Absorbing people’s pain: A Leader’s Role

Norman Drummond led a wonderful session this morning at our Headteachers’ Conference.  Today’s theme was “Developing a Coaching Culture in East Lothian”. Norman is an exceptional presenter and his focus on co-coaching seemed to resonate with many of my colleagues.

Norman has an uncanny knack of helping people to unlock their own hopes and ambitions, and getting them to reflect upon their experiences.

In the course of a conversation with Norman I quoted one of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever received. I was a Depute Headteacher at Selkirk High School and I had been sitting in my office one afternoon feeling a bit sorry for myself having seemed to have dealt with four or five members of staff in the course of the day – each of whom had a complaint or a concern. I was talking about this with a colleague, Robin Ross, who had been a Church of Scotland minister in Jerusalem for many years before returning to Scotland and starting a teaching  career.  I think I said something along the lines that I felt a bit like a punch bag with people unloading their problems on me.  Rather than feeling sorry for me Robin told me that throughout theological history it has been the role of the leader to bare his/her back and absorb the pain of others.  I’d never considered this before – but it did seem so powerful. From that time on – although I’m sure some of the people who have worked for me will probably disagree – I’ve tried to be aware of the need to absorb people’s pain, particularly in times of stress.  Sometimes it’s too easy for the leader to simply rebound or even amplify people’s concerns.

It’s not something I’ve ever come across in any leadership book or manual but that piece of advice has had a transformational impact upon me throughout my career.

Last small observation – Robin Ross was a teacher, I was  Depute HT, yet he acted as a mentor/coach for me (his line manager).  So often we expect coaching/mentoring relationships to be characterised by a “downward” direction of travel.  I believe we need to actively challenge that notion as some of the best coaching advice I’ve received has come from people I managed.

9 thoughts on “Absorbing people’s pain: A Leader’s Role

  1. Am interested to know is the image you have chosen representational of you absorbing or the other person offloading?!!! Either way it’s looks a bit painful. It’s a very good graphic for how I imagine people to be feeling when I harp on about the importance of the experiences of children under 3 though!

  2. It’s hard isn’t it? The more you listen actively the more you see how life is pretty traumatic for most of us at some point. I don’t know if I’m very good at absorbing always but I try. The thing I always remember is the passing the monkey from your back thing – people often just need to tell you their worry or concern but don’t need anymore than that! The more I contemplate things like this through coaching training, daily work etc the more it comes back to working with people so they can find their own solutions, but also this thing of duty and selflessness – it’s so hard to approach life in that way but ultimately really rewarding.What I found is that we often need to go through some difficulties/hurdles ourselves – the callouses on the soul thing, before we can get nearer that calm, selfless, duty bit… I’ve a way to go yet!

  3. Thanks for sharing that story Don – I found it very powerful.
    Coincidentally when I was a participant in a leadership programme at Columba 1400 – which was founded by Norman Drummond – I was learning to coach and my own coach was a young man of 19 (at that stage the same age as my daughter). That made for a very interesting coaching relationship.He asked great questions.

  4. Focusing specifically on the “downward” direction of coaching, advice, wisdom etc. what you suggest sounds entirely natural. In a profession where repeated promotion means leaving the classroom, it is understandable that many will choose to remain doing the thing that attracted them to teaching in the first place. This necessarily results in situations where a manager could be advising a person many years their senior. In such cases a balance between professional and life experience will hopefully emerge.

  5. This recollection of Don’s certainly strikes a chord with me. A good part of my day as HT can be spent listening to others whilst they share their various concerns with me. I do my best not to allow for transfer of monkey to my shoulders though.
    At a colleague’s farewell speech to Edinburgh sec HTs yesterday, a retiring HT mentioned a bit of advice he received from a Danish Headteacher many years ago. He suggested that ‘a problem shared, is a problem doubled’; I’m sure we can all recall situations where this alternative perspective applies!

  6. As ever your wisdom shines through Don.
    Your leadership style is an example to us all.
    Finding a way to communicate that is receptive and helpful without taking on the other’s burden can be difficult but ultimately more satisfying and productive for all concerned.
    The traditional image of the “boss” being “bossy” is outdated.

  7. Love the post. I work as the principal of a Catholic Secondary school in the States and I would say 20% of my day is spent being an empathetic listener and bearing the pain of others. The sad thing is the majority of the pain is often caused by the pettiness of others.

  8. Thanks Charlie. Whereabouts in the States? What can appear petty for leaders can be of immense importance for those whom are led. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.

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