Connect. Think. Lead.

Adapted from the forward I wrote to a friend’s new book…

Connect. Think. Do.

I’d first gotten the call, an inquiry call for coaching, two weeks previous. In a follow-up conversation, one of the team, one the five co-founders of a hot  local startup, came to the phone with a simple plea: “Help.”

In the year since they’d begun their efforts, they’d successfully raised the necessary capital, begun operations, and even turned a small profit. But this tight-knit team was at each other’s throats. We agreed to meet for an all-day session, all five of them, for six hours, starting early on a Sunday morning. It was about the third hour when the breakthrough happened.

The presenting agenda was, as I call it,  “The five-year old” soccer team problem: everyone wants to chase the ball and no one wants to play their position. It’s a common problem and one I felt at ease in addressing. But, as the morning unfolded, it quickly became apparent that the roots of all the fighting, all the chasing of loose balls, were layers of unmet needs.

And then there was the breakthrough.

I’d spent part of the morning briefly but consistently modeling one of the aspects of Nonviolent Communications (NVC) techniques most useful in the workplace. The aspect was around giving feedback using of the model of OFNR, Observation, Feelings, Needs, and Request. (I’d honed these skills working with my friends/teachers, Miki Kashtan, Martha Lasley, and Marie Miyashiro as they developed a program called Making Collaboration Real for using NVC in the workplace.)

As the morning progressed there came a moment when Mark felt compelled to respond to some things Nicole had done.

“Nicole,” he began with some coaching from me, “I notice that you prefer to work on a single task at a time.” He paused and I encouraged him to check that out.

“Is that right?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s hard for me to move onto the next task when I feel the first isn’t complete.”

“When you do that it makes me anxious that all the things we need to do won’t get done.”

“I have a need,” he continued, “in fact, the company has a need, for multiple things to be worked on simultaneously.” Pausing to make eye contact with me, he took a deep breath—courageous conversations require vulnerability–he then made a request, “So can you tell us what we can do to help you handle more things simultaneously.”

Not bad, I thought, for a guy who’d just started the practice of giving nonviolent feedback. But then something really magical happened: Nicole’s eyes began to soften, to “shine”, as some say.

The nervousness in the group was palpable; they wanted to move on—we so often turn away from another’s pain simply because it’s not bearable to us, it’s too evocative—perhaps—of our own stuff. I knew they had to hold steady.

I checked in with Nichole; I held a space that Mark had, in fact, opened by his honest sharing of his inner motivations, his inner needs.

“Nicole, how are doing?”

“Well, I was thinking about Mark’s observations. I started paying attention to the feelings I was having, the tightness in my own chest even as he made the observation.

“He’s right,” she continued, “but I started to ask myself why I needed that. And then I realized…I’m afraid I’ll get hit if the thing I’m working on isn’t perfect.”

The pain that had been in the room had now been named and everyone in the room connected with it. Nichole told a story from her childhood of literally being hit if she didn’t get everything on her homework correct. And she wept.

Suddenly this disjointed, angry, fighting-at-cross-purposes team of brash, young, brilliant start-up executives jelled into a single, compassionate, and loving unit. Suddenly the arguments over who got to play CEO and who took notes and got coffee during the meetings became far less important and everyone, myself included, connected with that kid inside all of us who worries about failing and disappointing an aggressive and demanding parent.

The story of this team, and so many other stories from my coaching and venture practices, resonated with me as I read the first drafts of Marie’s new book, The Empathy Factor. Over the years, I’ve served on more than a few boards of directors, worked with both for-profit and not-for-profit companies. I’ve watched companies get born and grow into success stories. I’ve watched large companies falter and miss opportunities. I’ve watched small not-for-profit organizations struggle through the maturation process; some succeed, many fail. And every one of them, and every one of the people endeavoring to do the sacred work of creating something of lasting and enduring value, could benefit from the lessons laid out in The Empathy Factor. (Marie’s got a compelling video on the underlying precepts here.)

My clients, the startup team struggling to become a Team, underwent the process that Marie refers to forming as “an empathetic connection,” a necessary step before educating, explaining, or justifying; she calls it “Connect-Think-Do.”  And, in doing so, they experienced the transformative power of empathy.

She writes:

Any form of educating, explaining, defending, or justifying before someone feels heard or understood, creates more separation than connection in my experience. Therefore, I like to ask people if they would find value in me explaining something before I begin sharing the information with them. When they’re not ready to listen to what I have to say, they likely have needs for understanding, expression, more information, or the like. This is a clue for me to connect with their feelings and needs. When they’re ready to listen to me, they might pause and stop speaking in such a way that I notice they’re now open to hearing what I have to say. Many times I’ve had people say, “Now I’m ready to listen to you.”

