‘Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action.’ (Max Carver)
I had a long conversation with a Kurdish-Iranian man recently about his experience as a refugee in the UK and the ongoing wait for news that his wife will be allowed to join him here. With a warm smile of anticipated relief, he shared his hopes of building a new life in this country where he and his wife can finally feel safe and free. Yet then he touched his heart with his hand and his face shifted to a pained expression. He shared his sadness that he can never feel truly happy and at peace, knowing the oppression that his family, friends and neighbours are still living under in his home country.
I was moved by his empathy and, at the same time, impressed by his stance that under such difficult and protracted life circumstances, he had not become so focused on his own situation that he had lost sight of others. It is, after all, a human risk that, when faced with challenges such as high anxiety and stress, our survival instinct can take over and turn us in on ourselves, absorbing us with our own needs and interests – a bit like when the body reacts to an external shock or threat by diverting its resources inwards to protect its vital organs. It’s a form of defensive flight to save ourselves first.
How do you hold onto empathy...to love...when natural instinct may push or pull you to withdraw?
Participants are arriving at the training room. I’ve never met them before and one appears very loud and confrontational. I’m taken aback, wondering how I’m going to work with this person in the group. I mention this to my co-trainer and he responds calmly, ‘Everyone has their own way of dealing with anxiety’. This was many years ago now but his words still resonate when I’m facilitating training events.
I’m back in a training room again. This time, more recently. It’s a group of senior leaders from an organisation and one of the participants repeatedly questions the trainers’ credentials as if to imply: ‘I don’t know if you have what it takes to do this well.’ He avoids taking part in activities by discussing and debating them rather than doing them. His behaviour feels resistive, disruptive, difficult. ‘Everyone has their own way of dealing with anxiety…’
OK, let's hypothesise: this man is among peers, concerned about how his performance will be perceived and evaluated. His organisation is going through leadership changes and he feels vulnerable. A subconscious voice gnaws at him from within: ‘What if I don’t have what it takes to do this well?’ ‘What if this exposes how inadequate I am?' He projects his insecurity onto the trainer and avoids activities as a defence against anxiety.
At the end of the day, the co-trainer and I leave feeling drained. It’s an unusual feeling and we wonder what we are carrying from the group. The group itself feels draining, drained. After all, it takes huge amounts of energy to hold up a front, to mask and subdue anxiety, to contain it. Perhaps the group’s behaviour opens a window into its wider organisational reality: ‘We don’t feel safe; this organisation doesn’t feel safe.’
I've found this psychodynamic perspective to be valuable for trainers, coaches and leaders alike. It poses questions such as: ‘What is really going on here?’, ‘What is what happens within the room telling us about what may be happening outside of the room?’, ‘What do participants in this group need to feel sufficiently safe to work together?’, ‘What do I need to recognise and work well with complex group dynamics?’
What is your experience of dealing with group anxiety? What have you noticed and experienced? How have you worked with it? I'll be interested to hear more!
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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