Conflict Strategies for Nice People

This week’s article is provided by Liane Davey as part of the World Business and Executive Coach Summit (WBECS) interview series.  It is a companion to her interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled The Good Fight: Using Productive Conflict that aired on Tuesday, May 11th.


We’re not having enough conflict. When we avoid issues that we need to address, we get into what I call “conflict debt.” What is conflict debt? Essentially, each time you avoid a discussion, debate, or disagreement that you should be having, you add that issue to the list of unresolved issues. If you should be introducing novel ideas to get your organization out of a rut but you think, “that’s gonna’ ruffle some feathers,” so you stay quiet, you’re incurring debt. If you should be telling a coworker that he’s not pulling his weight, but you just can’t be bothered starting a fight, that’s conflict debt.

Like with any debt, conflict debt accrues interest that costs us dearly. As organizations, we fail to prioritize, dilute resources, and accomplish little. As teams, we work around problem people and overwhelm the capable ones. As individuals, we stifle our concerns and become increasingly disgruntled, stressed, and disengaged.

Conflict debt is too costly. We need to surface and work through conflict, but the voices inside our heads give us so many reasons why we should avoid it. Perhaps the loudest voice is the one that tells us conflict isn’t nice. But is that true?

You might think conflict has to be loud, or aggressive, or rigid. It doesn’t. You can have conflict nicely by choosing words skillfully and keeping your tone level and your body language open. There are a few techniques you can use to have conflict nicely.

Validating versus invalidating

For the most part, grown adults in the workplace understand that they can’t always get what they want. What really frustrates people is when they don’t feel that they’ve been heard. Unfortunately, the moment you get into a conflict, your attention gets laser focused on pleading your case, rather than hearing theirs. When they say, “We need to drive more traffic into the stores, I’m dropping prices,” you immediately go to, “We need to protect our margins!”

The most powerful thing you can do to have conflict nicely is to leave your colleague with the impression that you understand their point. That means you need to start by really listening to and carefully reflecting their concerns before even mentioning your own. “You’re focused on driving traffic into the stores. Tell me what our numbers look like this week.” If the first thing out of your mouth is their perspective rather than your own, you’ve set a positive tone for the whole discussion.

Ally versus adversary

Conflict is particularly unpleasant when you make the other person feel like you are working in opposite directions. Antagonistic conflict pits the two of you against each other and leaves the other person feeling isolated. Imagine standing facing one another pulling in a tug-of-war. “We NEED to drop our prices, we’re not going to get anyone in our store at these prices!” “Yeah, well we NEED to make a profit and we’re going to lose our shirts at that discount!”

Having conflict nicely requires that you pivot so that you are facing the same direction and looking at the problem together, as allies. The secret is to appeal to a higher purpose that you have in common. For example, “Look, I know you think we need to drop our prices and I’m pushing hard to keep them level. We both want to make it through the holiday season profitably. How can we think about this differently?” As soon as you can start saying “we” and stop saying “you,” the conflict will feel much nicer.

Productive versus unproductive

A sure way to be the bad guy in a conflict is to back someone into a corner. Making assertive statements, pointing a finger, and shutting the conversation down with closed questions will leave your colleague with no way out. You know exactly how people behave when they are trapped, they either fight more aggressively or they back down. Neither is going to leave them with the impression that you’re a nice person. “Do you want to be the person who destroyed our Q4 margin?”

The alternative is to create a path forward with everything you say. Rather than trapping the person so that their only option is to contradict you or disagree with you, ask open-ended questions that allow them to explain their position. “How are you thinking about the impact on our margin if we discount prices that far?” Even when you’re proposing a solution to the problem, pose it as a question to test whether it works, “Ok, what if we were to take the sale to 30% and sweeten it with a free gift with $50 or more?”

If someone raised you to believe, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” you might be avoiding conflict altogether. That’s not good for anybody. Instead, focus your efforts on having conflict nicely. Make your colleague feel heard and understood, make them feel like an ally, rather than an adversary, and constantly leave room for both of you to work together toward a solution. From now on, “if you can’t say anything nice, make sure you say it nicely.”


To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

Liane Davey is a New York Times Bestselling author of three books, including The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track. Known as the Water Cooler Psychologist, she is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and frequently called on by media outlets for her experience on leadership, team effectiveness, and productivity. As the co-founder of 3COze Inc., she advises on strategy and executive team effectiveness at companies such as Amazon, Walmart, TD Bank, Google, 3M, and SONY. Liane has a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology.

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash


The Benefits of Using a Great Coach in a VUCA Environment

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This blog is provided by David Goldsmith of 7 Paths Forward, LLC. ( It is a companion to his interview as a part of the WBECS (The World Business & Executive Coach Summary) Interview Series that is featured on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future. David’s interview aired on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, titled The Benefits of Great Coaching in a VUCA Environment. If you are interested in attending the WBECS pre-summit for free, register here.


VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It’s a term that comes from the military to describe conditions during war. The current pandemic has highlighted and accelerated the disruption that leaders were already experiencing in their organizations. Now when we talk about VUCA more people have a first hand experience of what we are talking about.

The world is volatile right now. Everyday things change. We don’t know when and if things will return to how they used to be. This creates a lot of the uncertainty that we are all experiencing. Just as we think we know how things might be, we learn new things and our view changes rapidly. Sometimes we experience this change hourly! It’s a lot to keep up with.

It’s hard to imagine a time when things were more uncertain. When will children go back to school? How long will we work from home? Will there be further waves of the virus? How will we deal with those? What does “normal” look like in the future? How will this affect organizations? What kind of work will there be? What do we want to keep and preserve from the disruption?

The complexity has only increased. As a leader you had your OKRs for the year. How do you accomplish those goals with your workforce configured very differently? How do you get these done when your workforce is facing childcare challenges and experiencing a level of stress and personal disruption previously unknown?

The pandemic has also been a great example of ambiguity. We are watching governments manage a public health crisis and an economic crisis at the same time. There are no easy or right decisions. Every decision has consequences. And you never have enough information to make a decision. You have to choose and then be prepared to update your decision very quickly!

