In Episode 78, Dr. Komal Bhasin, Senior DEI Consultant & Mental Health Expert-in-Residence at bhasin consulting inc. and Founder at Insayva Inc., joins Melinda in a conversation about centering empathy and allyship in communities impacted by injustice during times of crisis, pain, and tragedy.
Komal explains how individuals and organizations alike can learn the skill of empathy according to science. She recommends practical ways to drive inclusion and build psychological safety at work by creating an environment where managers recognize and address marginalizing behaviors. Throughout the episode, she shares how we can use our power, resources, and privilege to impactfully support others even when we experience marginalization ourselves.
- Learn more about Komal Bhasin’s work on her website
- Watch or listen to EP73: “How To Talk To Your Boss About Race With Y-Vonne Hutchinson”
- Watch or listen to EP31: “How To Use Empathy To Create Change In The Workplace With Kate Johnson”
- Watch or listen to EP6: “Exploring Empathy, Islamophobia And Muslim Identity with Najeeba Syeed”
- Read more about Dr. Silk’s Ring Theory
- Read more about Decety’s research on empathy
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “My personal view is that empathy is all about using our human and divine attributes that we all possess to show up in deeper resonance with another being in order to live more fully, to connect more fully, to be more alive, to feel more whole, and to be healing and loving.”
- “When the managers are struggling to be empathetic, chances are that they’re going through some stuff as well. And this is the thing, we all are going through our stuff, and this is why the more we show up and create generative, open spaces to share and talk about it, the more the runway is built when we do need to have a difficult conversation. It’s very hard to expect an employee or a manager who has never had the tough kind of conversation about race, a microaggression that they were engaged in against another person, about addressing bullying behavior that’s really intense— it will be very challenging to do effectively the first time if they wait for the first time to be in an extreme moment.”
- “Emotional regulation, self-awareness, cognitive ability— all of them require our prefrontal cortex; they all require the modern part of our brain that is unique to us as humans. That is where our executive functioning sets, it’s the part of our brain that does that heavy lifting. And that part of our brain needs to feel safe, feel relaxed, be in good shape, and well-rested in order to be empathetic.”
- “In order to be truly empathetic, we need to understand how to decenter ourselves in our interactions with others that have closer proximity to pain, grief, or loss. And one of the brilliant, simple frameworks that I have come across and love to share is ‘ring theory.’ That really gives us a good idea of how to decenter ourselves and how to truly show up with empathy and allyship for others.”
- “One [step] that I think is really important to counteract the pain that we see in the world and build greater capacity for empathy and support humanity is to learn more about the body— become more embodied— learn more about the body and the nervous system.”
Dr. Komal Bhasin
Senior DEI Consultant & Mental Health Expert-in-Residence at bhasin consulting inc. and Founder at Insayva Inc.
Dr. Komal Bhasin [KOH-muhl bah-SEEN], MSW, MHSc, DocSocsci, is BCI’s Senior DEI Consultant and Mental Health Expert-in-Residence and an accomplished DEI facilitator, coach, and strategist. She has over 20 years of experience in providing strategic and advisory guidance and program development across a range of sectors, with a particular concentration in mental health equity, racial inclusion, and inclusive leadership. Komal is also the Founder of Insayva Inc., a social enterprise focused on providing accessible DEI and health equity support to charities and non-profit organizations.
Komal has extensive experience in creating and delivering programming in a range of DEI areas, and she has provided one-on-one inclusion coaching to hundreds of senior leaders, bringing a unique approach that is informed by her background as a therapist and expertise in racial inclusion. She previously held a faculty appointment at Ryerson University where she taught courses on social policy and social inclusion.
As a doctoral trained mental health clinician, certified health executive, and registered social worker, Komal works with organizations to advance employee mental health inclusion and wellbeing by offering programs on inclusive dialogue, anti-stigma, burnout prevention, psychological safety, resilience, and self-care.
Komal is committed to advancing mental health and wellness across the life course; she currently serves on the board of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario and previously served on the board of Children’s Mental Health Ontario and the YMCA of Greater Toronto. She is also a certified Yoga teacher specializing in mindfulness, resilience, and self-care.
