Improvement in anything means acknowledging lousy habits, identifying blind spots and identifying the ways in which we get in our own way and hurt others.  This is good, brave work that is much easier to take on if we can be kind to ourselves while we do it. If we punish ourselves at every turn, we slow ourselves down, possibly to a standstill. The people who get the most out of coaching are the ones who most readily forgive themselves. Those inclined to torture themselves as they confront their bad habits are so stifled by their self-judgement they struggle to move forward with the work of figuring out new ways of doing things. Coaching becomes too painful and they are more likely to give up.

We treat others how we treat ourselves. Those who can’t forgive when they feel betrayed and who need to blame others when things go wrong are the people who are hardest on themselves. They swim regularly in their own regret and recoil with shame when others are disappointed in them. We all experience regret, remorse and shame.  And we have choice whether we hold onto these feelings and let them drive our behavior. We have choice about the extent to which we let the judgement of others impact our perception of ourselves. If we are fundamentally kind to ourselves, we can take how other people perceive us as useful information rather than proof of our inadequacy.  We can hear and make use of feedback.

There is, of course, a version of being “successful” without kindness, to yourself or others.  But this success is painful for you and everyone around you. You need not look far for current examples. You deserve better. The world deserves better.

Learning to take possession of the voice in your head and make sure it’s being nice to you is not a luxury. It’s not a self-help-y thing to try in your spare time. It’s how you best position yourself to take control of everything else in your life you are working toward, personally and professionally. It is the best foundation for doing good work, accomplishing your goals, building strong, durable relationships and having more fun. Go after it.

The Power Our Stories Hold

I was raised with the myth of Santa, a story I held onto longer than you would think a rational human could. I was a serious kid who cringed at baby talk and looked grown-ups in the eye but by December each year, I really wanted to believe that reindeer would land on my roof and a giant elf would come down my chimney to put peppermint and colored pencils in a giant sock for me. I loved everything about this story, so I let myself have it for as long as possible. Santa is making me think about the power of our stories.

Recently a client was describing his overwhelmed and busy leadership team; how he was trying not to “bother them.” He tried to have as few needs as possible and be extremely efficient when he encountered them. I liked the efficiency part. Otherwise, I told him his story about his leadership team seemed to be making him smaller. “Don’t you have information they need?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “and I can hear as I’m talking, how much I’m undervaluing myself. This narrative is making me focus on taking up as little space as possible instead of providing as much value as possible.” This is an important distinction because “not taking up space” is on no one’s list of career building tips. Another person told me a similar narrative about one of his big clients. I offered, “You have a story in your head about who this person is that is making you feel insecure about being at the table. He’s just some guy who needs your expertise.” My client smiled and said, “That’s interesting.” “Is it true?” I asked. “Absolutely,” he replied.

In expressing her doubts about what she has to offer in a new job, another client portrayed  someone anxious about having so much to learn about her role, who is always nervous speaking in front of people and needs help thinking through strategy. “What a fascinating version of her story,” I thought. My version says: “this is a woman who tirelessly pushes past her own comfort zones by taking on new challenges, including seeking out this role. She refuses to let her fear of public speaking get in her way, and says “yes” every time she is asked. She sought out and pays for a coach so she can strategize how to continue to improve and operate at her peak potential.” Happily, this version of her narrative is becoming her own.

Someone else I see is surrounded by thoughtful people who want to provide feedback about why people consistently leave her team. They offer to give their perspective and each time she refuses. I wonder what story she is holding onto. What story about herself or the world would this feedback shatter?  Coaches must respect the stories clients craft about themselves and the world.  We look for ways to challenge the stories that are holding them back or doing harm while not unraveling the ones that are holding them together. Certainly there are some stories people are not yet ready to let go.  Ideally, at the least, we can raise awareness of narrative in general; its great power over us and our potential for power over it.

My blogs have touched on a wide variety of limiting stories: the ones about not having enough time, not being good enough, prepared enough, qualified enough; the ones where we are not the person in the room that should be speaking up or calling something out. We tell ourselves little stories about ourselves and others all day long. Perhaps a good 2020 resolution would be to take note, kindly and gently, of these little stories we tell, and how they feed our bigger stories. Then, follow the thread of those stories and ask how they are or aren’t serving you. Which parts of your narratives are grounding and fueling you and which might be let go so that you can try out something new? What will become possible when you begin re-writing?  

The Santa story served me well for many years—a welcome relief to a child overly concerned with grown-up matters. But there came a time to let it go to discover what could take its place. After Santa, I gained an increased understanding of the generosity of parenting. I found new ways to create magic for myself and others and came better to understand the value of tradition. In letting go of Santa I could recognize and take ownership of how much I wanted to be child-like and wonder-filled during the holidays. Which, deep into my adulthood, hasn’t changed a single bit.

