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From Impulse To Empathy: 5 Steps To Lead With Heart Under Pressure

Have you ever felt cornered by your own reactions during high-pressure moments? You're not alone.

I recently facilitated a workshop in New York for a team of engineers.

They shared a recurring concern. The negative (and sometimes aggressive) reactions they had when others challenged them in the conference room.

They spoke of moments when shame nudged them towards impulsive reactions, threatening to upset their leadership.

We (me included) can often feel the weight of unspoken judgments and preconceived notions. 

I just finished reading "To Be a Man" by Robert Augustus Masters, and I found a wealth of insight about shame and how it affects us in the book.

Here are five key strategies we discovered to transform confrontations into connections

1. Recognize the roots of your triggers

I asked the engineers, “What’s your trigger”? The common answer: When others questioned their ideas or skills, a defense mechanism kicked in, often hidden as assertiveness.

But that wasn’t true confidence—it was a reaction to the fear of being seen as incompetent.

Next, we looked at why that happened.

Takeaway: When you feel defensive, pause and consider—what are you actually reacting to?


2. Name and tame your inner critic

"It's Not You, It's the Fear Speaking"

By recognizing that this aggression stemmed from their inner critic's fear of exposure, they could start letting go of the fear and shame.

The key step for that is self-compassion.

The engineers described their critical voice as an omnipresent judge, quick to instigate a harsh self-assessment. They would give it a name like The Shame Monster, showing up again!

Recognizing it allowed them to be calmer and more detached.

Takeaway: Give your inner critic a name, and you'll begin to see it for what it really is.


3. Choose compassion over combat

Now they understood why shame pushed them into combative stances and that embracing vulnerability towards oneself could transform confrontations into connections.

They found that recognizing and being okay with their discomfort (acknowledging the 95% they know) transformed how they would respond.

It said to others: “I’m human, I’m not perfect.”

This pivot not only elevated their credibility but also inspired genuine connections.

Takeaway: Perfection isn't relatable; humanity is.


4. Build the courage to be present

It takes courage to remain present with shame.

The engineers discovered that by staying with the discomfort, they modeled resilience and accountability.

That was big because everyone felt a sense of reassurance at that moment.

It didn’t matter if the person missed a point or didn’t have that specific knowledge at the moment. They understood that they were in good hands and that he would address their issues.

Takeaway: Presence can be more reassuring than perfection.


5. Open your heart and feel the ease

Finally, they learned that fully feeling shame, when not turned away from it, can be a heart-opening experience.

The engineers saw firsthand that confronting shame without aggression or retreat created more ease for themselves and connections for others.

Embracing this heart-centered approach, you don’t falsely command; you genuinely inspire.

Takeaway: To inspire others, first lead with an open heart.


At the end of the workshop, I do “The Stand.” That’s when all participants share their biggest insights.

One person said: “Wow, it feels so much lighter for me now,” Others responded, “…and I feel like I can bring more points to improve the projects without fearing you taking it personally.”

This shift towards openness not only lightens the emotional load. Mastering composure not only saves time and fosters healthier relationships but also boosts productivity, potentially impacting the bottom line.

I now extend this reflection to you: What's your trigger in the face of challenge? How do you manage it? Sharing your experience could illuminate paths to lighter, more genuine leadership interactions.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with these strategies.

Like I do in my workshop, these conversations lead to more insights.


You're an Alpha Leader - brilliant, driven, formidable. But what about the emotional landscape of leadership? It can sometimes strain relationships and team dynamics.

Here is where I come in.

Together, we'll shape you into an Empathic Alpha Leader, where strength meets understanding, and decisiveness pairs with empathy.

Start your journey to empathic leadership today.

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