When Komal is not working, you’ll find her painting, cooking, or snuggling with her cats.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real, conversations to build empathy for one another and to take action to be more inclusive and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder, and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s show. While our show is titled “Leading With Empathy & Allyship,” we often focus a lot of our topics on allyship, each time working to build empathy as we learn about the unique experiences of our guests, and of course, allyship is empathy in action. Occasionally, we do stop and really investigate empathy, with Najeeba Syeed and Kate Johnson, for example. We’ll link to those episodes in our show notes.
So today we’re going to take a break and talk a lot about empathy. Today, our guest is Dr. Komal Bhasin, Senior DEI Consultant and Mental Health Expert-in-Residence at bhasin consulting inc. We’ll be talking about how empathy can be learned, the science and theory behind it, and practice what we can do if empathy doesn’t come naturally. We’ll also spend some time talking about how to tap into our empathy during times of collective grief and suffering, where we’re centering empathy and allyship and holding space for communities who really need it, even though we might have marginalized identities ourselves and experienced marginalization ourselves. We’ll talk specifically about Ukraine, as this is on so many of our minds right now.
Komal, thank you for joining us today.
KOMAL: Thank you for having me, Melinda.
MELINDA: So, can you start by just telling us a bit about who you are; your story, where you grew up, and how you ended up doing the work that you do?
KOMAL: Sure, happy to. So I am calling in from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and my home sits on the traditional territory of Mississaugas of the Credit. I was born in the outer Toronto suburb areas to Punjabi Sikh parents who immigrated here from India. I grew up as the child of immigrants in a country where they were trying to build their lives, looking to adjust, fit in, and raise their children as well as possible with the influences of two cultures and many other cultures that were around us.
Being a child of immigrants was hugely forming for me in terms of my exposure to culture and difference, different ways of being, building my comfort level, being around different types of people, especially in such a diverse city. My father wore a turban and wears a turban, as a symbol of his and our Sikh faith. That was also a hugely forming experience for me: to be raised and come of age alongside someone who so overtly stands out in any crowd. As a result of which, we experienced many different types of interactions with people, including having the experiences of allyship and empathy that were much needed in various moments in my upbringing, in our lives together. But then also experiences of exclusion and oppression and overt racism.
I think those experiences really helped me form my life path. I became a social worker at a young age. I went to school really young, became a social worker pretty young by like 21, and then went on to study some more in health sciences, and then earn a doctorate more recently. I’ve just spent my life working in spaces around health equity, mental health, workplace mental health as well, just inclusion. Yeah, that’s what brings me here.
MELINDA: So what is the work that you do now, what does that look like?
KOMAL: I work with organizations across sectors. So I have a private sector practice, public sector practice, and a charitable not-for-profit practice as well. I work with organizations that are looking to build their capacity for inclusion. So I do strategic planning, I do speaking and training, and a lot of individual one-on-one coaching, to help people build their comfort level across differences and work more collaboratively across identities. I do that work globally, increasingly, given my mental health background and working in organizations, talking about mental health inclusion, burnout prevention, psychological safety, and just well-being in the workplace, which has never been more important than now for many of us.
MELINDA: Awesome, thanks for sharing your story. So a lot of your work I’m sure does, in some way or another, center empathy. That’s why when we talked about what we wanted to discuss today, it was clear that you wanted to talk about empathy. So maybe we stop here and we take a moment to define empathy. What is empathy for you? Why is it so important?
KOMAL: I guess the important thing for me to say is that, I’m a clinician by training, and I also have formal education and academic background in this kind of world. So I have my personal definition, and then I have my more academic and scientific type definition. Both are important to me in different ways.
Maybe I’ll just say that, my sense is that there’s a general agreement across disciplines that empathy is the ability to imagine what another person is thinking and feeling and to deeply and immersively experience the world of another person (the lifeworld of another) in a way that allows us to call forth our compassion, support, actions, and allyship that support another person. My personal view is that empathy is all about using our human and divine attributes that we all possess to show up in deeper resonance with another being, in order to live more fully, to connect more fully, to be more alive, to feel more whole, and to be healing and loving.