Coaches help leaders grow and develop and handle more complexity. Great coaches help their clients do this more efficiently and with deeper results. A simple example is inter-city trains. In many parts of the world you can take a train service from city a to city b that might take ten hours. Or you can take a high-speed train that makes the trip in six hours. The high-speed train is usually more comfortable and gets you there significantly faster. Both options get you to your destination.

During this pandemic we are finding that leaders are making time for their coaching sessions. However, many times these sessions are shorter. A great coach can efficiently work with the client to identify the issues, help them develop actionable insights and help them get on with their VUCA challenges.

To deal with these VUCA challenges requires a coach who has the experience, skill and insight to customize their work to provide what these leaders need now. They must be agile, insightful and armed with a large toolbox of skills and approaches. ​They must themselves be comfortable in a VUCA environment.

When you have to make a complex decision without enough information, you need a coach who can lean in to the conversation, help you understand all four of the VUCA elements and then help frame the issue so that the leader can make their best decision. And the coach is standing by ready to help that leader adjust (because they will need to).

Leaders also need great coaches who can work with a variety of narcissistic, defensive and emotional clients. All of us are dealing with a far greater level of conscious and unconscious stress. Leaders are behaving in ways that are unusual and often surprising to themselves. They need a coach who isn’t fazed by this and in fact knows how to utilize this new behavior to help the leader accelerate their growth.

Our current environment is a great example of why leaders who want to grow, develop, and thrive need to work with a great coach.


To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, and iHeartRADIO. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

A pioneer in the coaching industry, David Goldsmith was Chief Operating Officer of and past President of CoachU. He has staged many innovative conferences on coaching and was the first to showcase coaching research almost 20 years ago. He co-founded the Foundation for Coaching which has now become the Institute of Coaching at Harvard. he has also co-founded Accelerating Coach Excellence, a program dedicated to helping coaches get to the heart of client issues in less time.  David is an active coach working with senior leaders, professionals, and entrepreneurs around the globe. He has also coached many of the leaders in the coaching profession helping to grow the impact of coaching worldwide.


9 Types of Silence and the Impact of Each

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This blog is written by Marcia Reynolds. It is a companion to her interview as a part of the WBECS (The World Business & Executive Coach Summary) Interview Series that is featured on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future. Marcia’s interview aired on Tuesday, May 12, 2020, titled Difficult Conversations That Get Positive Results. You can take part in the month-long 10th Annual World Business and Executive Coach free Pre-Summit  by signing up here.


When you choose how to use your silence, you have the opportunity to align with, shift, and possibly transform the thinking of the person you are with. You must consciously choose how you are holding your stillness. Some of the 9 types of silence can hurt your connection with others more than help it.

For example, choosing not to speak when your brain is full of chatter is a kind of silence that can be disruptive. You aren’t present. You are biting your tongue until you can state what is on your mind. Others feel your impatient energy. They may yield the floor to you knowing you have something you are anxious to share or they may just avoid eye contact with you to keep you silent.

When in a conversation, especially a difficult one, you want to be aware of the silence you are holding. Is your silence alert and full of curiosity? Or are you just waiting to end what you think is a dead-end discourse? Are you open to receiving what your partner is expressing so you can share what you see and hear for clarification? Or are you just waiting for the opportunity to state your opinion?

9 Types of Silence and How You Use Them

Novelist, poet, playwright, and psychotherapist Paul Goodman identified 9 kinds of silence in his classic book, Speaking and Language.¹ Here is his list with my interpretation of how the silence might impact your conversations.

  1. Dumb silence of slumber or apathy. Do you have nothing to say because you don’t care? Their words are bouncing off you like a wall.
  2. Sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face. Have you given up being a part of the conversation and just listening because you feel you have to? You may feel like a prisoner until you are released.
  3. Noisy silence of resentment. The judgment you have for the speaker is so loud in your head you don’t hear what is being said.
  4. Baffled silence of confusion. You aren’t sure of the intention of the conversation, the meaning of the words, or the direction the story is going. You are reluctant to say anything because the speaker might not take your feedback well.
  5. Musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity. Whether you are alone or with others, you are so immersed in what you are doing that it feels as if the world is silent around you.
  6. The silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos. The science of awe and wonder reveals a beautiful combination of peace and curiosity when we feel a sense of oneness with what we see. We quietly accept the unknown but want to know more.
  7. Fertile silence of awareness. What is being revealed has your head spinning. Are the thoughts arising from what you are curious about now or from what you think you now know? Observations and questions arising from your curiosity can further the conversation. Sharing what you think you now know might shut it down.
  8. Alive silence of alert perception. Are you noticing everything in your visual sphere? Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton said, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”
  9. The silence of listening to whole person you are with. When you are silent but focused on the other, you can catch the drift of their meaning from their words, their expressions, and the energy they radiate. This is how you cultivate non-reactive empathy. You not only understand their experience, you are then able to reflect what you hear and notice to help the other person assess their thinking. This is an alive silence but not intrusive. This is the silence most useful to effective coaching and leadership conversations, and probably parenting as well.

Can You WAIT?

There is an acronym used in training for many years, WAIT – Why Am I Talking? Whether you are speaking out loud or you are allowing your brain to fill your head with words, ask yourself if silence would be more useful and what type of silence you want to hold.

Kahlil Gibran wrote in his 1923 classic The Prophet, “There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.” You can help people feel connected with your silence. They will come to feel safe with you, willing to reveal what is on their minds that they do not understand.  Your curiosity and care can help them come to a new understanding filled with possibility. Gibran called this way of being with people, “rhythmic silence.” I believe this silence is what we hold when we are practicing Coaching Presence.

Alive, focused silence is a skill we can all develop. Find a moment to practice today.


