• Carolyn Stuart

Why empathy is so important to leadership

There are multiple reasons why cats purr. The most common reason is to show they are content and happy, but they also use purring as a way to self-soothe when they are stressed or hurt.


A few weeks ago I wrote about our highly strung and mischievous kittens in my blog post about how stress can catch you unaware. You might remember that one of our kittens, Nelson, had repeatedly peed on a handmade quilt at the same time as our washing machine died with the follow-on effect of me having a frustration-fuelled meltdown.


Recently I gave Nelson a new name Mr Peebody, which may give you an insight into a situation which we are still working on resolving!


Nelson purrs a lot. Even before he arrived in Wellington, his breeder had told me that he was a beautiful kitten, and a real purrer. He wasn’t wrong. From the moment we opened the travel cage, and the kittens emerged we noticed Nelson responded to us with a loud purr while Willow, the other kitten, would cower, run and hide, or attack with claws at the ready if we got too close.


Overtime Willow has come to trust us and readily purrs in response to our attention and lets us pick her up and play sans claws. Nelson has continued to purr whenever we interact with him and continues to pee in both the dirt-boxes and other less desirable places. Having tried everything Google told us about mitigating his unwanted behaviour, this week we reached out to a specialist for help.


The advice, which we’d already been given from a vet we’d consulted before the lockdown, was that cats only display this behaviour if they are stressed. But how could Nelson be stressed when every-time we stroke him, pick him up, or cuddle him he purrs? And then it dawned on me. What if Nelson purrs not because he is loving the attention we are giving him, but because he is self-soothing in a situation he is finding very stressful? And if he is indeed really stressed might the way we are responding to his undesirable behaviour be actually perpetuating it? The answer to all of these questions was a resounding yes.


So how did we get this wrong for so long? In the past I had observed cats start to purr at the vet and once a vet had even told me that cats purr when they are frightened, so it wasn’t that I didn’t know that cats purr for different reasons so what was it that caused this purr-blindness?


Even before we met Nelson our thinking had been biased by the breeder telling us he was a beautiful kitten and a real purrer, so when Nelson first arrived and started purring we were already conditioned to think that this was the response of a beautiful kitten (think ideal pet) rather than stressed animal.

Nelson - Image: Author's Own

As his new owners we desperately wanted to believe that he loved us, and his new home. This belief closed our minds to considering other possibilities.


As leaders, we are constantly responding to people. We respond based on our interpretation of situations. These interpretations come out of our personal worldview which is a combination of our experiences, values and beliefs. It is only when we deliberately set aside our own biases (and we all have them - it is what makes us human) that we can truly begin to understand a situation from the worldview of others. It is called gaining empathy.


I had an interesting conversation with a leader this week about whether people are naturally empathetic or not. I’m not sure we are. Our deeply ingrained survival instinct tends towards me first, and it takes a focussed effort to put others ahead of ourselves. I think being empathetic towards others requires a deliberate choice.


When we hold empathy for another person we are then able to respond to them in a way that works for them, rather than the way our worldview thinks is right. Make no mistake this can be really challenging especially when we are in high pressure situations. But the rewards of responding empathetically are long and deep.


So what about Nelson? We have stopped reacting to his stress-induced peeing. We are quietly cleaning up messes all the time talking to him in a soothing voice. The first couple of times this happened he looked highly confused at our response! We are no longer telling him “no’ or ‘get down” whenever he climbs on benches instead we are calmly redirecting him, lifting him off benches and gently pushing his nose away from the fluffy milk on our coffee. We are also taking every opportunity to stroke him and play with him to build his trust.


However, I am still calling him Nelson-Mr Peebody, because this makes me feel better and after all cats, even highly intelligent ones, don’t really understand what we are saying or do they?


Til next time


Carolyn


P.S. If you like the way I think you can sign up for Thursday Thinking here and enjoy my thinking delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday morning.

Wellington
New Zealand

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