MELINDA: Why is that so important in the workplace? How does empathy show up in the workplace, and why is it so important to keep deepening our empathy?
KOMAL: I’m sure you talk about this all the time. We know that we spend a huge portion of our lives in the workplace. Again, if I think about the social sciences, for example, and the human condition, one of the human needs that we have is to work, actually. Now the work doesn’t have to be in a formal workplace, but one of the needs that we have as human beings – and we often see this in animals too is that they need to be doing something, they need to work – we need to work as humans.
So if we’re going to be spending most of our life, or the vast majority of our life, doing things, a lot of that being in a formal workplace, then those are the places where we need to be bringing our whole selves, our full lives, and our full being. Those are the places where we then are going to be interacting with each other, connecting with each other, and building relationships. To use a therapy term, I’m a clinician by training, but these are the places where we “co-regulate,” where our bodies and our nervous systems learn to either relax with each other and lean in, to create and produce, and to be effective, or create distance and feel a lack of safety and discomfort, which then has us in that state all day long.
So the workplace is the place to bring our whole selves and our lives together, in a way that we don’t have in other environments, necessarily. So the ability to connect with people wholly, to show kindness, to build across bridges, to be inclusive, requires the skill of empathy.
MELINDA: I’ve noticed in my life that there are some people that have more empathy than others. Also, I’ve read a few studies showing that empathy can be learned. I personally have a growth mindset about everyone, and I have seen and I’m living proof that empathy can be learned. When I was growing up, I grew up in a family that didn’t really show empathy for each other. So that empathy muscle or skill was not in me at an early age.
Then I realized when I was in my teenage years, as I went to college actually, that I really wanted to change that. I didn’t like how I showed up for other people, and I wanted to show up in a different way. So I did a lot of work on myself to build empathy in myself and build compassion and understanding. Of course, now I teach people how to build empathy on their teams. So I’m kind of living proof that that is a possibility, that you can learn empathy.
Let’s talk a little bit about what that looks like. How do we learn empathy? How can empathy be learned? What is the science behind it? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
KOMAL: Sure, happy to do my best here. It’s a wide sort of world: this really abstract term “empathy” and what does it mean? I always find it interesting when people say that empathy is fixed. That you either have it or you don’t have it, or that it’s like something that is really difficult to learn if you don’t have the disposition for it, or that it’s not really that important to learn. I think that all of that honestly speaks that this thing is too abstract and too challenging and too nebulous for me to figure out and it requires too much work.
But actually, there are some general themes in the literature and the science around empathy. While it is a very broad field across many different disciplines, there are some shared thoughts about what empathy is and how it can be learned. So generally speaking, empathy is a combination of a disposition or a mood, some cognitive traits, as well as Affect feelings, and then action, and bringing those things together in a combination.
So in the literature, there’s some research by Decety and colleagues, and I think their research really offers a simple way of thinking about the components of empathy that work together. They describe four components.
The first one is affect sharing. So empathy involves the ability to feel what another person might be feeling. Number two is self-awareness. This is about having the sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and your strengths and limitations, as they relate to showing up for another person and supporting another person. So that self-awareness is key. The third component is mental or cognitive capacity. This is the ability to imagine another person’s situation from the inside out, like to adopt the subjective perspective of another person, so that involves the mental capacity to do that. Then the fourth one as described by Decety is emotional regulation: the ability to manage our own emotions in appropriate ways. For example, you’re looking to show empathy to somebody else, but you’re able to manage your own emotions, even though you’re deeply feeling what they might be feeling, but there’s a sense of appropriateness.
I’ll just add another component there, which is increasingly being talked about in the literature in empathy, and that’s conscious actioning. That’s my own term. But this idea is that we have the choice to act in support of one another; we have the choice to show up and take that experience of empathy and then turn it into action. In this way, empathy is directly related to allyship, because allyship is about action. To me, that’s where those two concepts really come together.
MELINDA: I read a study that showed that 72% of CEOs say that the current state of allyship in the workplace needs to change. In the tech industry specifically, there’s another study that showed that 96% of people in the tech industry feel their colleagues have difficulty demonstrating empathy.
