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Max St John

Why we’re working on empathy

Doing the NVC dance at NixonMcInnes

The whole team at NixonMcInnes has recently taken part in a two-day course focusing on building empathy skills.

In the past our internal training has included facilitation, change management and organisation design, but this has the potential to be some of the most transformative work we’ve ever done.

We’re working with Andy Mason, an experienced trainer and coach who started his career in management training, and has gone on to work in conflict resolution in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Sri Lanka.

Andy’s teaching us about how to apply a communication philosophy and framework called Non-Violent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg from his work in the 60s resolving conflicts in the civil rights movement.

In its simplest form, NVC is about creating true connection between human beings through:

  • self-empathy: the ability to understand our own needs
  • empathy for others: the ability to receive someone else with compassion
  • clear expression: the ability to express ourselves authentically

This is all in service of escaping the cycle of blame and judgement that stops us from improving our lives and knowing how to help others improve theirs.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And I imagine many people don’t need any more convincing that this is important work.

But for everyone else, how does this relate to business?

If you’ve ever felt like you were working in an environment where people blamed others for mistakes, where you could only be either right or wrong, then you were probably experiencing a lack of empathy.

Similarly, if at any time you’ve thought that you’re not smart enough, or that you hold yourself back from happiness or success, then you’re probably showing yourself a lack of empathy.

Compassion and empathy are all about cutting through the stories that we tell ourselves, the stories that create barriers between us and other people.

In a work context, learning the skill of empathy, for ourselves and others, isn’t just about wellbeing – we can get better at working together, reducing stress and making sure that as a community (which I believe all companies are) that we’re focusing on what really matters, not getting distracted by blame or judgement.

Here are some of the reactions from the team:

Around the same time as the training, I was working on quite a complex project with a colleague. Before the training we kept getting stuck and feeling frustrated about the project, but I wasn’t completely sure what was going wrong. Immediately after the training, we told each other about our needs, rather than just focusing on the work itself. My need – to just get things done – seemed to be getting in the way of their need – to let off steam, before moving forward – and vice versa. Since the training we’ve been able to understand each other much better which has helped us move the project forward, with much less stress.

I found the NVC training a compelling and emotional experience. It opened my eyes to opportunities in my personal and working life, encouraging me to re-engage with relationships where conflict felt inevitable. As a result, I have been practising (sometimes clumsily) with people close to me, which has been a positive experience. I’ve also seen those people trying to use NVC back at me!

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