To lead and coach means to hear, feel, and sense the emotional energy of others, unfolding what lies within. At times, the intensity of this work can make it challenging to maintain healthy boundaries – to keep from drowning in the pain of our clients and those we lead.
Recently, several leaders and coaches that I train, coach, mentor and supervise have asked about how to create an empathetic and compassionate space for those we serve, without doing a deep dive into the same emotional space ourselves. Right now, many are asking the question – how do we hold space for heavy emotion without carrying it with us?
As Daniel Goleman wrote, moods are contagious. We can become more aware and intentional in what we catch and spread.
In becoming curious about how to hold this space, I first sensed into the anxiety behind the question and felt momentarily anxious that I couldn’t help. I noticed I wanted to remove my discomfort with their discomfort – to provide an answer. I even worried that these coaches and leaders might be asking the wrong person.
I am quick to sense, feel, reflect and express emotion, sometimes in a big way. Yet the intensity of an emotion doesn’t linger long. Rather than dwelling on one note, I tend to experience a full ranging melody as it passes through me. I’m not saying this is a good thing, though it seems to support the work I do.
Sometimes I judge my felt response to big world events and small collective events to be too small, too cold, too mechanical. Many show their care through suffering in solidarity. While I care, my instinct is to sense it, feel it, express it and then decide what I will do – if anything.
At the very start of my career, I quickly had to decide what was mine to do.
I was working for a Tanzanian environmental NGO, living and working in a village in the biodiverse forests of the East Usambara Mountains. Need was all around us. As forest flora and fauna continued to become extinct, loss was echoed in the village as people died of maladies including AIDS, malaria, and complications of childbirth.
The NGO had the only vehicle in that village and those surrounding it. On days that I planned to drive to town, I would awake to find many people at my back door, hoping to gain transport. The villagers soon learned what my list of questions would be.
First – who needed to go to hospital? Then – how many children, chickens and bags were to come with each person? The hospital – sometimes two hours, sometimes nine hours away, depending on the condition of the road – was our first stop. Even so, I am saddened to remember that over the four years I lived in the village, we had two people die in the back of the all-terrain vehicle before we could complete the drive to a graded road and access help.
Many of my colleagues worked for NGOs focused on environment, health, and refugee support. Many came from overseas and stayed for months or years. Others are still there.
I noticed that some struggled with burnout. Sometimes the need to help or be helpful became dangerous, with those we contemptuously called the ‘bleeding hearts’ morphing into having a saviour complex.
They had come to help, but weren’t clear within themselves of their role and purpose. They didn’t hold good boundaries, and so made choices that could be dangerous.
I made a choice to work overseas in development, rather than aid. This was in part because of what I believed my capacity was, and in part due to preference. I preferred to work in the extreme of a different world, in what what I considered to be proactive rather than reactive work.
I remember being passionately challenged on the choice to work overseas rather than serve in my own backyard, years prior to going to Tanzania. While I appreciated the challenge and the caution, I made my choice. As a coach, I continue to keep bringing awareness of where I am choosing to work and why. For me, it comes down to challenging my beliefs and those of others for the sake of co-creating something new. (I often find myself challenged on whether that is enough.)
Suggestions for holding compassionate wisdom
Whether I am the same room as a client or in a Zoom call, I am able to quickly sense into the energy of those with whom I share the space. I am acutely aware of how my body experiences that energy and can flow easily into switching my focus into assessing how my body is responding.
I imagine a switch that I flick continuously, sensing from the outside in to the inside out. I can choose to amplify energy or release it. I can switch from receiving to giving energy fairly easily – as long as I am not overly tired and run down. This feels like the key.
So what recommendations do I have for others who share this work on how to create a compassionate space, yet not marinate in it?
Tip 1 | Hold space for your own emotions as well as those of others.
Sustainable service requires self-care and resourcing. Where are you holding compassionate space for yourself and where are you leaning into others to provide that space for you? Coach supervision is one place that resources me.
Tip 2 | Pay attention to what’s happening within you.
Learn to reflect and be reflective. Notice what you’re noticing within and name emotions. Where do you practice noticing what you are noticing? I practice this on a daily basis as a leader, coach, mentor, supervisor and through exploring what I notice in my fiction writing.
Tip 3 | Explore healthy ways to release the energy.
If you find yourself holding emotions that that on introspection do not appear to be yours, find healthy ways to express them. How do you release these emotions? For instance, sometimes I feel a deep sadness that does not seem to be mine. When that shows up, I have a practice of releasing it through watching a sad movie and crying, or listening to music that I know will amplify that sadness until it is released.
Tip 4 | Clarify your role and purpose.
Perhaps the most important part of setting boundaries is to clarify your purpose and role as a leader or coach, and develop your capacity to be on purpose and play your role skillfully. Where do you want to develop your capacity to be on purpose? Where do you want to develop your capability to play the role you choose? I see my purpose as to challenge the status quo. When I do that most skillfully, it is simply to lean into the Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) competency of revealing the system to itself. For when we truly are seen and see ourselves. we are able to be more at choice of what happens next.
Supporting and challenging the parts of a system to empathize with themselves and each other creates an opening to step into a more expansive space of compassionate wisdom.
Whether the system involves one, two or many, we support ourselves and others to unravel multiple threads, weaving in and through many layers. Getting lost in emotion does not serve the larger goal.
We all want to lead and serve with compassionate wisdom, but it is possible to get lost in emotion as we do so. When we remain aware of how our own energy infuses what’s emerging, and draw boundaries to protect ourselves and others in doing this essential work, we act in service of a higher purpose.
As director of Novalda,Kerry Woodcockdevelops core, collective and change leadership capacity in leaders, teams and organizations.