I usually talk about empathy as being a combination of insight and engagement. On one side, you’re doing the work to learn and to deeply understand what somebody is experiencing on their own terms, and then you work to show them empathy. Then the third piece of that is as allies, that we step up and take action as a result of that. I love that you laid that out in a slightly different way, but it ends up in the same place, where we are learning about somebody’s unique experiences and we’re figuring out ways to support them.
So given that lack of empathy in our workplaces, I’m sure so many listeners have experienced that, whether that’s managers that are not showing empathy in times of crisis or times where they really need it, or it’s just a general culture that lacks empathy across global teams, or, for example, really understanding each other across global teams and working together with deeper empathy. Of course, that leads to innovation and all kinds of things. So a lot of managers are looking for ways to build empathy on their teams. Any thoughts about how we can do that in our workplaces? How can managers start to build more empathy across their teams, for example?
KOMAL: Yeah, for sure. The first thing that comes to mind for me, and this is a moment of me enacting some empathy for managers, is that managers often have the toughest jobs, frankly. During this time of the pandemic, with our global spotlight on the injustice that we’re experiencing – what we have had over the last couple of weeks with the invasion of Ukraine – managers carry the responsibility for people.
From a perspective of showing empathy for a moment, let me just say that it’s very hard to show up for other people and to be empathetic when we ourselves are depleted. They’re a group of people in the workplace right now who have been incredibly depleted, who repeatedly are being asked to dig deeper. “Dig deeper! Show up for your people! You’re in leadership so this is what you signed up for, this is part of the work that you’ve undertaken and chosen to be in the seat that you’re in. Dig deeper!” It is very, very hard to do that at your best capacity of empathy when you’ve depleted yourself.
So let me just start with that acknowledgment. Because I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge for leaders that you’re being asked to do more when you’re being asked to show up and build your team and be empathetic and hold space for them, during this tough time and otherwise, while you might also be going through a hard time.
I went through the four components and then added action, so five aspects or components of allyship. Pretty much every single one of them – emotional regulation, self-awareness, cognitive ability – all of them require our prefrontal cortex. They all require the modern part of our brain that is unique to us as humans. That is where our executive functioning sits. It’s part of our brain, a small little baby bit of our brain, but the part of our brain does that heavy lifting. That part of our brain needs to feel safe, needs to feel relaxed, needs to be in good shape, needs to be well-rested, needs to have slept, all of those things, in order to be empathetic.
So let me just start with that. How do we build empathetic teams? We take care of ourselves as individuals first, and we build the capacity to do that. Secondarily, though, when we’re in those spaces, where we have people whose wellness and well-being are being thought about and cared about, including ourselves, we can show up and create spaces for generative dialogue.
I really believe that organizations, and teams in particular, that take the time to relate to one another as a core priority of doing the work that they do. Like, it’s not just the task, it’s not just the project, it’s not just getting the end result, or getting the thing out the door, or finishing to the deadline, or whatever it is. Teams that integrate generative discussion, and integrate the space to share about each individual and their lives, and this also falls in line with inclusion – creating space for people to talk about themselves, their lives, their experiences, their lifeworld is what we call it in academia – like, creating space for people to share their lifeworld will naturally intuitively build empathy.
It’s a small thing, and it’s a thing that your team might not even consciously know is happening. But it’s a micro-step that can be taken to start to build empathy: to allow people space to talk about themselves and their experiences at work.
MELINDA: Awesome! Then for people on your team, for example, that aren’t showing empathy for each other, can you recommend anything that a manager can do to touch base with them, check-in with them, and help them build that skill?
KOMAL: Yeah. So the first thing that I would do is, if I noticed someone as a recipient of a microaggression, of some kind of behavior that I think might be harmful to them, I’d be checking in with them. That’s also sort of like data collection for you as a manager. So the intuitive thought might be to go straight to the person that engaged in the bad behavior and deal with them. But actually, I’d really pause on that and go to the other person. It’s actually a really great inclusion muscle to build as a leader too, to check in with that person. Because it actually has you testing your assumptions about who’s experiencing a microaggression, who might not be, how they might be feeling, and testing that out, actually, for your own learning as well.
