• Carolyn Cleveland

Empathy and our own emotional experience during the coronavirus pandemic

Our emotions they say, guide us into facing predicaments and tasks to important to leave to intellect alone”. Daniel Goleman. Such an interesting concept, yet emotions are the things we so often suppress, don’t always know how to handle, don’t always talk about, are so very complex, yet feed into our behaviour, actions, our wellbeing and outcomes. So, guess what my blog is going to be about? We are going to be diving into emotions.

Whether I am working with healthcare professionals, coroner’s officers, legal teams or any number of other professionals, I start off every training session I deliver on empathy and emotional awareness, saying this. It resonates every time. The reason it resonates, despite professional skills, is because we are all human beings first and foremost. And for us human beings, our emotions are a key player.


I doubt if there is one person in this country that is having just an intellectual reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be having an emotional one too. And I am no exception, as we all battle with the threat nationally to our way of life, to our safety and the threat to our own personal world. If ever we needed empathy for each other, it is now. Let me paint a picture for you. I am sat at home (lucky that I have one) working. Nothing new there. When I am not delivering training, I am often at home running my business supporting organisations to incorporate an empathic and an emotionally aware approach to their practices, leadership and wellbeing of client group and staff. But instead of being able to go and work for a couple of hours down my local hotel, while enjoying a coffee, and connect with others, something vitally important to me (there is a reason I am very comfortable up on a stage in front of a hundred plus people – I am a people person). Or I may even have popped over the road to my mum who is now in complete isolation because of her vulnerabilities, go to the gym, or meet my bestie for an early evening drink and catch up with her in her family pub. It is now me, just me, all day, all evening. A ‘me’, in fact, that has gone from celebrating just a few days ago that I was off to Amsterdam to do a closing keynote address (yep, I had gone international!). A ‘me’ that was in discussions with the Ministry of Justice to potentially train 1000 people. A ‘me’ that was travelling all over the country and meeting amazing people. To now everything being on hold. Plus, like everyone else, absorbing the fact that we are facing a global and nationwide crisis. Now I consider myself to be a resilient person. I know overcoming adversity after losing my 15 year old daughter in hospital in patient safety circumstances and going through a brutal serious incident and inquest system. Yet, still needing to bring up three young children, when emotionally I was on my knees. But overcome I did and created a happy life. Once more, created a business that is not only embedded in my counselling background but my lived experience of empathy, or lack of it in challenging situations, indeed in my whole adult life. So yes, the impact, as for many these last few days, was indeed emotional, as well as intellectual, as I went from a euphoria and excitement, to shock, fear and worry. Compassion for others is such a crucial human attribute to have and use but is underpinned by empathy and emotional awareness. To be able to think, ‘what might it be like for that person?’ What I have found, doing the work that I do, is that people are so much better at this when they feel that someone is considering the very same about them too. Whenever I do my training, whether in leadership, investigations, or communication, it is not about giving a toolkit of magic words or phrases. Oh if only it was that easy. But it isn’t. It is about helping people firstly feel and understand their own empathic response. Taking empathy out of the textbook and into their real life application. It is to help them understand and feel proud and confident of what they do well already. To challenge their thinking, perspective and biases (yep, we all have them!!). And, very importantly, how to care for themselves, colleagues and teams, so that empathy is kept strong and apathy kept in check. And resilience is optimised.

This always has been important, but even more so now. Nurses, doctors, executive teams, paramedics, cleaners, health support workers, receptionists, to name but a few, all have their own emotional felt experiences. Their own deep-routed triggers, saturation points in their real everyday lives too. They face their own fears as their own internal personal world is under threat too. Empathy for others when overwhelmed is not always easy. I don’t always get it right either, I can promise you that. - Managers, take a second or two to ask how your team are? - Team, in return, ask how your manager is? - Nurses, ask how your patient and loved ones are? - But patient, have you asked how your nurse is?


In a time when human connection, touch, closeness, social activities are so restricted, our words, our tone, our empathic attitude, our emotional awareness, our care and interest in others does not have to be restricted. We have power still. All of us. To make someone else’s day a little worse, or a little better. We connect on an emotional level; it is a felt experience. I started off this blog with how I start a session and so I will finish with how I often end and with this quote, because it transcends whatever job title you hold, whatever profession you work in. It transcends race, age, culture and gender. Because our one commonality is that we are human beings, with our own real life and story and our own emotional experience. "People hear your words, but they feel your attitude". C Maxwell.

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