What Am I Not Seeing? Practicing Empathy in Outdoor Leadership—and Life
Herb Greenberg was an accomplished psychologist and a professional colleague who left an indelible impression on my life, not because he was blind, but because he had a “soft spot for those who have not been given an equal and fair shot due to prejudice,” as Patrick Sweeney describes in his 2015 biography, What You Aren’t Seeing: The Inspiring Story of Herb Greenberg.
What I remember most about Herb is how special he made me feel. In a room full of people seeking his attention, Herb would ask his guide to, “Help me find Cindy. I’d like to say hello.”
His warm, firm handshake was an invitation to connect. His empathy was evident as he asked simple, open-ended questions and listened―not just to my words, but to my intonation and moments of silence. Was my voice expressing warmth, enthusiasm, disinterest? What was I not saying? Perhaps it was his sight impairment that enabled this special skill to hear my unspoken feelings of pain, angst, happiness, or gratitude. Sweeney captures the essence of Herb’s gift in his biography, explaining that while others point out differences that stereotype and limit us, Herb uncovers strengths within each of us that unlock possibilities.
Herb believed everyone has some kind of a disability. The objective is not to overcome a disability, but rather to develop the potential in all of us, using the strengths we have honed. Although he acknowledged and confronted the age-old stereotypes of disabilities, he did so by focusing on authentic engagement with others that quickly became personal and meaningful, leading to deep relationships.
What does it take to see beyond gender, race, age, or any other preconceived disability?
I was recently reminded of Herb during an outdoor event that I lead, when a physically disabled participant enthusiastically and unexpectedly showed up. My assumptions and fears immediately came to light with my own internal dialogue and angst. This person is obviously handicapped and unable to join safely. How do I tell the person they are unable to participate? What do I say to acknowledge this handicap without appearing prejudiced?
The “thought monkeys” continued to fly dangerously around within my head. I was reminded that my personal fears and prejudices (my own disability and blind spot) were nothing compared to the courage it took for this person to show up. And in that instant, I was reminded of my strength―empathy.
I began to engage in a dialogue, to ask questions that would help me “see” what I’m not seeing. The participant’s enthusiastic voice, which exuded excitement and anticipation. The absence of fear and worry in their words. Our immediate connection enabled me to become less fearful and to learn more about their background and capability to engage safely in this event.
My confidence as a leader to be open minded, empathetic, and adapt the event to this participant and others grew exponentially. As our relationship developed over the course of the event, so did our collective group confidence. We ended the event on a high note, recognizing what we all accomplished. I learned to see beyond the obvious with empathy, and the other participants began to challenge their own assumptions of what is possible.
Sweeney recorded some powerful quotes and lessons about leadership through his interviews with Herb. Herb believed that leadership “all starts, or stops, with empathy…. Leaders with real empathy are able to connect with those around them…to make whatever walls may exist between people crumble and disappear.” It’s only natural to be worried, as I was, about safety first. And, not all stories will end with such a positive outcome as mine did. But, to quote Herb, “It all starts with being interested in and caring about others. Genuinely.”