So I’d actually go to that person first and say: “What was that experience like for you. I noticed this, was I wrong? How do you feel? What can I do to support you? Anything else you want to share there?” With that information, depending on what the behavior is, I might also be asking: “Would you have a comfort level with me supporting you in addressing this?” They might say: “No, absolutely not.” Or they might say: “Yes, as long as you do it lightly.” I think a much smaller number of people would say: “Yes, absolutely. I need you to speak on my behalf.” But I think a smaller number of people might say “Yes, but…” and give you their parameters. Like, don’t say my name entirely, or don’t say that I told you, or whatever it might be. I think that needs to be respected.
Then I would of course go to the person who I feel engages in behavior that needs to be adapted and checked, and they need to be developed and coached, to coach them into more appropriate behavior. In my view, and this is how I lead, have a kind – so I’m turning into my own capacity to be empathetic – conversation with them about what I observed, and how that might have made the other person feel. My first step would be to say, “What’s going on with you?” This is where self-coaching as a leader is so important because you need to be checking your own biases. There’s a bias that I’m sure you’ve talked about a bunch of times called the recency bias, which is that we have a tendency to treat a person or see a person on the basis of our most recent interaction with them. So if we’ve noticed a couple of weeks of someone not being quite themselves and being a bit more bullying, or being microaggressive a little bit more, or whatever it might be, we might have a tendency to just see them that way and then label them that way.
But we do also want to take a pause and say: “How do I actually know this person? What have they always been like? What have my interactions with them been like? Why am I bringing this up now if this has been going on for a while, so what’s changed for me? But importantly, is this new behavior for this individual? Is this the first time I’m sort of noticing this? Can I show up with empathy as I do a check-in?”
Of course, I have a mental health and a mental health inclusion in the workplace background. So naturally, my view is going to be: how are you doing, what’s going on for you? My conversation with Person A, who I noticed being treated a certain way and I was worried about, would not be very dissimilar to my conversation with Person B, who is the “perpetrator,” because I’d be wanting to check in. For those of us that have created teams that we enjoy working with – that we care about, and that we really like, and are enjoying our work – usually, there’s something going on for the individual, and they’re willing and open to being coached. They just need that sense, again, of co-regulation and safety to have a conversation with their manager that would then move their behavior forward.
So when we approach that conversation with empathy ourselves, and with kindness and openness, and the mental health wellness and well-being perspective, we are much more likely to achieve the change we want to achieve in terms of their behavior.
MELINDA: Then we’re modeling empathy as we’re working with other people to build that empathy. I’m also thinking, a few episodes ago, we talked with Y-Vonne Hutchinson about how to talk to your boss about race. I’m also thinking about people that may have managers who are experiencing a lot right now, and perhaps they are more limited in their capacity to show empathy for each other because there’s so much stress in their own lives.
I’m just thinking, is there a way that people can approach their managers about showing more empathy? If perhaps their manager is not really in touch with some of the experiences that people are having on the team, or something is happening on a global scale. Like, the murder of George Floyd, or the anti-Asian hate in the US, and so much right now of the LGBTQIA+ and anti-LGBTQIA+, especially anti-trans legislation, and the war in Palestine earlier, and what’s on so many people’s minds now is the worsened war against Ukraine. A lot of managers are just ignoring it, not talking about it, or not talking about what’s going on in people’s lives right now. Is there any recommendation that you have, first for people that want their managers to show up in a different way?
KOMAL: I mean, so much of these types of conversations, they require this foundational thing that we all talk about. But really, again, another topic like empathy, tough for people to lean in on and lean into, is psychological safety. So the first thing that I would say is that we all have an intuitive sense of whether we feel safe speaking up with another person. We know that we actually experience that probably every day in our lives, where we share something that’s more intimate and private about our lives, including something as simple as how I’m doing today. With one person, I’ll say, “Fine,” and with another person, I’ll tell them that I’m not doing fine and go into detail. Like, we won’t even know that we’re doing that throughout the day, but that’s intuitive knowing of whether we feel safe with this person.
