Many of us grew up believing that leadership was about being in control.

Of everything.

Totally across all the facts. In charge of all the solutions. Able to fix all the problems. (Imagine epic-movie-soundtrack in the background as you read!)

Earlier in my career when I “ran” as a political candidate, I discovered why it’s referred to as “running” for Parliament. I spent most of my time “running from the fear” that I wouldn’t know the answer, or sufficiently recall important facts in response to a prospective voter or journalist’s policy question.

I was in a perpetual state of anxiety that I would trip up and that this would mean that I was not “cut out” for leadership. This was not the truth, of course. But it made for a rather interesting story that I was telling myself at the time.

I suspect many of you might be able to relate to this pressure to be “across the facts”.

As a result, in leadership, we tend to be pretty comfortable with the concept of debriefing. Debriefing is about taking the time to reflect on what happened. Mostly, it helps us gather up and reflect on the facts. Sometimes feelings surface in the process, but usually this kind of conversation is about the what, how, when, where and who. And most of us can confidently facilitate these kinds of group conversations.

But lately a number of our clients and community have shared that their most significant leadership challenge is dealing with “big feelings” about what’s happening globally and its impact locally. Anxiety about not knowing what’s next. Frustration about restrictions. Discomfort about the need for adjustment, and re-adjustment. A deep sense of loss about the way life once was. And fear that nothing will ever be the same again.

In our workplaces at present, grief is being triggered by job losses, changes to role functions, navigating the realities of working from home, disconnection from colleagues beyond our screens, or because leaders are so busy dealing with an increased level of complexity created by external conditions that they have less time to sit down with team members to ask how they're doing.

Beyond the Covid context, grief is regularly triggered in our workplaces for many reasons. The departure of a longstanding leader, conflict with colleagues, steep budget cuts.

The range of emotions experienced manifests differently, and at different times, for individuals. Some refer to deep sadness at loss, others speak of frustration or anger, and so on.

Increasingly, the skill of "dealing with feelings" in a leadership context is receiving more attention than it has in the past. And we believe that our heightened experience of collective grief right now, calls for particular focus on a leadership practice that we call “degriefing”.

Of course, there continues to be value in debriefing with our teams and community members about what’s happening. But particularly during times of crisis, our feelings become much more important.

The practice of "degriefing" is fundamentally about a leader intentionally creating a safe space for feelings to be expressed and acknowledged. Collectively.

This can be challenging for leaders because of the "old story" that as leaders, we should have the answers and be able to fix stuff. In the case of grief and loss, this old approach to leadership doesn't work.

So, what can help us as leaders to effectively hold such conversations that enable feelings to surface and to respond with compassion?

Get Familiar with Feelings

Emotional literacy is a key leadership capacity that warrants deliberate development. We've discovered a great resource in the Atlas of Emotions, a project commissioned by the Dalai Lama. The goal of the Atlas was to provide a “map of emotions” in service of greater awareness and to bring about calmer minds.

Awareness means understanding how our emotions are triggered, what our experience of them is and how we generally respond. This is important in leadership because understanding our own emotional experiences helps us to be with other people’s emotions and to respond in compassionate ways. The ability to "be with" our own pain and loss, and to see the "work" and movement of grief through us, greatly increases our capacity to "be with" another's pain, without feeling such a compulsive need to "do something" with it. In support of this skill, we recommend the use of the mantra:

"Don't just do something, stand there."

Listen with Presence

This goes beyond active listening. Active listening is about demonstrating body language and verbal cues to let people know that you are hearing them and that you care, such as head nodding, making your eyes available, adopting an open posture.

But it’s the quality of our attention, what’s going on beneath "our surface", in our own minds, that is actually read and received by the speaker. Often this attention is diminished by our own internal processes, including thinking ahead to our own reply, making it about our performance, not the relationship.

Developing conscious awareness of our own listening patterns and using mindfulness practices to support us to do so, such as tuning into our breathing, and “coming to our senses” (see this blog for tips) can support us to become a more present listener.

Respond Compassionately

“Holding space” for a "degriefing" conversation requires us to resist the urge to:

1. offer unsolicited advice- “what you need to do is….”, “you should have done x”

2. dismiss feelings- “you’ll be fine”, “at least you have x, things could have been worse”

3. steal the conversation- changing the topic because you feel uncomfortable or launching into your own story about how you had a worse experience.

Developing our practice of "degriefing" invites for us as a leader, to respond in the following kinds of ways:

“I’m here for you”

“I hear you”

“that sounds really tough”

“it’s so understandable that you feel that way”

“no wonder you are feeling (insert the emotion you recognise e.g. anxious, angry, scared)…right now”

“how can I support you right now?”

Notice that none of the above are about offering solutions or fixing the feelings.

In his work with groups of leaders worldwide, leadership coach Nicholas Janni and proponent of the practice of leader as "healer" has observed that:

"once people feel secure enough to speak openly with each other about their fears, the floodgates of new ideas and solutions open. This is how energy works - when the physical tension we use to suppress emotion is relaxed, the blocked energy then naturally metabolizes into free-flowing energy."

Creating time and space for those around us to notice and name their feelings, first, ultimately frees up time, space and energy for work to flow more effectively, so that we can collectively address the facts and create new ways forward, with clearer hearts and minds.

Our inside out leadership tip: feelings before facts in a crisis.

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