Listening and Leading with Empathy Will Help You Understand the Black Experience

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INFLUENCER: Empathy only grows if we create spaces where people simply listen and place themselves in someone else’s shoes, writes Iris' Maktuno Suit
Listening and Leading with Empathy Will Help You Understand the Black Experience

The last few weeks have been painful, uncomfortable and ultimately transformative. As I sit at my desk, I’m certain that the company I work for will never be the same again and we are changed for the better, forever.

Lots of organisations feel like this in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic of course, but that’s not what has changed us.

Just as we were starting to emerge from the Covid cloud, we were hit by another crisis – this time, perhaps even bigger.  

The media was dominated by the breaking story of yet another black man killed in the street by a white police officer. This time, it was George Floyd, who was arrested and subsequently murdered by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, by holding his knee on his neck for a deadly 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Within hours, the story went viral. And it shook us to our core.

Many people around the business were asking themselves why had it taken the world so long to wake up to the black experience.

For many black people it stirred up all kinds of feelings – it spoke to the injustice and weariness we all face. We realised that we often keep our stories in safe ‘black spaces’, as the white world walks by unaware of the daily gauntlet of microaggressions and discrimination that black people face in the world.  

I witnessed a sudden awakening around the business, where abstract concepts to describe the black reality that have long existed were suddenly becoming globally accepted.  

Friends were using the term ‘white privilege’ for the first time, after we all saw Amy Cooper attempt to cash in on it, whilst she threatened a black birdwatcher in Central Park.  

People were suddenly talking about being ‘anti-racist’ when they realised that standing idly by, like the policemen hovering around George Floyd’s body, is unacceptable and that white people need to become active allies in the fight against racial injustice.

For myself, as a black board member, I was confronted with the difficult question - what should I do? I didn’t want to become the token black person needing to talk about black issues, but I was in a position to help construct the narrative and our response.

As a business what would be our response? How could we comfort our black people viewing these horrific scenes and their own experiences being brought to the surface, whilst also educating white people on their own biases and racism? More importantly, how could we face into the fact that we, as a business have been complicit in maintaining the systems of injustice that many people face. That was the harsh reality at the heart of this for me. 

Other agencies in our industry and high-profile brands started talking the talk and publishing statements condemning racial inequality but we didn’t think this was enough. How could we tap into something else that we’ve discovered is core to our culture - the need to empathise with others. 

Empathy is core to any successful creative campaign or designing an excellent customer experience, but how often had we looked inwards at the stories of black people in our business and shaped our culture and beliefs around them.

After an emergency meeting of our D&I task force, we realised that we didn’t need to start telling the outside world what we did or didn’t stand for, we needed to look inside and listen.

What were the stories hidden within our own business?  The ones that people never share and are often hidden behind forced smiles and resilient expressions as they endure daily bias and discrimination.

We decided to create specially curated spaces called ‘listening circles’. These are online forums to create dialogue between groups of people - in this case - black and white people in our business. We created a space, led by black people, for colleagues to simply share their stories; and white people were simply invited to listen. 

On three 90-minute sessions across our network from the US, to the UK and Singapore, we heard stories of black people who opened up about their struggles to be their authentic selves in the workplace.  

They told stories of implicit bias and racism that they had experienced in their careers and, painfully, in our own house. Person after person recounted their childhood journey in the US and UK about aggravated stop and searches; being ‘othered’ in the workplace environment or being placed in stereotypical boxes when they simply wanted to just be.  In front of hundreds of colleagues, they shed tears as they talked about racial injustice – many people sharing their stories for the first time.  

Stories previously only shared in safe ‘black spaces’ were now living and breathing within the business, and zoom calls became sacred ground as people shared and listened.  

As I stated earlier, empathy is one of the most powerful tools in our industry for effective creative campaigns, and it is the power of empathy that has changed us as a business in the last two weeks.  

But empathy only grows if we create spaces where people simply listen and place themselves in someone else’s shoes – that is when they can truly understand what their daily experience looks and feels like; and it creates the momentum to then really affect tangible change.

What might it mean for you as a business to listen right now?

1. Create a listening space – when people are in pain it is best to simply allow the affected group to share their stories, and not jump to solutions.  This can be done on Zoom or VC and can be so powerful. It can also be effective through capturing the anonymous experience of people within your business via email forms or platforms such as Slido.

2. Allow black people to construct the narrative and response – the black experience is one that needs to be led by black people and it is important that leaders are able to set up conversations and then hand over responsibility and trust to a senior black colleague or a diversity taskforce. Ask people how you can sensitively approach this subject within your own business. 

3. Set clear boundaries – these spaces need clear rules where people are instructed not to debate or politicise the space. It is simply for listening to people’s experiences.

4. Provide aftercare – many people who share these stories will need support, especially if there are challenging dynamics in the workplace that have come to light for the first time.

5. Invite white people to share – after the black experience has been shared, invite white people to share what they have heard and learned and understand what it means to be a white ally.

Ultimately, we need to take action. To really listen to the black experience as businesses we need to be radical in terms of how we create a genuinely inclusive culture and create diversity across our organisations through every level of seniority.  

As we have started to surface over the last week, I have been able to return to my day job, defining and driving what transformation for us as a business.  

Diversity and inclusion was high on the agenda before as a business and now it has become even more central to our transformation agenda and we are all behind it.


Maktuno Suit is global transformation director at Iris 


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