So there will be people who do not have a self-sense of safety bringing that type of topic or conversation up with their manager, and for lots of different reasons. Some of that would be rapport, psychological safety, trust, those kinds of things. For those folks, I would say you may wish to have a conversation with your peers and your closest allies first. You may want to have that conversation to strategize and brainstorm and think about whether someone else in that little group of people, that you consider to be your little cabinet of supporters in your workplace, wants to step up in allyship potentially and speak on your behalf if you don’t have the safety yourself, and strategize that, go ahead and do that.
But for those people who have good relationships with their managers, and want to have a conversation with their manager about being more empathetic and showing more support, you’ll notice this the more and more we talk that I will always go back to first principles around connection, resonance, mental well-being, and understanding the human condition. In terms of how the brain works, but then also how we manage to deal with stress in our lives. When your manager is struggling to be empathetic, chances are that they’re going through some stuff as well.
This is the thing: we all are going through our stuff. This is why the more we show up and create generative open spaces to share it and talk about it, the more the runway is built when we do need to have a difficult conversation. It’s very hard to expect an employee or a manager who has never had the tough kind of conversation – about race, about a microaggression that they were engaged in against another person, about addressing bullying behavior that’s really intense – it would be very challenging to do that effectively the first time if they wait for the first time to be an extreme moment.
So if the first time you’re checking in with your staff ever, around how they’re doing, is after the murder of a Black man on global sight, or the first time you’re checking in and mentioning an invasion of a country, or war-related grief, loss, sadness, fear, etc. for the very first time is this time with what’s happening in Ukraine, which is devastating, it will be more challenging knowing that there have been a few years worth of really tragic events as well. So we need to be constantly building the runway for these types of conversations. In my view, we can start at any time if we haven’t done it yet. But the way to do it is to be checking in. “How are you doing? I’m worried about you, I’ve noticed this.” You can even say that to your manager: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been sharper with me than usual.” If you have the rapport, say it, why not? “How are you doing? You’re human, I’m also checking in on you.”
But one of the things we can do when we’ve never had those kinds of conversations before, we’ve never checked in or we’ve never called someone out, is we can really think about what we might want to say. Script it in a very succinct way, memorize it so that the recall is easier and faster and we have less nervous system dysregulation and we’re less in fight-flight-freeze so that we have faster recall because we practiced it first.
MELINDA: Awesome. So moving to managers who are thinking about: how should I address, for example, the war in Ukraine? If they have started to pave the way already with the one-on-one discussions and the check-ins – and I think a key piece of this also is maybe we could talk a little bit about psychological safety and creating that space on your team for having those conversations – what should a manager be doing and thinking about to make the space for recognizing what’s happening in the world?
KOMAL: I guess the first thing for me is for managers to demystify what it means to reach out and connect when something difficult happens in the world. When something really difficult happens in the world, we usually know; we’re usually aware. In that moment, for me as a manager, when I hear about an event or something like that, it triggers for me, instantly, the desire to act on reaching out and connecting and checking in. So I do that almost immediately, whether it’s a shooting at a mosque or a synagogue, or the invasion of a country, or the act of violence against indigenous women, which is a crisis in Canada, or the violence against various racialized people in the US, and particularly the Black community. So I check in specifically with the staff who I know have the closest proximity to that event or that grief or pain or loss. So for example, if there is an act of violence against the Muslim community, I check in with my Muslim staff.
What I do personally is I check in and I say, “I saw that, my heart sank.” I connect it in empathy to my own experience to demonstrate that I can feel the depth that they might feel. So I might say something like, “My heart sank when I saw that on the news today. It reminded me of three years ago when something similar happened in a Gurdwara Sikh temple. I’m really thinking about you. I understand that you’re probably watching the news, reaching out to family, doing things like that today. Let me know how I can be there for you.”
Here’s the interesting thing. We might have large teams, and we might not actually know the identities. It was so funny. Well, not funny, but once something similar happened and I asked the staff person that I had the greatest rapport with, do we have any other Muslim people on the team that I might not know about because they haven’t shared, who you feel would have a level of comfort with me reaching out to them? Now, I asked that of the person that I had the closest rapport with because I know that I have the psychological safety with them where they wouldn’t take offense to the question. Actually, they named a few people that I had no idea were Muslim. So of course, I reached out really briefly and said: “I’m just thinking about you, checking in.” What’s fascinating is one of the most meaningful responses I had from somebody who I didn’t know was Muslim, but also, they didn’t know that I knew, and we were able to connect in resonance in that way for the first time.
