Coaches on Zoom Drinking Coffee

Marissa Afton: Partner and Head of Global Accounts at Potential Project

June 12, 2023 Alex Pascal Episode 48
Coaches on Zoom Drinking Coffee
Marissa Afton: Partner and Head of Global Accounts at Potential Project
Show Notes Transcript

A conversation with Marissa Afton, leadership expert who transforms managers and executives into focused and mindful leaders. 

Marissa is also a corporate consultant and Partner and the Head of Global Accounts for Potential Project, a global research, leadership development, and consulting firm on a mission to create a more human world of work.

In this episode, Marissa shares her thoughts on how organizations are now approaching mindfulness, as well as the difference between focus and awareness in terms of building that awareness.

Listen to the full episode for more insights on how mindfulness and coaching come together as a tool that can be deployed by coaches for themselves, as well as their clients.

Coaches on Zoom Drinking Coffee - Marissa Afton


(interview blurb)


Marissa: Focus is important but awareness is critical. Awareness of our own default mindset, awareness of our biases and blind spots and our triggers and our shadow selves, if you will, to really be able to raise that awareness individually, with teams organizationally. That’s where the compassion piece comes in.




Alex: Hi, I’m Alex Pascal, CEO and this is Coaches on Zoom Drinking Coffee. My guest today is an international speaker and trainer on the intersection of neuroscience, coaching, and human transformation. She has worked with top companies, including Apple, Google and Bloomberg, to amplify employee engagement and innovate growth on the individual team and organizational levels. She’s co-author of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way. Please welcome Marissa Afton.




Alex: Hi, Marissa.


Marissa: Hi, Alex. Good to be here.


Alex: It’s great to have you. It’s great to have you. Let’s start where we always start at Coaches on Zoom Drinking Coffee. What are we drinking today?


Marissa: We are drinking a decaffeinated, because sleep is so critical for our well-being, ristretto with some coconut cream because it’s yummy.


Alex: That’s such a good selection of drink and I’m getting to use one of my new Japanese porcelain mugs that I got when I was in Japan last month. It was just the perfect size for this drink so I was excited about that.


Marissa: Well, there’s a story here too. I admire your little cup there. This is from my parents on their honeymoon in the 60s and it’s from Finland. 


Alex: Oh, wow. It’s beautiful.


Marissa: It’s a hand painted little…there’s a set but it’s also the perfect size.


Alex: That is fantastic, and I bought these because they were beautiful but I didn’t think about what kind of drink I could have on them and your suggestion today was absolutely perfect for that. 


Marissa: Short and sharp. 


Alex: I appreciate that. Yeah, exactly. Short, sharp, and decaf so it’s very interesting. Mine’s not decaf because I don’t have that on my espresso machine but, yeah, it’s — I just came back from London yesterday so I am a little jet lagged so this is fantastic. It is so good to have you. I would love to kind of for you to get started with how you got started in your career. You’ve done so much amazing work and you’ve written a very interesting book as well and you’ve written so much for the Harvard Business Review and you do amazing work as a consultant and coach so I am always fascinated to learn more about how people ended up in the journey they’re on, especially in coaching since it’s a relatively new profession so there’s always really cool stories about how people ended up sitting here having coffee with me and talking about their life. 


Marissa: Well, let me see, I’m not sure how far back I should go but in terms of the coaching part, I started to become very interested in coaching about 20 years ago. I was doing a bit of a career pivot myself and I really loved the idea of aligning with an organization that was at an international global level. At that time, I was one of the foundational members of the International Association of Coaches, the IAC, who I’m sure some of your listeners are familiar with. They were kind of new on the block at the time and I also served on their board for a short while, but also wanted to expand my certification beyond just coaching and I ended up going back to get a master’s degree in organizational psychology. And, with that, in the last 20 years, I went into a very niche to start with industry vertical within heavy industries and focused on the psychology of workplace health and well-being and I did do a lot of coaching with executive leadership, executive leaders at major businesses across the globe, and really looking at what are the mindsets and what are the behavior shifts for staying healthy, safe, and well in high-risk jobs. Now, at the same time that I was doing that, and this is, again, going back decades, I was also from childhood exposed to the idea of mindfulness and mind training. So my father was a general counsel and vice president of an international minerals corporation and back when it was kind of career suicide to talk about training your mind to manage your stress and well-being and emotions, he was doing mindfulness to manage a very fast-paced, high-stress working environments. And this was in New York and I was exposed to it and I started doing it myself. And so in my work as a consultant and as a coach, I was trying to marry these two worlds together. I wasn’t super successful on my own, which is why I was really delighted when, in 2015, I became introduced and joined the Potential Project and the Potential Project is where I’m a partner today. We are a global leadership development and research firm and a lot of what we do is helping leaders and people around the world train the capacity and the potential of the mind in many different ways but especially right now, I think what’s of critical importance is helping people navigate change and uncertainty and bring more caring and compassion to workplaces. That’s a little bit of who I am.