Want to hear more from Marcia and other great coaching speakers? You can take part in the month-long 10th Annual World Business and Executive Coach free Pre-Summit  by signing up here.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify and iHeartRADIO. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

Dr. Marcia Reynolds, president of Covisioning LLC, is endlessly curious about how humans learn and grow. She found coaching to be the best technology we have for accelerating the process of change. She has coached and trained leaders and coaches in 41 countries and has presented at the Harvard Kennedy School, Cornell University, and The National Research University in Moscow. Dr. Reynolds is a pioneer in the coaching profession. She is a founding member and 5th global president of the International Coach Federation. She returned to the board for two years in 2016 where she focused on credentialing requirements and strengthening relationships with coach training schools. She is the Training Director for the Healthcare Coaching Institute and on faculty for the International Coach Academy in Russia and Create China Coaching in China. Global Gurus recognizes her as one of the top 5 coaches in the world. Dr. Reynolds has published 5 books.


¹ Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry. Random House, 1972. Out of print but you might find it in your local public or university library.


Leveraging Technology To Improve Leadership Development

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In the current Corona virus crisis, this interview may be useful to those looking to use online platforms in place of in-person instruction. The following blog is a republish of an article appearing in Forbes written by Maureen Metcalf. It is a companion to the interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future on titled Leveraging Online Kajabi Platform To Build Thriving Brands.


As a university adjunct faculty member, consultant and coach, I have been using the tagline of “Innovative Leadership” for many years. This sets the bar for how I commit to my work as well as the services I deliver. I recently started to explore how I could refresh my use of technology to teach leadership in conjunction with coaching and workshops. I am looking for options to accelerate the leader’s learning process and offer a broad range of tools for different learning styles. I want to share my experience of how I am leveraging this technology to support leaders in their development.

I researched the many robust online delivery options and selected a tool that was a solid fit for my work: Kajabi. I selected it because of the strong technology platform, strong start-up support, cost-effectiveness, integrated payment and affiliate tracking modules and the ability to communicate with participants by product.

With the support of the online platform, I am rethinking what is possible. Right now, I am using the online training for the following three applications initially and I will expand these as we use the platform.

  1. We recently launched a 10-month IT leadership development program. This program was designed to build skills in the IT community in order to build the talent pipeline for senior roles. It will be delivered through monthly in-person sessions in conjunction with our local CIO forum. The online platform allows us to deliver training that integrates structured exercises, case studies and audio interviews with local CIOs and executives. One of the key objectives of the in-person sessions is to learn content and build a network. We expect the online element to significantly accelerate the building of leadership skills for mid- to senior-level IT professionals.

The online platform allows us to track payment and engagement with the materials. As the facilitator, this lets me manage the finances easily and also identify who is highly engaged so we can offer additional resources to enrich their experience. It also tells me who is less engaged so I can reach out and troubleshoot.

  1. We often augment our leadership coaching programs with a series of exercises designed to help participants build self-awareness, knowledge and skills. Especially for emerging leaders, we deliver a hybrid of training and coaching to prepare them to step into larger roles. For this group, we created a standard curriculum with exercises, case studies, audio interviews and videos. I can monitor client progress through the platform, and in this case, they share their progress prior to coaching sessions and discuss how their learning can improve their leadership work.

The online platform offers the option to package the leadership development curriculum by leadership level. I can sell packaged offerings of coaching and online training. It also gives the option to support affiliates so the other coaches and consultants in our organization work from a single platform with consistent processes and offerings.

  1. We offer online development programs as standalone offerings for individuals and companies to provide effective (and cost-effective) training for their emerging and current leaders. These programs can be combined with other programs the companies are conducting. Because this program is comprehensive and participants work through it over time, it provides the opportunity to internalize the learning, not just attend and depart.

The online platform allows us to customize materials for specific groups and tweak other courses where appropriate to reinforce and build on the in-person development investments they are making.

Another element we will be building into the platform that we are very excited about is an assessment that will be used by those taking courses, and it is also offered as a standalone service. Because an online platform can support a range of services, we are able to create a clean and user-friendly purchasing experience.

I have struggled for years to present a simple path for clients. Our company website is highly complex and positions us as a thought leadership and executive advisory firm. While that works for some audiences, it is inappropriate for others. Using Kajabi as our online platform and linking it to our main site and our book website, we can tailor the user experience to the target audience in a manner that is cost-effective for us and easy for the user.

I talk about the most effective leaders acting like scientists. This endeavor is one of my experiments. I did my homework and selected this platform. We are implementing several modules and we will continue to test and refine our experiment as we go along. For other coaches and consultants looking to extend your offering, I encourage you to explore the broad range of options for technology to enable and even extend the strong impact you are already having on clients.


To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

Maureen Metcalf, CEO of the Innovative Leadership Institute, is a renowned executive advisor, coach, consultant, author and speaker.

Proven Path to Leadership Maturity and Effectiveness

This post is a companion to the Voice America interview featuring Mike Morrow-Fox talking about leadership maturity and vertical development to build the leadership qualities required to lead large complex organizations and those that aspire to make the greatest impact.

The following article was first published by Forbes Coaches Council in August 2016.

Future trends indicate complexity, accelerated change, and near-constant uncertainty in the coming years. These conditions will require significantly different leadership skills.

With these new demands for evolving leadership, is there a predictable path to develop leadership? If so, what does that path look like?

Leaders develop both “horizontally,” increasing their ability at their current level of operation, and “vertically,” increasing their level of complexity, emotional maturity, and opening to new awareness. Many researchers are now saying that “vertical development” is required to navigate the complexities leaders and their organizations face.

To answer what the vertical evolutionary path looks like, I reference the research of Dr. Cook-Greuter, who developed a Leadership Maturity Framework (LMF) and measurement of adult development as part of her doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. Dr. Cook-Greuter is now the Co-Founder with Beena Sharma of The Center for Leadership Maturity, a firm that facilitates vertical development in individuals, teams and organizations. The LMF is the basis of my work with vertical leadership development because it provides a model that is both grounded in research and practical to use in coaching and leadership development.

Vertical development does not mean that more developed people are “better” people, but rather, in many cases, are likely to be more effective in key leadership roles within large complex organizations. The following is a brief summary of the LMF describing the predictable developmental trajectory people navigate as they grow:

The Group-Centric Level

This level is about conforming and belonging. People at this level follow rules, norms and observe hierarchy. They conform to social expectations, work to group standards, seek membership and approval, and appreciate outward signs of status as a sign of approval. They attend to the welfare of their own group; those who are not like them are the “other,” and therefore outside their circle of concern. They avoid conflict, think in simple terms, and often speak in generalities. Feedback is taken as disapproval since their driving value is to gain approval and be included.