So the one thing that I’d say is that you should be checking in, you should be asking who should I be checking in with, and then you can do a sort of group-wide check-in as well. My assumption is when something really difficult is happening in the world, the default is accommodation that day or that week for that period of time. So if you need to have your cameras off, if we need to change the timing, if you need to have your phone on, if you need to rejigger your day, if you just need to not have this meeting right now, if I need to give you the flexibility to rejig everything for you to get through the day – and potentially longer for sure, depending – go ahead and do that.
The other thing that I think is really important, and I think is a really key strategy for folks, especially when they’re going through a really difficult time that managers can really help out with, is to gather information about their mental health and EAP support resources. One of the things that I think happens a lot in management is when folks are depleted themselves or they don’t know or they don’t care, they’ll say things like, have you looked at the EAP, or have you checked into the EAP? They just leave it at that.
But we know from the research that sometimes people don’t use the resources available to them. One of the main reasons for that is that they’re not aware, and they don’t really want to navigate the system to figure out which therapy is available to them, or how much money they have, or what kind of programming they offer.
So I actually think that it’s really high bang for the buck for a manager to make a single phone call to the EAP, and to gather all the information themselves. “How many sessions? Is it a psychologist or social worker? What kind of method? Is it a group? Is there an app that accompanies that? Is there online support? What is the timing of it? What’s onsite? Do you have a psychologist on site a couple of times a week, or whatever it might be? These are the wellness programs; this is what the copay looks like.”
Gather that all at once, and be able to use that in a more effective and caring, and empathetic way when someone does say I need help and support. To be able to provide that more detailed information is a kinder act in my view. Those are just a couple of strategies. I have a lot more, but let me know.
MELINDA: Awesome. Could you just say what EAP is, for those who may not know?
KOMAL: Sure. Employee Assistance Program, which obviously can be labeled many different ways. It’s basically your benefits.
MELINDA: Awesome. There’re a few things in there that I want to address. One is, I think it’s important when we’re building relationships with people. You mentioned reaching out to Muslim colleagues when violence happens at a mosque, or big incidences of hate happening in the world and sharing your own experience as a way to relate. I also think it’s important when we’re doing that to not center our own experiences. So there is a need to be kind of decentered, especially for people who already come from marginalized backgrounds and have experiences with marginalization, to decenter in those times. Can you talk a little bit about what you do to decenter?
KOMAL: Yeah, it’s such an important question. I love it because it cuts to the heart of the challenge and the responsibility of allyship and empathy. How do we demonstrate our support, care, and commitment to other people when they are in pain, and how do we use our power and resources and privilege to support others in the most impactful way, when we also have our own marginalization? So one of the complexities here of allyship is that it involves fluid intersectionality. There’ll be moments when, for example, as a racialized woman, I require allies to show up for me. There will be other moments when I need to decenter my own marginalization to create space for others, and potentially the others that I’m usually relying on as my allies. So there will be moments when we need to be really fluid in how we’re showing up for other people and when we actually accept the position of also receiving allyship.
The invasion of Ukraine is a really good example of this. So I wouldn’t be thinking usually about what my eyes observe to be White. I’m not suggesting that the person that identifies as White, but what my eyes clock as being a White male, for example. Our biases might suggest that this male person, and their privilege that they hold, might be better positioned to be an ally to me, for example, as a racialized woman. But what if that person is Ukrainian right now? What if that person has family in Ukraine and is in crisis right now, and devastated watching what’s happening? How would I decenter myself? So in order to be truly empathetic, we need to understand how to decenter ourselves in our interactions with others that have closer proximity to pain or grief, or loss.
