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New: Empathy

Posted on Nov 12, 2015


By Margaret Smith, Executive Assistant

Empathy is something I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about in both my work and personal life.  This word and topic seem to keep popping up in discussion and so I’ve decided to land on it.  

Empathy:  the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. 

I’m going to rewind my tape to 2 weeks ago when I was in Portland for a conference called Behind Every Leader– put on by the Executive Assistants Organization.  This was by far the best networking and learning opportunity I’ve been to for my role as Executive Assistant thus far.  For two days, 260 of us sat together and had the privilege of listening to leaders such as Zelda La Grange – Former EA to Nelson Mandela, Cynthia Thomsen – EA to Microsoft CEO, Dave Rendall – Executive Coach, and Bonnie Low Kramen – President of Ultimate Assistant.  

What I loved about this conference, and what I love about learning in general, is that it always seems to reset my perspective.  When Zelda spoke about her experience with Mr. Mandela it was clear that they had both operated from a place of compassion, empathy and integrity.  At one point Zelda said “You have to rise above your vulnerabilities – not let other people use them against you.”  I know that at times the empathy I have for other people can be a weakness- but ultimately I know it is my gift. 

There are many leaders that are driven, highly intelligent, know how to get things done, and yet- they lack empathy.  We talked about this at the conference- and how it can be the downfall for many leaders if they’re not able to tap into some piece of empathy.  

Before Pickett Street I worked at the Seattle Art Museum, before that the VA Hospital, a small non-profit called Youth In Focus, the Seattle School District, Northwest University, and before that for a program called Developmental Pathways Project with the UW.  Everywhere I go and have been, I learn something new.  I also realized in the last few years that there’s a lesson that’s been repeated and there’s a theme:  empathy. 

When one of my friends or family members is experiencing a situation, they can tell me about it- and if I allow myself to- I can literally feel pain for them.  I will cry.  I will feel physical pain.  I may have never experienced the situation or issue they’re explaining to me- but I feel for them.  What does this do for me?  I’ve had people ask me why I allow myself to feel it- and it’s because it’s a source of motivation and it helps me to take action.  Anyone that knows me- knows I love to get sh*t done 🙂  And I do.  People motivate me.  I want to work hard for my team AND for my family/friends- because those are the people I live for.  

Dave Rendall spoke at the BEL conference as well- he wrote a book called The Freak Factor: Discovering Uniqueness by Flaunting Weakness.  He talked about whatever that weakness is you’ve discovered- turn up the volume on it.  Take it, own it, and flaunt it- make it work for you.  

That’s what I’ve decided to do with mine.

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