Example: This is the employee who looks to what the group is doing to determine his actions. He looks to meet the “expectations” set by the organization, fit into the culture, and do what everyone does. Belonging is his key to success; standing out or having a different opinion feels risky

The Skill-Centric Level

This focuses on comparing self to others and perfecting skills. Individuals at this level focus on being competent in their own area of interest and improving techniques and efficiency. They aspire to quality standards and are often heavily invested in their way as the only way of doing things. Decisions are made based on incontrovertible “facts.” Given their focus on problem-solving and detail, they can get caught in the weeds and not see the big picture necessary to effectively prioritize among competing demands. All consuming attention on being right can lead them to be critical of and competitive with others. They hear feedback about their work as criticism of them as a whole person.

Example: This is the employee who points out when others make mistakes and tries to correct them so they can meet the standards. Her development efforts focus on building expertise. She usually has a “better” opinion unless she is in the presence of a subject-matter expert.

The Self-Determining Level

This focuses on analyzing and achieving to effectively deliver results. Leaders at this level look toward longer-term goals and initiate rather than follow expectations. They value objectivity and scientific knowledge, seeking rational, proactive ways around problems. They often seek consensus — “agree to disagree” — and value mutuality and equality in relationships. They accept feedback to promote learning and success.

Example: This employee continually drives to meet organizational goals. He works both efficiently and effectively and is continually competing with himself and others to drive the best results. He has a five-year plan, is open to new learning, and is beginning to be more reflective.

The Self-Questioning Level

This level focuses on self in relationship and contextualizing his/her experience. Leaders at this level are concerned with the difference between reality and appearance and have an increased understanding of complexity and unintended effects of actions. They begin to question their own assumptions and views and realize the subjectivity of beliefs; and talk of interpretations rather than facts. They can play different roles in different contexts and begin to seek out and value feedback.

Example: This employee is continually inquiring, challenging assumptions, and aware of the limitations of conventional thinking. She focuses on creating an environment where everyone feels valued. She is committed to appreciating value in different perspectives.

The Self-Actualizing Level

This level is about integrating and transforming self and systems, and recognizing higher principles, complexity and interrelationships. People at this level are aware of the social construction of reality — not just rules and customs. They are problem finding, not just doing creative problem solving. They are aware of paradox and contradiction in self and systems and learn to have a deep appreciation of others. They demonstrate a sensitivity to systemic change and create “positive-sum” games.

Example: This person is continually evaluating the organization’s strategy against long-term industry trends as well as global economic conditions while embodying her values and using herself as an instrument of transformation. She is self-aware and firmly anchored in principles while having the ability to adapt based on context.

As we look to the changes leaders are facing in the near and long term, it is helpful to have a robust model for development that allows them to focus their development energy effectively. This framework, along with it, measurement instrument — the maturity assessment for professionals (MAP) — is the most robust I have seen, and I find it highly effective in supporting leaders.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the author Maureen Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Innovative Leadership Institute, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

Leveraging Personality Type to Improve Leadership Effectiveness

Leader Type

This guest blog was written as a companion to the VoiceAmerica Interview with Belinda Gore on April 24, Building Leadership Self-Awareness Using Personality Type. In the interview and the blog, Belinda explores how she uses the Enneagram to help leaders build the self-awareness that enables them to perform effectively.

This post contains some excepts from the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook written by Maureen Metcalf with contributing author Belinda Gore.

Let’s start with the example of Ken, an experienced leader, who was making a job change. He realized he was navigating in uncharted territory and that he would no longer be working with the team he knew well and trusted. He would be working with new people who didn’t know who he was or how he worked. Because starting a new job is stressful, he also needed to be aware of his patterns and signs of stress. To help him manage this transition, he revisited his personality assessment to refresh his memory on how to navigate his personal stress and to better understand his new team. He found this tool very useful in the past and expected it would be equally valuable as he stepped into a high-visibility role.

When the 65 members of the Advisory Council for the Stanford Graduate School of Business were polled several years ago on the topic of what is most important to include in the school’s curriculum, there was an overwhelming agreement that the most important thing business school graduates needed to learn was self-awareness and the resulting ability to reduce denial in their perceptions of themselves and their actions.  Pretty impressive.  All the tools of the MBA trade—forecasting, strategic planning, financial analysis, among many, many others—were determined to be LESS important than learning skills of self-awareness and the ability to reduce denial. This speaks to the emerging recognition that we highlight in Innovative Leadership:  Leaders, through their own personality quirks and biases, can derail the most progressive initiatives toward an organization’s sustainable success.

The name “Enneagram” derives from the Greek for nine (ennea) and for a figure (grama), hence, the Enneagram symbol of a circle with nine equidistant points around the circumference.  The symbol itself is ancient. Using the symbol as a map we can describe patterns of personality as well as highly effective pathways for personal change.  In my experience using the Enneagram system as a psychologist and leadership coach over the past twenty-three years, I find it to be more robust than any other system I have encountered. Many organizations are familiar with DISC, MBTI, Strengths Finder, and other systems, and training in these models has given employees at every level of organizations a foundation in models for self-awareness. I have found leaders at every level able to readily learn the more rich and versatile information the Enneagram offers.

The following section describes the enneagram types.

Type 1—Reformer: The Rational, Idealistic Type

I am a principled, idealistic type. I am conscientious and ethical with a strong sense of right and wrong behavior. I can be a teacher, crusader, and advocate for change, always striving to improve things, but sometimes afraid of making mistakes. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, I try to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic. I typically have problems with resentment and impatience.

At My Best: I am wise, discerning, realistic, and noble. I can be morally heroic.

Type 2Helper: The Caring, Interpersonal Type

I am a caring, interpersonal type. I am empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. I am friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people pleasing. I am well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. I typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging my own needs.

At My Best: I am unselfish and altruistic, and have unconditional love for others.

