To listen with compassion and empathy

This is a time for some of us to speak. It’s a time for others to listen with compassion and empathy. A post inspired by the powerful words of Shereen Daniels.

“This is a time for us to show our empathy, it’s a time for us to show our compassion.”

This is Shereen Daniels, speaking in a powerful and moving video interview with Rosey Jarvis of The Happiness Index. Shereen discusses the deep emotional impact of the killing of George Floyd on her, and on black people in the workplace.* If you have yet to see this video, please consider taking a few minutes to listen to what she has to say. You will not regret it.**

Shereen speaks of “the corporate wall of silence” that has all too often surrounded and cut off discussions of race at work. This has created a “discomfort in us being able to bring it to the table”. Things have to change. “Right now, the focus has to be on black people”, she says. Shereen has chosen to raise her voice now, to break this silence, to speak her truth. She says:

“When I decided I wanted to talk about this publicly, I decided I wasn’t going to water down what I had to say, which is what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

Shereen says that non-black leaders, managers and colleagues all have a part to play, here and now. Hollow commitments and euphemistic language are not enough: “Don’t hide behind words with this. Non-black people have now got to prove to us that you care.” She wants every black person to be able to feel comfortable in voicing what is on their mind. In the workplace as much as anywhere else. She says:

“When I talk to you about what it is to be black, when I say all the things I’ve just said… I recognise that black employees can’t say what I’m saying. So I’ve got to, then hopefully more people will, so my voice gets drowned out.”

To listen with genuine intent

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Her advice to any non-black person who would like to be an ally is simple:

“Ask some questions with the genuine intent to listen.”

Listening is vital. Now more than ever. Shereen suggests that the listener should approach these conversations almost as an “out of body experience”.** They should let the speaker express themselves fully, no matter how painful or discomfiting their words. Above all, the listener should not interject or risk turning the conversation back onto themselves and their own experiences and opinions.

This video allows Shereen the space to speak her truth. It also gifts us a perfect example of what it is to listen with genuine intent. Throughout, I was struck not only by the raw emotional power of what Shereen has to say, but also by the simple power of what Rosey does not say. Rosey asks Shereen just three questions, then gives Shereen’s words the freedom to breathe. Such perfectly-judged lightness of touch and openness to listen is rare indeed. A few days after the video was published, Shereen posted a LinkedIn update that perfectly describes what Rosey brings to this conversation:

“Without realising she delivered a masterclass in what it means to listen with compassion and empathy.”

Gentle reader: If you’ve not done so already, please take some time today to watch this interview or one of Shereen Daniels’s other recent videos from her YouTube channel. Listen closely to her words, and allow them to sink in. If what she has to say resonates with you, please share her words with someone else.

This is a time for us to show our empathy, it’s a time for us to show our compassion. It’s a time for some of us to speak. It’s a time for others of us to take ourselves out of the story. To listen.

There is a power to listening with compassion and empathy. Please use it.

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FOOTNOTES

* Throughout this post, I follow Shereen’s lead in her recent videos in using the term “black people”, rather than “people of colour” or “Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)”. In her conversation with Rosey Jarvis, she says that in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, “right now, the focus has to be on black people”.

** I owe a debt of thanks to my friend Nicola Texeira, who strongly recommended that I watch this video.

*** Shereen’s mention of an “out of body experience” reminded me of Naval Ravikant’s wonderful words about “choiceless awareness”, a form of meditation, which he discussed in his 2015 interview with Tim Ferriss (and which I wrote about in Take yourself out of the story). Naval says:

“When I’m doing the choiceless awareness form of meditation, I realise that the point of meditation is to clear your mind. You can just very alertly watch your thoughts as they happen. And as you watch them, you realise just how many of them are fear-based. When you recognise it as fear, without even trying, it goes away. And after a while, your mind quietens. And when it quietens, you stop taking everything around you for granted. You start noticing the details of everything around you. ‘Oh my god, I live in such a beautiful place. It’s so great that I have clothes on me…’ So it sort of pops us out of the story, the dream that we’re always in, the story that we’re constantly telling ourselves. And if you stop talking to yourself for even 10 minutes, or if you stop obsessing over your own story for even 10 minutes, you will realise that we are really far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and that life is pretty good.”

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