Curiosity!

It was nice to see a playful kitten with the spirit of Curious George on the cover of The Harvard Business Review about a year ago. My colleagues and I have long touted “curiosity.” From my perspective, curiosity is critical. It’s not just the backbone of learning as an adult, it’s the backbone of being an interesting adult. Evidence based research is showing the importance of curiosity as a trait in those entering the workforce. It fosters agility and the ability to adapt in our constantly changing, increasingly complex world.  

Leaning into our curiosity opens us up to nuance and unexpected variables that may be hidden if we don’t root around for them. It can also help make us a better boss, parent, friend, citizen. Most of us make assumptions about other people’s motivations, experiences, feelings, and resourcefulness. Being a coach has taught me that everyone has undetected wisdom. Being with kids has taught me that they crave being recognized for their uniqueness. They are hungry not for our sage advice but for our curiosity. Your kids, your employees, your clients, your friends….they will all surprise and enlighten you if you get curious and ask them some new questions.

We like curious people because their curiosity ignites their interest in things which fuels an energy we can share. We also like curious people because one of those things they are curious about is us. People with curiosity want to understand the people they interact with.  They ask questions, get us talking, and generate more connection.

Curiosity keeps us from thinking we know and understand everything. More importantly it keeps us from feeling that we need to know and understand everything. This is hard because for much of our lives we get rewarded for knowing things. We grow up getting academically and socially rewarded for being “right.” This makes us want to keep being right about things so we look for opportunities in which we can feel good about what we know.  

Clearly, there is a time for us to demonstrate our expertise and knowledge. Of course I want my electrician to demonstrate his expertise in wiring and I want my doctor to impress me with her deep knowledge about my medical condition. I also want her to be curious about me and my particular symptoms and history. I don’t want her past experience to make her jump to conclusions. I understand that her expertise can make having fresh curiosity about me challenging. She will likely hear me rattle off a few symptoms and think, “oh, yes it’s this.” The difference between a good doctor and great doctor is the ability to stay curious about the uniqueness of me, their 753rd case. Likewise the exceptional teacher stays curious about the potential of each of their thousands of students and the best business consultants are curious about the individual personalities and needs informing a particular assignment, the likes of which they’ve seen many times.

For many it is obvious that we can be brilliant and also open to the millions of things we don’t know. For others, it is a struggle to grapple with this seeming paradox. To lean into what we don’t know, rather than what we do, feels uncertain; it takes us into uncharted territory where we might not know what to do or say. But of course the side effect of being willing not to know things is that we learn a lot more things. The more we need to remain the expert, the more limited our knowledge remains. This is related to growth and fixed mindset which I wrote about a couple months ago. Nurturing and practicing curiosity is a great weapon in the battle against fixed mindset.

Don’t underestimate the power of this thing. Many an elderly person has said curiosity is the  thing that has kept them alive. Curiosity is what makes poets and inventors. It makes for the best first dates and can keep marriages clicking. It’s a differentiator in business and will make you everyone’s favorite person at a dinner party. It can help assuage fear and will probably make you nicer.

The world is moving fast and we need perpetual learners. People filled with curiosity. Here’s a quick recipe: Look up. Look closer. Ask why. Ask what else. Ask again. Repeat.

In Search of Simplicity

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about simplicity. My dad was visiting a couple months ago and at some point said in an off-hand, loving way, “Boy, you sure know how to make things more complicated than they need to be.”  Ironically, my response was pretty simple: “Yeah, I sure do.” 

I’d gotten back from a trip the day before and didn’t feel well. I had refused his offer to go to the store for me to shop for dinner even though it meant I had to take work calls on the way there and back. As I unloaded the groceries, I realized I’d forgotten some ingredients and was trying to problem solve. This was right after he listened to me plan how to get some time with my teenage step daughters without inconveniencing their homework and social plans. In the reflection of his eyes, I saw my own insanity. In the wake of his comment I knew there was an easier path to everything I was contemplating. I was trying to do too much and please too many people.

I know I am in good company.  A week later a colleague reached out to consult about the introductory thirty seconds of some content we were offering. Five email exchanges later, he wrote to me, “I’m perfectly capable of over thinking this without your help, thank you!”  I slapped myself on the forehead; what a rabbit hole we’d dug for each other. In the past couple months I’ve had both clients and friends stop mid-sentence and say, “I know, I’m over-thinking this.” Last week I had a whole class of over-complicators! I admired their desire to do good work and demonstrate their capability but from my vantage point it was easy to see many simpler paths to the way they were getting things done. They were often one good question away from saving themselves thirty minutes of work.

We almost always over complicate for the best of reasons and with the best of intentions. To be thorough, careful, thoughtful, attentive, generous, disciplined. And we are often, rightfully so, rewarded for these traits and tendencies. The overuse of good traits and habits are the hardest to contend with.  It’s one thing to set to work on breaking our bad habits, but trying to reign in our good ones is a whole other mind bender. Over complicating our thinking and doing generally falls into this overuse category of mind bender.

