Katharine Manning is the author of the new book The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. An attorney, she is based in Washington, D.C.
Q: Why did you decide to write The Empathetic Workplace?
A: I was inspired by the #MeToo Movement, and more specifically by what I saw as a shortcoming of the #MeToo Movement. #MeToo was fantastic in telling survivors that it is okay to share their stories of trauma, but it was less good at teaching the rest of us how to listen.
As a lawyer who has worked with victims in the criminal justice system, I knew that it was possible to provide support and services while still conducting an investigation of the facts, and to do so in a way that is respectful of the victim’s dignity and privacy.
I started working on the book in 2018 to talk about how and why to respond better to stories of trauma. In the way of publishing, it is being released in 2021, but I feel like the timing is perfect.
As we’ve faced the pandemic, systemic and violent racism, environmental disaster, and economic and political upheaval, we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. Stress, anxiety, and depression are skyrocketing.
At the same time, because we are physically distant, our social skills are dwindling. It seems like exactly the right time for a book on how to support each other through crisis.
Q: In the book, you describe the LASER (listen, acknowledge, share, empower, return) method. Can you say more about LASER and how it was developed?
A: I’ve worked with victims for more than 25 years, including 15 years at the Justice Department where I advised on the department’s response to victims in cases from terrorism to large-scale fraud to child exploitation.
Through all those years working with victims of diverse types of crime, I began to realize that there are certain things that we all need when we’ve been knocked over.
I would use the same touchstones to guide my interactions with a domestic violence victim as I would with an identity theft victim—and in fact, with a co-worker who was furious about the way his boss had spoken to him in a meeting or one who feared an ex-boyfriend was stalking her.
There are really five things that we should do when someone shares a story of trauma with us.
Listen: Meaning active listening, with a goal to understand.
Acknowledge: Don’t just move on when the person is finished speaking; acknowledge the story they’ve shared with a simple “thank you” or “I’m sorry.”
Share: One of the hardest things about being hurt is the loss of control. We can help the person regain some control by sharing information. This can be information about what happened, what happens next, our values, and we what don’t know, but hope to learn.
Empower: We can share resources to help the person get back on track, like referrals to security or mental health services, and community resources. On my website, I have a downloadable list of resources that everyone should know (like the suicide hotline, where to find a domestic violence shelter, and how to report child abuse).
Return: End the conversation well and then check with the person later. Return is also a return to ourselves, to get our feet back under us and guard against compassion fatigue.
Note that if you are supporting a friend or family member, the first two steps may be all you need. If you are in a work environment and someone is coming to you for help, though, you’ll need to employ the next three steps.
Q: How would the book apply to workplaces facing the impact of the current pandemic?
A: It’s important to remember that every crisis is also an opportunity.
Google did a study years ago where they looked at teams to ascertain why some teams were successful and some weren’t. They analyzed different configurations of teams—ones where everyone had similar skills or everyone had different skills. Teams with one strong leader, many strong leaders, or no strong leaders. Teams that socialized outside of work and those that did not.
Nothing seemed to explain why some of the teams succeeded and others failed. Then they hit upon the idea of psychological safety: Teams where members felt comfortable asking questions, admitting failures, and sharing personal difficulties were significantly more creative and productive.
And in fact, that last factor—supporting each other through personal challenges—appeared to make the strongest impact on teambuilding and trust.
That’s why the way we support each other through this era of the pandemic will reverberate within our workplaces for years to come.
If we handle poorly the challenges our teams are facing, we will breach trust in a way that will be difficult to recover. If instead we support each other with empathy and compassion, we have the opportunity to build strong bonds that will carry us through this crisis—and whatever ones come next. The Empathetic Workplace teaches how to do that.
You write, "If we can practice calm and openness in response to turmoil,
we can diffuse tension and help the people who need it." What do you hope
readers take away from the book?
A: Empathy is a funny thing. It’s so important to connection and compassion, but it also can be challenging.
It’s hard-wired into us; in fact, there is a part of our brain that causes us to experience the feelings of those we observe. That’s what makes me wince when I see a football player get tackled really hard or makes me laugh when I see someone else laugh.
When we’re interacting with someone in trauma, though, that empathy can be an impediment. I start to catch a little of the trauma he’s experiencing, and suddenly I get a surge of adrenaline and my rational decision-making ability is lessened. Often, I just want to get out of there as quickly as possible.
I hope that readers take away from the book an understanding that this is a normal human reaction, but also the skills to be able to counterbalance it—to breathe through those feelings and remain present for someone who really needs it.
As an added bonus, when we can remain calm during tense situations, our equilibrium is also contagious, helping the person who is upset to calm down, as well.
What are you working on now?
A: I have launched a podcast! Like the book, it’s called the Empathetic Workplace, and I talk with empathetic leaders and experts in listening, trauma, and management. It’s been a lot of fun.
I am also putting together an online training for those who want to go deeper on the concepts of the book to support those around them who need it most. On my website, you can sign up for the newsletter to be notified when that’s available (and you’ll also get to read the book’s introduction for free!).
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of my favorite tips is that a great way to enhance your empathy and emotional intelligence is by reading. In particular, it’s helpful to read literary fiction, memoir, and nonfiction that shows you an experience different from your own. I am sure you have some fantastic recommendations here on your website!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb