empathyVolunteer Leadership Skills You Need to Know

A few weeks ago I was flying to the coast of Georgia for a speaking gig. I travel fairly frequently, so I have my set routine. Print out the boarding passes the night before (crossing my fingers that I’ll get magically selected for TSA pre-check), fold my travel docs just so, place them in the outside pocket of my backpack for easy access, add my project files, laptop, cords, tech accessories bag to the mix, and a few magazines I may or may not read (mostly won’t). Sometimes I throw in some snacks, sometimes not.

If my talk is the next day, I never play it by chance. I pack my small wheelie bag and don’t check it. I’ve had luggage lost, and who wants to show up unprepared? Luckily, I fly out of a regional airport. Generally, we take tiny jets everywhere. That means less stress. The TSA folks here are warm and friendly, as is the way around here. Heck, we even have rocking chairs in our pleasant little airport, nestled up against the Great Smokey Mountains. It’s a nice and civil place.

There are times, though, when we have to take the big jets. Those are the times when, instead of checking my bag at the gate, I have to schlep it onto the aircraft. I generally steel myself for these moments and take a big breath. It’s a lot, with my bulging backpack (into which is crammed my purse, along with my computer, etc.) and my wheelie. I try to board and deplane as efficiently as possible, recognizing that someone near me is probably racing for a connection they might miss.

My trip to Georgia was one such occasion. Big jet. Big schlep. I was speaking the next morning, so everything had to be with me. Despite my best efforts, it did not go well. As I shuffled down the interior of the jet, my wheelie kept getting caught on the seats, and I’m certain my backpack knocked a few people in the head along the way. Not fun.

At the end of the flight, I pried the wheelie out of the overhead and hefted my backpack onto my opposite shoulder. It seemed to take forever as the folks behind me waited. And judged. Why does she need to bring that much stuff? Shouldn’t she have checked it? Doesn’t she know we’ve got a connection to catch? For crying out loud! They judged like I have judged others so many times before.

Without knowing. Without understanding. Without thinking.

It got me thinking about all the times we jump to conclusions and judge others without warrant, without information, without compassion.

You Never Know When Someone Could Be Having a Bad Day

When I returned to the office, I chatted with my colleague Tracey about it. She shared lovely stories about her mother-in-law, Phyllis, who had passed away and was so much missed by her family.

Phyllis was lively and wise. One of those people who lived life on her own terms. She was known for reminding folks “You never know when someone could be having a bad day.” She gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, no matter what. That takes strength and fearlessness.

In my case, on that airplane, I could imagine that instead of judging, she would have helped me with my bag or backpack and done it with a smile. I’d like to live my life more like Phyllis. Resisting the urge to pre-judge. Choosing compassion over judgment.

Bias is Part of Us. Every One.

But it’s not easy to give up snap judgments. They’re baked into our DNA.

In fact, researchers have found that snap decision-making is how our brains protect us from perceived threats. Throughout earth’s history, only organisms that focused more on avoiding threat than on maximizing reward were more likely to survive. Our primitive brains still believe that quick thinking protects us. But, does it?

Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky came up with the concept of cognitive bias way back in 1972. In 2002, Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his research on how we often take shortcuts around basic principles of probability and rationality.

Everyone has innate biases. Having them doesn’t mean we are flawed or different. They’re just part of being human. The challenge is that our biases lead to uninformed judgments, stereotyping, and bad decisions. If we recognize and challenge innate biases we can limit their effects and improve our volunteer leadership skills.

“While expunging all biases and prejudices from our minds is psychologically impossible, we believe it is possible to reduce or prevent the most harmful effects of those biases.” – Jason Marsh, Greater Good Center

Building Up Your Volunteer Leadership Skills: Empathy Can Help

What does it mean when Phyllis gave others the benefit of the doubt? When she openly and consistently recognized that others might be experiencing something she knew little about? She interrupted her brain’s knee-jerk reaction by using rational thought with a healthy dose of empathy.

Researchers define “empathy” as the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
This isn’t too hard. But it takes commitment. What if we all took a page out of Phyllis’s book? Before judging, we first sought to understand – our co-workers, volunteers, boss, colleagues, and others. At the very least we’d limit bias and make better decisions. At the very most, we’d create a kinder world. And, isn’t that what nonprofits are about?

So, the next time I’m dragging my cargo up the aisle of the next big jet, I’ll look at those people who are annoyed by me and, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’ll take a moment and walk in their shoes, recognizing that maybe, just maybe, they could be having a bad day.

Thank you, Phyllis

This blog post is dedicated to Phyllis Tymon who had so much to offer the world. I wish I could have met this fantastic woman who wasn’t afraid to live out loud.