Type 3—Achiever: The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type

I am an adaptable, success-oriented type. I am self-assured, attractive, and charming. Ambitious, competent, and energetic, I can also be status-conscious and highly-driven for advancement. I am diplomatic and poised, but can also be overly concerned with my image and what others think of me. I typically have problems with over focus on work and competitiveness.

At My Best: I am self-accepting, authentic, and a role model who inspires others.

Type 4—Individualist: The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type

I am an introspective, romantic type. I am self-aware, sensitive, and reserved. I am emotionally honest, creative, and personal, but can also be moody and self-conscious. Withholding myself from others due to feeling vulnerable, I can also feel scornful and exempt from ordinary ways of living. I typically have problems with melancholy, self-indulgence, and self-pity.

At My Best: I am inspired and highly creative and am able to renew myself and transform my experiences.

Type 5—Investigator: The Intense, Cerebral Type

I am a perceptive, cerebral type. I am alert, insightful, and curious. I am able to concentrate and focus on developing complex ideas and skills. Independent, innovative, and inventive, I can also become preoccupied with my thoughts and imaginary constructs. I can be detached, yet high-strung and intense. I typically have problems with eccentricity, nihilism, and isolation.

At My Best: I am a visionary pioneer, often ahead of my time, and able to see the world in an entirely new way.

Type 6—Loyalist: The Committed, Security-Oriented Type

I am reliable, hardworking, responsible, security oriented, and trustworthy. I am an excellent troubleshooter, and can foresee problems and foster cooperation, but can also become defensive, evasive, and anxious: running on stress while complaining about it. I can be cautious and indecisive, but also reactive, defiant, and rebellious. I typically have problems with self-doubt and suspicion.

At My Best: I am internally stable and self-reliant, courageously championing myself and others.

Type Seven—Enthusiast: The Busy, Fun-Loving Type

I am a busy, outgoing, productive type. I am extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. Playful, high-spirited and practical, I can also misapply many talents, becoming over-extended, scattered, and undisciplined. I constantly seek new and exciting experiences, but can become distracted and exhausted by staying on the go. I typically have problems with impatience and impulsiveness.

At My Best: I focus my talents on worthwhile goals, becoming appreciative, joyous, and satisfied.

Type Eight—Challenger: The Powerful, Dominating Type

I am a powerful, aggressive, self-confident, strong, and assertive. Protective, resourceful, straight talking, and decisive, I can also be egocentric and domineering. I feel I must control my environment, especially people, sometimes becoming confrontational and intimidating. I typically have problems with my temper and with allowing myself to be vulnerable.

At My Best: I am self-mastering and I use my strength to improve others’ lives, becoming heroic, magnanimous, and inspiring.

Type Nine—Peacemaker: The Easygoing, Self-effacing Type

I am accepting, trusting, easy going, and stable. I am usually grounded, supportive, and often creative, but can also be too willing to go along with others to keep the peace. I want everything to go smoothly and be without conflict, but I can also tend to be complacent and emotionally distant, simplifying problems, and ignoring anything upsetting. I typically have problems with inertia and stubbornness.

At My Best: I am indomitable and all-embracing, and able to bring people together to heal conflicts.

One advantage of the Enneagram is that it is organic. The nine personality styles are formed through characteristic ways of balancing the three primary centers of intelligence in the human body. While we typically think of the brain as the center of intelligence, advances in neuroanatomy have demonstrated that there is also a complex system of nerves in the solar plexus region that forms the center of body intelligence and a third complex system of nerves in the center of the chest, known as the heart center of intelligence.  These three centers are aligned with the three major parts of the brain:  the belly center is aligned with the reptilian brain stem, responsible for instinctual behavior and home of the autonomic nervous system that controls arousal and relaxation;  the heart center is aligned with the mid-brain where we encounter the mechanism for fundamental emotion as well as mirror neurons and limbic resonance that account for our capacity for empathy; and the head center is aligned with the cerebral cortex, which includes the analytical and logical left lobe as well as the holistic and intuitive right lobe.

The key to identifying a person’s core Enneagram type is to look beyond behavior to the factors motivating that behavior. Through awareness of motivation we can predict the ways in which leaders and organizations sabotage their best efforts as well as find the line of least resistance toward getting back on track.

By harnessing the capacity to see your leader type and conditioning in an objective, nonjudgmental way, you can foster better insight to your own experience without the strained effort that can stem from self-bias. You discover that the unique patterns that shape each type are genuine, natural and generally do not change much over time. In the most basic way, they simply reflect who you are most innately.  The goal with leader type is to build self-awareness and leverage strengths, not try to change who you are. Understanding the natural conditioning that comes from leader type is a crucial stage in developing leadership effectiveness, and comprehensive innovation within the entire organization.

A recommended resource for identifying your own Enneagram personality type is to take an online questionnaire.  For $12 you can complete the assessment and receive the scored results immediately along with material to describe your top choices. To accurately determine your type and how to use the information we suggest that you contact an Enneagram coach at either Metcalf & Associates, or a teacher or coach at the Deep Coaching Institute.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Authors

Belinda Gore, PhD focuses on designing, developing and delivering leadership, assessments, workshops, and coaching. She is a key thought leader in the development of the Innovative Leadership framework.


She is a psychologist, executive coach, and experienced seminar leader who is skilled in supporting her clients in high-level learning. With 30 years’ experience in leadership development and interpersonal skills training, she is known for helping teams discover strength in their diversity to achieve their mutual goals, and works with individual leaders to access their natural talents to maximize effectiveness and personal satisfaction. Her clients have included senior leadership in global companies, senior and middle management in both corporate and nonprofit organizations, and entrepreneurs. She will be leading our new service line focused on helping leaders and their organizations build resilience along with offering leadership team development, board development, coaching, and Enneagram assessment.

Maureen Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Innovative Leadership Institute, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

Is your well-intended project oversight actually obstructing progress?

LeadershipThis post was written by guest blogger, Kathleen Starkoff, Founder, President and CEO of Orange Star Consulting in conjunction with an interview on Voice America aired on August 23 How Can You Successfully Implement Large Scale Change?

