Using the Science of Empathy and Storytelling to Connect in the Workplace
I first learned how to investigate workplace misconduct when I worked for Target. I remember after I completed my first investigation, I conducted the interview, got to the truth, they wrote a statement, management terminated them, and police made the arrest. As they were leaving with police, the person turned to me and thanked me. I was confused. I didn’t know what to say. So I went with what my mom taught me and said “you’re welcome.” I didn’t get it. Why would they thank me after getting fired and arrested? It kept happening, and I finally realized that their gratitude had nothing to do with the outcome of the investigation. They were thanking me because of how I treated them.
As an instructor of interviewing techniques, I believe the greatest lesson I can share with other professionals is how to connect with authenticity, with empathy and without judgement.
Connection is the neurobiological reason humans are here. You may have heard that a human can survive three days without water, three weeks without food and three months without another human. Like food and water, connection is vital to our existence. That is why solitary confinement is so unbearable. Feeling unworthy of connection is terrible, and our brain’s way to keep us connected and alive.
Shame is the name of that feeling of disconnection, or the fear that there is something at a core level, “wrong” with us that would cause people to reject or disconnect from us. Shame is that fear of someone finding out something about us that would make them not want to connect with us. That fear we won’t be desirable, hirable, promotable, or loved. It’s the feeling of not being enough.
There are three ways to make shame worse: silence, secrecy, and judgement.
For example, let us say someone comes to you and they say “I’m gay.” There are three ways to take that vulnerable moment, and make it worse:
- You say nothing at all.
- You say, “Don’t tell anyone else what you just said to me.”
- You say, “EEEWWWW. YOU ARE?!?!”
It feels icky to read those words because silence, secrecy and judgment make vulnerable moments hurt.
To make shame go away, it has to be spoken and met with empathy. Dr. Brene Brown teaches us the two most powerful words when some is in struggle are “me too.” Anyone who has ever lost a parent, or has a family member suffering from addiction or mental illness, or has experienced trauma, or been fired from a job knows how connecting it is to talk to someone who has gone through the same thing.
Simon Sinek said “the part of the brain that makes the decisions doesn’t have capacity for language.” Our limbic brain is the part of the brain that decides if we trust someone. In order for someone to feel comfortable telling us the truth about workplace misconduct, they have trust us. We can accomplish this trust with storytelling. When humans listen to a story the body releases cortisol (stress hormone) and oxytocin (pleasure hormone). These are the chemicals that cause us to feel empathy. Valerie Jencks teaches us “basically stories connect us and make us care.”
Telling a Story
When having a difficult conversation in the workplace we can demonstrate empathy by telling a story.
We choose a story that demonstrates we understand the emotion that led to the decision to break company policy. We do not tell a story about doing the same act. So if you are investigating cash theft you do not tell them that you also steal cash from work. Instead, you may hypothesize that financial strain is the reason they took the cash and tell a story about a time you experienced financial strain. You tell them you understand that life circumstances can cause people to make decisions they normally wouldn’t make.
I encourage authenticity with stories, and realize sometimes we have to get creative. A few years ago my nephew had a bully on his school bus, and I was trying to encourage him to stand up for himself by telling him about when I stood up to a bully. He said he was worried about what his mommy would think. I told him a story about how his mommy story up to a bully. I was running out of stories and then I remembered that when I was a kid, I didn’t think there was any adult that had any idea what is was like to be a kid. So I had to get creative, and Spiderman came to the rescue. Spiderman doesn’t let people bully him. Spiderman doesn’t let other people get bullied. Spiderman is a hero. When I told this to my nephew his demeanor changed, and it he understood, and that little bully kid doesn’t ride the school bus anymore.
The next time you are preparing for a workplace investigation or a difficult conversation, remember that human emotions are universal. When you can recall the times you experienced those emotions and tell your story, you have taken one step closer to connecting authentically in the workplace.
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