How are you?

It takes courage and compassion to truly listen, says Karen Middleton 

The courage to listen
It takes courage to listen CSP CEO Karen Middleton

‘How are you?’ Such a simple question. How many times have you asked and been asked it over the last year?

I remember one of my staff asking me in November and I had to swallow hard before answering for fear of breaking down. I didn’t think I was feeling particularly fragile, but the question evoked an emotional response that was clearly just below the surface.

I imagine very many of our members have felt similarly fragile many times during the Covid pandemic, particularly those working on the frontline in the eye of the storm – it’s been harrowing. 

And, of course, it’s not just the work – it’s the worry about family and friends, the isolation, loss of livelihood, the home-schooling ….and so many other issues.

Yet in the midst of all this, the public needs to experience compassion from all those delivering health and social care. A culture of compassion starts with compassionate leadership and yet in a context of urgency and reaction, command and control come to the fore which can result in leaders over-directing and, in turn, disaffecting the very staff we need to motivate. 

For me, compassionate leadership is about holding the space, without judgement, for whatever the other person needs – it’s being there to perhaps help but not necessarily to solve the problem and it’s about being equal as human beings, despite any differential in roles etc. It is leadership, not management, and it’s the most important way of dealing with what feels overwhelming.

Firstly, compassionate leadership starts with self-compassion – surfacing and paying attention to your own feelings and taking care to look after yourself and take action when necessary. This will help you have more authentic and effective interactions with others you work with.

Self-compassion is critical to being able to tune into how others are feeling – being prepared to be vulnerable takes courage, yet it is a very necessary component of compassionate leadership. It’s all too easy to avoid this by focusing on the busyness of urgent meetings and operational issues, preserving our need to stay ‘in control’.

It also takes courage because tuning in to others may mean listening to difficult and overwhelming stories of exhaustion, lack of nourishment and feelings of inadequacy. 

So be prepared, when you ask that question.

From the compassionate leader, people need to feel enabled, to feel more in control and to have more autonomy, not less. 

They need to feel they can influence what is happening, that their voice is being heard, that they are not simply being directed.

People also need to feel they belong and never more so than in a crisis. This is where the multidisciplinary team comes to the fore – all working together to the same end, but with clearly defined roles.

And people need to feel competent, so clearing obstructions, like sufficient resources, is important for the leader to do. Also ensuring there is time and space for reviewing and learning, rather than ‘waiting until the end’.

We know that in a business as usual environment, compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement from their teams. In a pandemic, compassionate leadership is business-critical. 

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