Most of us have had the occasion to be participants in or witnesses to complex mission-critical system based projects like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) conversions, company mergers, or acquisitions. Personally, I have engaged in hundreds of complex projects and what often strikes me, is the profound impact that overseeing executives can sometimes play, inadvertently complicating the effort. Have you observed any of these common oversight practices and their unfortunate consequences?

  • Single-dimension coaching is when one parameter, like the implementation date, formally or informally defines success. To be sure, the implementation date is often an important target established, presumably, with good reason. Further, on-time delivery represents a critical and challenging aspect of project management.

A simple and emphatic message like “deliver on time” is compelling. When such a focus is established, well-communicated and emphasized, one can assume that this primary focus will be achieved. Unfortunately, the primary parameter’s success is often achieved at the cost of lesser parameters, like poor quality or missed functionality, the sting of which lives on long after the implementation date.

Leaders who coach from a balanced perspective, understanding and appreciating the interdependencies of dates, plans, scope, and resources, will encourage better holistic outcomes. Further, leaders who support a preemptive plan for talent, time and/or financial contingencies for the inevitable unforeseen circumstance, at levels commensurate with the initiative’s complexity, channels the team’s energy solidly on execution.

  • Overly optimistic coaching is an environment where analysis and reporting tends to be unduly positive because influential leaders, who define the culture, value optimism. In project delivery, like sales and many other business areas, optimism is an important and necessary cultural characteristic.

However, optimism can play an adverse role in decision making when the characteristic is dominant. Project management requires coordinated planning, analysis and realistic progress reporting. When a team is overly-optimistic, and/or hesitant to report failure, the necessary and sensitive synchronization of data is compromised. When such data is then amalgamated across teams of similar optimistic culture, the compromise is magnified. The environment produces a proliferation of “on-target” milestones in project reporting right up until the milestones are unexpectedly missed.

Leaders who engage from a curious (“Tell me what is happening.”) perspective versus a leading from a goal focused (“We are on target, aren’t we?”) perspective, create a safe environment for the messenger to share the unbiased reality of the project. This open and trusted relationship can be replicated across project teams to create a virtuous cycle of fact based data and information. It also encourages the preemptive identification and resolution of issues, minimizing big surprises and increasing the probability of success.

  • System-centric project planning is when a project’s definition of success is the conversion or implementation of a system. That is, after months or years of IT and business engagement, a system goes “live” with a new system or version, which is, statistically speaking, far easier said than done.

But implementing a system without leveraging the opportunity that large scale system change represents is regrettable. It is a terrific people and process change opportunity, work that can be leveraged for real benefit. The work of engagement around design, training and conversion with the business provides the perfect platform for identifying people and process opportunities and integrating the change into the solution. The benefit annuity is squandered, if the success hurdle is simply system related. Instead, system change can and should be used to drive ongoing business benefits of real dollar savings or customer service improvements. It does not make the system change effort any more difficult. Conversely, the addition of these benefit increases business ownership and engagement providing an effective stimulus for the change.

Leaders who engage early in the project construct to define substantial complementary business outcomes measured in specific quantitative and/or qualitative ways will be able to creatively and sustainably address problems or opportunity areas. The business outcome focus will ensure the enthusiastic engagement of all parties through the project’s duration and a vibrant celebration for the resulting annuities brought to life by the system change.

The number of times that I have witnessed these themes carried out in various forms is material. As real and material as the adverse impact on the mission-critical project or the business; in every case, the leader, while well-intentioned in his actions, caused suboptimal project performance, delivery and outcomes.

I have also witnessed these themes performed in the most positive sense. Leaders, who through their visible and vocal sponsorship, seemingly doubled the energy of the project team, enabling impossibly-tall hurdles to be jumped and ridiculously-aggressive deadlines to be met.

Chances are that you have witnessed a bad example, or two, of the above issue causing themes. After reading the related comments and insights, I hope you are one of the leaders who is learning from the errors of others and you are leading in a way that avoids these errors and better yet sets the standard for what is possible! What are you doing to exemplify the positive representation of the themes and the exceptional results? What do you do to encourage others to avoid the pitfalls and learn from the lessons of others?

About the Author

Kathleen Starkoff, Founder, President and CEO of Orange Star Consulting is a cyber security expert, a talented headline speaker and a senior, trusted advisor to CIOs across a wide range of industries, Fortune 500 companies and the National Science Foundation.  Her ability to provide valuable counsel is a result of her 20 years of IT leadership experience in industry-leading organizations including CIO at The Ohio State University, CTO and Enterprise Risk Manager for Limited Brands and CTO of Bank One Corporation.

Ms. Starkoff is a recognized “Leadership Fellow” and a featured cyber security speaker for the National Association of Corporate Directors.  She is also Board Chair-elect and Chair of the Governance and Nominating Board Committee of Flying Horse Farms, part of Paul Newman’s SeriousFun Children’s Network, which provides transformative camp experiences for seriously ill children. She holds a master’s degree in business administration from Case Western Reserve University, and a bachelor’s of science degree, cum laude, in mathematics from Kent State University.

Minding Your Business: The Value of Mindfulness

mindfulnessStress, regardless of how we try to avoid it, is a given. It is part of everyday living, but how we choose to acknowledge and approach it makes all the difference. Stress can be either productive or destructive depending on how much of it you have and how you process it. Think of a time when you performed better, prepared more, and worked harder because you were able to harness it and use it to your advantage. Now think of a time when you performed worse because of stress, perhaps spiraling out of control? What made these situations different for you?

This post is based on the work of Maryanna Klatt, PhD, professor of Clinical Family Medicine at The Ohio State University. An expert in integrative medicine, she has spent more than a decade studying perceived stress, sleep, cortisol, and salivary alpha amylase levels in saliva—an indicator of the fight-or-flight response we experience in stressful situations. Her research is helping people of all ages and professions reduce their stress and improve their overall wellness. “We all have the same stresses—lack of control is a big one people struggle with, lack of time, continuous partial attention is a huge problem,” says Klatt. This post is a companion to the Voice America radio interview focusing on mindfulness and leadership.