On that Sunday morning, the team created a connection that was so powerful that when it came time to explain, to educate or even to understand, the mutual empathy was so great that, unmet needs could be spoken aloud and the foundation for those needs to be met was laid. They were ready to listen to each other.

Marie makes a compelling case for wider-spread use and awareness of the core NVC techniques not just in situations where the violence of our interactions is so apparent but also in the places where we don’t necessarily see the violence done everyday in the name of productivity:

“As I studied the model of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) that Marshall [Rosenberg] taught,” she writes, “I understood what he meant. I could see the unconscious and unintentional disregard for the feelings and needs of people, both in everyday relationships and in the world of the businesses, nonprofits, universities, and government agencies with which I worked. I observed that the workplace is full of what I call silent pain. I like to tell the groups I work with that I estimate about 30 to 50 percent of what is said in workplace meetings is not what is heard.

She goes on:

Our workplaces are two-dimensional because the process of empathic connection requires a literacy and comfort with two human qualities that have been systematically devalued and misinterpreted in the world around us. Our organizations are born out of this same consciousness and simply replicate this world condition in our workplaces. These two misunderstood qualities are:

1) Our ability to be fluently aware of our feelings without judgment of them and 2) our ability to then connect these feelings to related human needs that are being met or unmet.


“Our problem,” she adds, “seems to derive from our entrenched conditioning in using the emotions of fear, guilt, shame, and anger, as workplace motivators [my emphasis] instead of proficiency with connecting to our own or one another’s feelings and needs.”

Is it any surprise that people joke that work is a four-letter word?

The Empathy Factor is a call for ending the subtle, persistent, and awful violence to the Self done everyday in the name of profits and productivity. But more than a call to action, it also offers proof that–ironically–building a more compassionate, empathic workplace is precisely the path to greater productivity and, consequently, profits.

Indeed, one of the most highly regarded business writers, Warren Bennis, asserts in his classic treatise, On Becoming A Leader:

In order to lead a Great Group, a leader need not possess all the individual skills of the group members. What he or she must have are vision, the ability to rally the others, and integrity. Such leaders also need superb curatorial and coaching skills—an eye for talent, the ability to recognize correct choices, contagious optimism, a gift for bringing out the best in others, the ability to facilitate communications and mediate conflict, a sense of fairness, and, as always, the kind of authenticity and integrity that creates trust. Nothing about the world today is simpler than it was or slower than it was, which makes the ability to collaborate and facilitate great collaboration more vital than ever.* [my emphasis]

Marie details how The Empathy Factor facilitates this vital collaboration. More important, she shows how managers can build organizations where empathy is the core driver of their success.

Last week, I met with one of the team members of that original group. In the months since our first meeting, there’s been pain and growth, laughter, success and failure. As we talked about his transition, his taking of his seat as the leader of the group, he reminded me of the transformation possible by simply pausing to check in on yourself and the team. Connecting with the on-the-ground reality creates a tremendous basis for the hundreds of decisions that have to be made every single day.

We laughed as we enjoyed a moment of recognizing both the work that’s been accomplished to date and the fearsome work that has yet to be done. And I watched as this first time CEO manifested not only Connect-Think-Do but the even more powerful Connect-Think-Lead.


*From the revised Introduction to On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, Basic Books, New York. 2003

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  • David Semeria

    Great stuff, Jerry. Thanks for writing this.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome David. It felt good to be writing again. It was a long break, caused, in part by yet another epic trip to China and Tibet.

  • Peter Cranstone

    Great post…

    It’s interesting. I read the title, but didn’t really “see it”. I then read the first line and thought something is wrong. I then read the whole post and thought – he’s missing a single word… and then at the very end of the post the word appeared – lead.

    That word is so easy to say, and yet for the early entrepreneur so hard to do. 

    To lead is something we understand – not something we comprehend. It takes years to learn to lead, and invariably means letting go and hoping that others will still follow you. As someone once said – the best leader is the one where the people say we did it ourselves.

    For the five team members it’s still early days. They’ve learned to play in the sand pit with each other. Now comes the hard part – expanding the sand pit to include others who have a different agenda(s). 

    Ultimately a leader (or not) will emerge – and then the advice i would offer would be different. “Engage, Explain and Set Expectations” and then get out of the way and let the “people do it”.