Some questions to consider when trying to simplify your thinking and/or doing:

How long have I been working on this?  Is this about how long this should take me?

Is there someone who knows more about this that I could ask for help? What good questions could I ask them?

Is there someone who has offered to help whose help I have refused because of pride/perfectionism/control/need to prove myself?

Am I trying to do too many things today? This week? This hour?

How can I use my time so I am managing as few things at once as possible?

Am I hungry? How can I make sure I get fed?

Are my own standards of success helping or hindering me? 

What have I said yes to recently? Are there things I can/should say no to?

Who can I run this idea by to see if I have given it enough thought?

What is something I’ve let myself believe matters lately that doesn’t really matter?  What is something that does matter that I haven’t made time for?

All of these questions orient us towards simplicity. They focus us on the resources that exist within and without us to get stuff done. They force us to stop, to intervene in our own unhelpful spirals, to be vigilant about where our precious time and energy go. To remember how often we keep at bay people willing and able to help.

The questions above seem simple enough. But of course if asking ourselves these questions and answering them were easy, I wouldn’t get to bear witness to so many people answering them for the first time, to so many forehead slaps, knowing smiles, and ah-has. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have to keep asking them, the answers would stick, and an observant dad wouldn’t be calling out his 46 year old daughter who is trained to ask them.

Life is complicated. Simplicity is a practice. What can you let go of? Which of the above questions can you ask and answer today? Don’t worry, if you decide simplicity is not your thing, complexity will have no trouble finding you.

Being Busy

This summer when I’ve been asked, “How are you?” my initial response has mostly been, “I’m busy!” This response is true, but not totally accurate. “Being busy” has many different meanings. It’s important to differentiate those meanings.

I’ve been alternating between a “gratified busy” that fills my bucket and an “overwhelmed busy” that makes me feel panicky. Calling both these states “being busy,” means I’m not  mindfully attending to either one. Being mindful of how we are attending to and feeling about our tasks is how we generate better energy—we can modify what’s working and what’s not.

When I’m the kind of busy that makes me happy and purposeful, I want to be grateful and enjoy it. I might say “life is full,” or “I’m working on lots of interesting things.” When I’m the kind of busy that consumes my energy with tasks that are necessary but not gratifying, I might say, “I’m feeling  a bit run down.” When I’ve got multiple balls in the air and not feeling in control, I’d be more accurate saying, “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” How I deal with a bunch of depleting to-dos is different than how I manage too many different or competing things on my plate. To be wise about to what I say “yes” and “no,” I have to be clear about how specific things impact me. To distribute my energy efficiently, I have to understand what in particular is feeding me, teaching me, or draining me.

Most of us feel good saying, “I’m busy!” We like being in motion, getting things done. Our culture rewards busy and we often associate lulls in activity with the insecurity of periods of transition or uncertainty, such as unemployment. It’s important to acknowledge how much of being busy is positive and treat it as such. The axiom, “If you want something done ask a busy person to do it” is often true. People in motion tend to stay in motion. I certainly manage my time more efficiently when I have less of it. And yet, I also know that the positive charge from being busy gives busyness the ability to seduce me away from other vital states of being.

 “Being busy is its own kind of laziness.” I don’t know who said this or in what context but the truth of it shot through me when this comment blared out on the speaker system when I turned my car on recently. It rang true for me personally and is also central to many of my client’s efforts to expand on what they do and how they are working. When we want to be more creative or strategic, we need time and space to think, plan and create. Trying something new or doing something differently requires slowing down, assessing, and putting energy into accomplishing what’s  unfamiliar to us. The number one excuse I hear for why people don’t test boundaries, try new things and put effort into ideas in which they’ve long wanted to invest is, “I’m too busy.” It’s a great excuse because it implies the reason we are not doing the thing we want to do is that we are productive, diligent hard-workers. This is much easier to contend with than that we are not feeling brave enough, talented enough or energetic enough to explore new paths.

Sometimes after a period of lots of activity, the lack of it actually scares me. It scares me because I know that without the distraction of being busy, I’m going to have time to assess. To think through where I’m expending energy and if there are things I’ve been procrastinating or avoiding. It’s when I run out of excuses not to do the harder, riskier things. And of course, any feelings I’ve buried in activity are going to have to be felt!

Stay attuned to what kind of busy you are. If it’s fulfilling, great, enjoy it! If it’s overwhelming, hang in there and look for what you can let go. If it’s draining, can you switch course or access something that will also fuel you? If it’s busyness distracting you from richer, more challenging work, then be brave, put down your to-do list and dig into the ambiguity and opportunity of unoccupied space and time.