Klatt uses mindfulness as the foundation for her research. “Mindfulness is characterized by nonjudgmental, sustained moment-to-moment awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts and imagery.”

Using the analogy of a hurricane, Klatt explains that mindfulness training can help you navigate to the eye of the storm—the calmest part—and figure out a way to deal with the chaotic circumstances swirling around you in a positive manner. To do this, she developed Mindfulness in Motion, an eight-week program that combines weekly group meetings on awareness and relaxation techniques with a 20-minute individual practice done daily. The daily practice is available using audio downloads. The weekly group meetings can be facilitated by Mindfulness in Motion trained facilitators.

To better understand how mindfulness works physiologically, and to underscore that it is much more than just a trend, we want to share a brief summary of what happens in the body when one engages in a mindfulness practice. According to an article published in the July 2015 Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE):
“Mindfulness has been found useful as an intervention that increases attention and has been associated with changes in brain structure and function. For example, the changes in gray matter brain density impacts cognition, while changes in the amygdala impact emotional reactivity. This may explain some of the positive benefits associated with stress reduction worksite interventions that teach non-reactivity for personnel who work in a chronic high stress work environment.”

In a study with intensive care unit nurses at Ohio State, Klatt found the program contributed to a 40 percent drop in the fight-or-flight indicator. Nearly 100 faculty and staff participated in a recent pilot program; participants reported significant declines in perceived stress and improvement in resilience and sleep quality. “I don’t think people have to leave work to learn some strategies to reduce their stress,” Klatt says. “Translational research is the sweetness that comes with scientific research for me.” In other words, being able to translate research in the laboratory into meaningful health outcomes in one of Klatt’s goals and pleasures.

That translation extends beyond the university setting to inner city school children and city refuse workers in Columbus, Ohio. Klatt has trained OSU Extension staff who, in turn, have led the program in communities across Ohio, and the University of Minnesota sublicensed the program and offers it as a fully covered benefit to employees through their health plan. She has also worked extensively with organizational leaders in the business community.

So, why do leaders care about mindfulness?

During a VoiceAmerica interview, Klatt pointed out that one of the primary causes of stress is dealing with people. This stressor is common in most work environments, whether it be a clinical setting or board room, and whether people are medical professionals or those engaged in business.

One of the factors we discussed in the interview is the fallacy of multi-tasking. In reality, humans aren’t wired to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, rather we engage in continuous partial attention and task switching. One of the important takeaways from this conversation is that by being mindful of how we invest our time—giving full attention to the tasks at hand—we are able to reduce our stress level, perform our tasks more effectively and efficiently, and improve our interactions with others.

As leaders, this has a direct correlation to improved productivity and focus. Like a domino effect, a better ability to focus improves interactions with others that can improve employee engagement, customer retention, and loyalty. It can also reduce stress and absenteeism.

The question to leaders is: If you could improve your performance and the quality of your work life with an investment of 20 minutes per day, wouldn’t you do it? The cost to benefit ratio is invaluable. You’ll likely never find a 20-minute investment to yield such great and lasting results that permeate every aspect of your personal and professional life. I highly recommend Klatt’s Mindfulness in Motion program!

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the author

Maureen Metcalf, founder and CEO of Innovative Leadership Institute, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach who brings thirty years of business experience to provide high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. She is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with the strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

In addition to working as an executive advisor, Maureen designs and teaches MBA classes in Leadership and Organizational Transformation. She is also the host of an international radio show focusing on innovative leadership, and the author of an award-winning book series on Innovative Leadership, including the Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, winner of a 2014 International Book Award.

Developing Emotional Intelligence: Are You Listening Actively?

This post is written by Kara Rising, an associate at Metcalf & Associates who specializes in coaching emerging leaders. 


A couple of weeks ago a few friends and I went to the Chamber Escape Room here in Columbus, Ohio. This live, interactive experience is essentially inspired by computer escape games. You and 11 other people are escorted into a room, a tape is played, and then you work together to solve riddles and puzzles. Oh, and you only have 45 minutes to find the key to unlock the door and escape. It. Was. Awesome! Even though many of us had never met before, we managed to work together, and solved the puzzle with 10 minutes left to spare! I was impressed.

Playing this game highlighted how critically important communication is to getting along in life and in business. How were we able to solve the puzzles when, according to the game organizers, 50% of groups don’t even make it out of the room? What does this statistic tell us about lack of communication and problem solving skills? I think our group was successful because we all communicated openly and cooperatively.

The sad truth is that the Chamber Escape Room percentage is an accurate depiction of how we communicate in daily life. Many of us don’t communicate well. Why? How is it that for the millions of years that humans have been around we still suck at it? While I might not be able to answer why, I have an insight into how we can be better about communicating. It starts with listening.

How many of you believe you are good listeners? I bet most of us think we are decent – or at least average – at listening. The truth is most of us stink. In their article in The Harvard Business Review, Listening To People, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens provided some pretty surprising stats. One states that A University of Michigan study of thousands of students and business professionals found only a 50% retention of information immediately after it was communicated to them – no matter how carefully the participants judged themselves to be listening. Now this might be simply because our brains just can’t store that much information all of the time. However, this is also because of a great lack of attention and training into this skill that we do daily.

Fortunately, there are ways you can improve your existing (or non-existing) skills. Here is a list of the Do’s and Don’ts of listening to help you listen more effectively.