    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Peter…Glad the “cliff-hanger” worked. I think you describe the arc of their coming experience very well. And your note about the people doing it reminds me of one of my favorite Taoist proverbs:
      The leader is best who, when the work is done, the people say, “We did this ourselves.”

      • Peter Cranstone

        That’s the one.

        One other idea – foster “collaboration vs competition”. The leader is the one who excels at executing that.

  • FastMikie


    thank you!

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks FastMikie. 

  • Kevin Friedman

    Welcome back Jerry! We missed your blogging.

    Thank you for sharing this provocative story and your insight. It was really inspirational.

    I was really touched by Nicole’s story. How amazing that these really gifted entrepreneurs were discussing what they believed were important business problems when, underneath it all, there lay a critically wounded heart and probably others in equal need of help? How do we so quickly and easily forget that we are all human beings and start treating each other like robots?

    I can’t help but feel that this part of the Disappearing into the Fire dilemma. Somehow we become consumed by our “role” in the organization — whether it be corporate, start-up, non-profit, church (scarier), etc. — and we forget that we are not a “CEO” or a “founder” FIRST… but we are HUMAN BEINGS first. I feel like I see it all the time: people stop acting and treating each other like authentic human beings and become some grotesque “other”. But what’s perhaps more scary, is I see this tendency in myself. It’s so easy to start “acting” like something and stop “being” myself. So easy to lose touch with who I REALLY am… how I REALLY feel… what I REALLY believe. I feel like it’s something that needs to be constantly monitored and protected. I hope it gets easier (does it Jerry?).

    My wife (is she trying to tell me something? haha) shared this Oprah quote with me. Male disclaimer: I’m not a fan or anything but it’s hard to deny her singular ability to touch people and Marie’s book reminded me of Oprah’s insight and it’s hard not to share (albeit embarrassing):

    “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’

    “Understanding that one principle, that everybody wants to be heard, has allowed me to hold the microphone for you all these years with the least amount of judgment. Now I can’t say I wasn’t judging some days. Some days, I had to judge just a little bit. But it’s helped me to stand and to try to do that with an open mind and to do it with an open heart. It has worked for this platform, and I guarantee you it will work for yours. Try it with your children, your husband, your wife, your boss, your friends. Validate them. ‘I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me.'”

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Kevin. Sometimes it takes me a while to get back into the mode of writing. I get your ambivalence about Oprah. That said, that notion–that everyone wants to be heard–is incredibly powerful. By extension, I’d offer a bit of Buddhist wisdom…it helps to remember that everyone, all beings, just want to be happy (how they define happiness varies but everyone wants it). Starting from that place can be really helpful in building that empathetic connection.

  • Joel

    Thanks Jerry. These are all great points that so many miss or take for granted. I’m considering how this relates to relationships beyond the workplace. Into families and how we interact with other loved ones in our lives.

    Bravo. Keep ’em coming!

    • Kevin Friedman

      Absolutely! Sooooo applicable to marriage and beyond…

      • jerrycolonna

        I agree completely guys…this is a powerful tool for all interactions. If you think it’s good for your spouse, try it with your kids!

  • Charlie Crystle

    so this is what the book looks like. really great. wish I had read it 5 years ago. 

    • jerrycolonna

      😉 Not quite but it comes close to “the” book.

  • Joe Marchese

    A prerequisite for moving ahead is to shed the baggage holding us back. It’s painful to get complete with issues that are often unspoken, but until we do, progress is almost impossible. I often invoke ‘no-fault’ conversations to get people speaking, and encourage generous listening. With effective speaking and listening, solutions to problems become achievable.

    • jerrycolonna

      I love the concept of “no-fault” conversations, Joe. I think I’m going to steal that. 😉

  • Adrian Bye

    nice to see my favourite topic here.  :-)  do check out the book i sent you; its exactly on this theme.

  • Emily Merkle

    I am working on reading and writing more.
    I have been thinking on a theory for a paper; without seeing this first, my mantra is
    “Think. Love. Lead.”
    I hope to discuss this with you.

  • James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Oh my Word – that’s a powerful story.
    I guess vulnerabilities exist in all teams and to greater or lesser extent in all individuals.
    Going to have to think about this – Thank you !

    • Kevin Friedman

      Hi James. Glad you were able to make it over here. Welcome! :-)

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome James.

  • Pingback: 4 Ways to Treat People as Humans in Business & Life | Cojourneo()

  • jack

    I like this website it’s a master piece! Glad I detected this on google.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Jack. The folks who helped with the design are terrific.