One of the brilliant simple frameworks that I have come across and I love to share is the Ring Theory. It gives us a really good idea of how to decenter ourselves and how to truly show up with empathy and allyship for others. Ring theory was developed by a psychologist by the name of Dr. Susan Silk, in response to her experience of cancer, when she often had conversations with people who meant well, but they made things about themselves in the conversation in a way that was taxing and unhelpful. So actions like giving advice, or being toxically positive – it will get better, you’ll be fine, that kind of thing – or taking up space with their own emotions or stories. So we’ve all seen examples of that where the person is crying because they’re going through pain, and we feel empathy for them so we cry even harder, and they end up comforting us. So these can all be really, really unhelpful exchanges with people who mean well.
Dr. Silk created a way of helping people understand when they need to step back and create room for other people. So you can always imagine a series of concentric circles, wherein the center, you have the person who’s the closest to the issue or the injustice or the event, like war currently. Then you see concentric circles of people who are more and more and more removed from the issue or the event or the injustice. So you might have Ukrainian people in Ukraine, as well as other residents of Ukraine and students in Ukraine right now (people who are actually there).
Then, in the concentric circles, you might have loved ones that have just recently escaped and are safe in other places in neighboring countries, but going through that crisis. Then you might have, in the circle outside of that, loved ones who live in other countries, or immigrants to other countries, or residents and citizens of other countries. Essentially, in building those concentric circles, you might have other people who’ve experienced war recently from other countries. Then in the outer layers, we might have people like myself who have noticed and seen and peripherally experienced war through extended family but have personally never had the experience of war.
So what would happen is, the people at the center of those circles can actually emote and react in any way they want to and need to, with whomever they feel comfortable doing so with. But as you move through those outer circles and you identify your own location in relation to the issue, as allies and people being empathetic in the moment, we choose to only express ourselves – our emotions, our interests, and our ideas – with people in our own circles and outer circles. Anyone that’s more central and has closer proximity to the issue, the event, or the crisis, gets the space to speak first. Essentially, the model is like: comfort in, dump out. You dump out; you do your own venting, your own processing, your own emoting, whatever it might be that you need to get out of your system, in outer concentric circles, not inwards. That allows people to hold space.
So what that requires, again, in empathy, is that self-awareness of where I sit in proximity to this issue. Right now in the world, with what’s happening in Ukraine – and frankly, other countries as well – someone like me, I am not in the inner concentric circles; I’m in the outer circles. My position then, as an ally with empathy, is to hold space and to dump out. But hold space and allow people to react, and be asking and checking in on them about what they need, and then showing up in action to provide that for them. That’s how we decenter ourselves despite also having an experience in our own marginalization.
MELINDA: That was super helpful and so important in all of the different situations that we’ve talked about. Thank you for sharing that, and thank you for sharing all of your wisdom today. I do have one more question as we come to a close here, which is that we always end with an action. So given all that we’ve talked about, I want to ask you, what action would you like people to take, as they step away from this conversation, into their lives and their workplaces?
KOMAL: I have so many. I’m going to share one that I think is maybe a little bit outside the box, but it’s one that I think is really important to counteract the pain that we see in the world and building greater capacity for empathy and supporting humanity. That is to become more embodied; learn more about the body and the nervous system.
I know it sounds really abstract and outside of the box. But I really believe that for many of us, the greatest barrier to empathy – the greatest barrier to showing up, the greatest barrier to applying for that job that we want, the greatest barrier to managing our temper when we’ve had the umpteenth frustration of the day, the greatest barrier to facing really difficult things that are happening in the world right now – is that we don’t understand how our brains work around stress and how we’re affected by the difficulties that we see around us. Because we don’t understand that, we don’t know how to take care of ourselves, and then we don’t know how to take care of each other.
So my big, grand takeaway, the subtle force behind what I do and how I do this work, and you’ll notice it even in the conversation we’ve had right now, where I’ve repeatedly said nervous system, I’ve repeatedly said take care of yourself. It’s my hidden mission to support people to understand how we as humans come to be formed in our pain and trauma and challenges of the world around us, and how doing the work to understand that and unravel that is really at the heart of all things that will heal us.
MELINDA: Fantastic. Thank you, Komal, I really appreciate you! Thank you everyone for doing the work to create change in your community, in your workplace, and in the world, in our world. I appreciate you.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today?
Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you. And thank you for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast and the YouTube channel and share this. Let’s keep building allies around the world.
Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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