  1. Practice training your brain to use your internal thinking effectively. It’s easy for us to start mentally wandering off during a conversation- if the speaker is too slow, we judge the content to be uninteresting or a word triggered a memory or thought. By the time we even realized that we have wandered off, we’ve missed a significant portion of what the speaker is saying. To avoid this, practice reading for ideas, emotions or meaning that is spoken (or perhaps unspoken) within the conversation.
  2. Periodically summarize what has already been said in your head so that you can recall more easily when you then do it out loud.Paraphrase what the speaker has said. This is where summarizing in your head will come in handy. Do not parrot what the person has said- that’s not true listening and comprehension, that’s just memorization.
  3. Ask the question “did I get that right?”Once you are done paraphrasing what you heard the speaker say, ask if you heard him or her correctly. Not only does this communicate that you are interested in understanding what is being said but it also gives the speaker the chance to correct anything you heard that was incorrect. This helps eliminate problems in the future.
  4. Give verbal and physical cues that you are listeningFor example, nodding your head or the occasional (but not frequent) “mmhmm” or “interesting
  5. Put away all distractionsTurn away from your computer, put your phone away, stop writing and face the speaker


  1. Fidget. Not only is it a distraction but it communicates you are bored or anxious with what the person is saying. Even if you are a natural mover, try to curb your inner energy and stay still.
  2. InterruptSometimes you want to jump in on the conversation to clarify or argue a point the person just said- please refrain.
  3. Get defensiveListen with an open mind to what is being said- perhaps there is some truth in the content that can be used to improve your skills as a leader. Even if you feel there is no truth, arguing will stall the conversation and keep resolution from being achieved.
  4. Jump to judgmentsWhether it is about the content you are hearing or about the person speaking, do not make judgments. Not only is this good practice for listening, but it is also good practice for everyday life. Keep in mind sometimes even positive judgments can be harmful.
  5. Change subjectsHave you ever had someone ask you a question, you answer and then that person fails to acknowledge your answer but asks another question or begins to talk about something unrelated? I can tell you it communicates that what you have to say is insignificant- regardless of the person’s intent. Save it for the natural conclusion of the conversation.

Many studies and polls have found that having effective communication skills is the number one thing employers look for in hiring and promoting. If within the four parts of communication we write 9% of the time, read 16%, speak 30% and listen 45%, it stands to reason that we should focus more efforts on being better at listening. Not only will this help you succeed at work, but it will help you succeed in leadership and in your personal life. Sounds like a no brainer! Now go out and be good listeners!

Stepping Into The Smoke: Developing Emotional Intelligence- Empathy

This post is written by Kara Rising, associate and Emerging Leader Coach at Innovative Leadership Institute.


I want to start off this blog entry with two statements about empathy I believe to be true:

  1. Empathy is absolutely the most important skill to have if you are ever going to interact with people at work
  2. Even those of us who are not “warm and fuzzy” can become good at developing empathy.

I believe I am living proof of number two. Besides sharing my journey to developing empathy, I will share the five simple tips I’ve used to develop empathic responding, so you use them too.

I’ve received this feedback in the past:

  • Your personality is like a punch in the face.
  •  People either absolutely love you or they absolutely hate you.
  •  You’re kind of an intense and direct person.
  •  You have a short fuse.

These are not qualities you would want in a therapist or coach, so it’s interesting I even went into coaching in the first place! However, through education and experience in working with people, I have  effectively beat the insensitivity out of me – for the most part! Now, instead of challenging people, my first response is to empathize. This has changed how I view myself, and the comments I hear from others. So, even if you are known as a gruff manager who scares people, you too can learn to empathize and to be more effective. You just have to overcome your aversion to emotions.

Most of us are born with a capacity for empathy, some more than others, but it is also a skill that can be developed. Empathy is simply the ability for us to experience and understand the emotions of another person (although to a lesser degree). Empathy is the foundation of relationships. It is what allows us to connect with others, and is our greatest asset in communicating with co-workers, supervisors and subordinates.

No matter what type of a leader you are, if you can’t develop your empathy capacity you will not be able to develop your leadership capacity. Before I go on to explain some tips on empathy, I want to share an analogy my father once shared that has been one of the most helpful description of empathy.

You and your spouse are standing around a campfire. Suddenly the wind changes directions and the smoke begins to blow directly into your spouse’s face. He or she starts coughing, sputtering and commenting on how awful it is. (Now, at this point of the analogy I usually ask my clients, “What would you do in this situation?” And almost 100% of the time I get the same answer: “I’d tell my spouse to move!” Keeping in mind that this is an analogy to prove a point so therefore a bit exaggerated, I would then tell them that in terms of empathy that would not be considered the best response. Ok, now back to the analogy.) As you are watching your spouse cough in the direct line of smoke, you decide to step into the smoke and begin coughing, sputtering, and remark, “Gosh, this DOES suck. Why don’t we move to the other side of the fire?” The two of you move from the smoke and continue to have an enjoyable evening.

It sounds ridiculous, and it is a bit over the top for teaching’s sake, but it demonstrates an excellent point about empathy: you can’t help a person to move without first getting into the smoke too. People desire to feel understood and to feel there is someone who can relate to them. Without such it feels condescending and isolating.

Here are some practical tips on how to respond empathically:

    1. Don’t interrupt

Allow the person to express emotions fully before responding. I know it’s hard sometimes to bite your tongue and keep quiet- but it’s a must if the person is to feel understood and heard (and then be open to listening to you).

    2. Keep appropriate eye contact

Everyone knows when someone isn’t paying attention and thinking of other things. Keep your attention and focus on them while they speak, i. It shows you respect them and what they have to say.

     3. Do NOT give advice

Nothing shuts someone down faster than getting unsolicited advice when he or she he or she did not ask for it and just wanted to connect. After you feel you have empathized appropriately and the person was able to fully express himself or herself him or herself, you can then ask if you can offer advice- but understand the person is allowed to say no.

     4. Respond by acknowledging the emotion expressed, or if you are really good, unexpressed.

A simple formula to follow when you are just practicing is this: “You feel ______ because ______”. Be careful how you use this, it could easily be interpreted as mocking if not done well. Try practicing this at home or with a friend first before attempting this in more difficult situations. If you have average empathy skills, you can “read between the lines” and also begin to pull out emotions that haven’t been said and empathize with those.

      5. Resist the urge to help.

This is a hard one- we want to reduce the other’s suffering but also want to reduce our own internal emotional reaction to the other person’s emotions. However, as helpful as you may think you are being, you are not. Resist the urge and just listen and respond with empathy statements.


Practice this at home periodically. Be a scientist and observe how the dynamics change within your relationships when you practice more empathic responding. Once you have a firmer handle on how to appropriately respond with empathy, you can then translate that into your working environment. Developing this skill in the workplace will help you grow and connect with your employees while simultaneously engaging them. I hope that you can use these tips to be even better leaders than you were yesterday.