"I just need to confess...." my friend said with a sigh as she divulged a personal struggle she had been dealing with for the last month in front of everyone.
She had been holding it in under the guise of being strong. She had been keeping this struggle close to her chest in an effort to not be a burden on others. She had not said a word because it felt so painful and vulnerable, how could she speak this truth without crying.
It turned out that keeping quiet had exacerbated her pain. And as I heard her open up in this way and at this time I felt both her discomfort and the relief of no longer shouldering this burden all alone. We all leaned in with love and compassion, holding space for her to share her pain. While we couldn’t fix it for her, we could listen, honor her story and let her know she was not alone
When I was completing my Conversational Intelligence certification, a colleague (I'd share their name if I could remember where it originated) had wisely intoned, "Being heard feels so much like being loved it's hard to tell the difference." This saying became a mantra among us.
And it is so true. Take a moment to reflect back on conversations where you felt aggravated, frustrated, disappointed or dismissed. Did you feel heard? Did you feel seen?
We tend to avoid painful topics of conversation in our society as though it's an effective way to create a sense of comfort. It is not. In fact, it tends to have the opposite effect.
Earlier this year I completed a Mental Health First Aid certification program. The most valuable thing I took away was that it is better to be direct and compassionately ask, "have you been having suicidal thoughts?" Than to skirt around the issue.
We sidestep painful subjects out of the fear that we are planting seeds of suffering when ironically it does the opposite. Ignoring the pain causes it to grow, whereas being seen and heard allows it to dissipate. As we connect with others, we feel our burden is shared.
Contrary to popular belief, you are not giving someone that's depressed any ideas by asking if they are having thoughts about suicide. Instead, you are inviting them to share their whole self with you and in doing so you're able to show up for them in the ways they need.
It is all too common for leaders and professionals to brush past confessional moments where an employee or colleague shares something personal and vulnerable. I've heard about how damaging and dehumanizing it is when co-workers have pretended that their peer didn't just lose a child. Or how lonely and isolating it is when their colleagues avoid asking about their recent cancer diagnoses.
We justify this blatant obfuscation with an incomplete rationale, "I don't want to remind them of their suffering."
When someone in your life is suffering from a loss, they are thinking about it. Bringing it up isn't twerking their pain, it does the opposite. It's saying, I see you, I hear you, I care for you, just as you are.
When we ignore it we are giving a different message. We are saying, I only want to be around you when you're happy and carefree. These shame ridden interactions, where we brush past someone's vulnerability, are what lead to people believing that they're unworthy of belonging unless they present as having it altogether unless they maintain the illusion of perfection.
As humans we are hardwired to want to connect and belong. When we feel connection and belonging, we experience a release of oxytocin in the body, which leads to higher levels of trust. When we don't feel connection or belonging we experience distrust.
How a leader handles a team member's vulnerability has a powerful ripple effect. If you want to build trust, be present to their pain, acknowledge their struggle, and genuinely show you care.
And you don't need to be in a position of authority to lead in such a way. Some of the most influential leaders I've worked with are the ones that have high social capital because they know how to be supportive of their colleagues when they are in need, but they have no formal power.
In short, being human and acknowledging a peer's humanness builds trust and social capital. So, if you aren't in a position of authority and want to influence positive change, respond to your colleague's confessional moment of vulnerability with grace, compassion and genuine concern.
Do you want to be the type of professional that shows empathy and compassion but don't know how? We are now taking applications for the next cohort of Leading Without Authority, more information is available online here.