Alex: Thank you, Marissa. Thank you for sharing. And mindfulness, there’s so much talk around mindfulness today and it wasn’t the case many decades ago. Like you’re saying, minding plus mindfulness just sounds like pretty —


Marissa: It’s fringe.


Alex: Like very different realms. It is very fringe. I actually meditate myself and, last night, I’m jetlagged so I woke up at 2 a.m. and I couldn’t sleep really and I decided to meditate for about an hour and a half and after that, I went to sleep, it’s perfect so I have a recent experience with mindfulness a couple hours ago. It is such a powerful tool and I’m so excited that we’re living in a world where there’s a lot of access to that kind of information, knowledge, and wisdom. And it’s actually essential for business and organizational performance that we’ve gotten from, “Oh, wow, you’re such a weirdo, that you’re into that,” to like it would be almost weird not to be well acquainted with the power of mindfulness, but I think we’re still at a very early stage in terms of our understanding of how mindfulness can be used. I have a lot of friends that use meditation apps and things like that which is really interesting, we’ll talk more about meditation in a moment. So, the Potential Project seems like a really cool organization so want to learn more about that. And, also, tell us more about your journey coming into the Potential Project, because you just mentioned that you were super successful individually and so I want to learn more about what that is, kind of building your own business or developing your tools, using them with clients, like what specifically was the positive shift of going into a consulting organization versus doing it by yourself? I know that a lot of our listeners are interested in those kinds of transitions.


Marissa: Well, let me be really clear, I wasn’t an entire independent. So, I just want to clarify that. I worked and was a partner even at a couple different boutique consulting firms before Potential Project, just with that real specialization within heavy industries, so mining and minerals, like my dad, although that wasn’t a causation, it was just a correlation. Oil and gas, nuclear, like any place where you could lose life or limb on the job is where I went, which gave me exposure to some amazing not just industries, but people and places, traveling and I think I worked on four continents in the time that I was doing that work. But it was something where I was trying to integrate my own personal experience with mindfulness into the flow of what we were doing in terms of training the mind towards better safety and health and well-being. And those two pieces, at least as I was trying to fold them together, did not land as well as I wanted them to. And that was, I think, more of a passion project for me, which led me to Potential Project where they were already doing it and Potential Project’s been around for about 15 years now, founded in Scandinavia and Denmark and now we are also global. So, I don’t know whether that helps your listeners in terms of making the transition from independence into organization. I already kind of was in organization, but it was matching the two passions into one that led me to Potential Project.


Alex: Thank you for that. What are some of the ways in your experience that we can weave in some of the contemplative or mindfulness approaches into organizations that perhaps don’t have much experience talking about that?


Marissa: You know, Alex, even in the time that I’ve been with Potential Project, which is eight years now, there’s been such change in terms of how organizations are approaching mindfulness and I love that it’s kind of really become seen as integral to ways of working and one of the things at Potential Project that we have always stood by is not mindfulness for mindfulness’ sake. Any one of us, including all the people that you described in your friends’ circle and your network can pick up an app. There’s so many amazing apps out there. There’s so many enablers of doing mindfulness on one’s own and we know the research is clear, improved well-being, improved sleep, improved all kinds of things. Within what we have done, we really tried to integrate it into how people are working, including how present are we in meetings? How mindful are we when we are sending an email and making sure that we’re not hitting that Reply All and sending it out to a whole bunch of people or sending it when we’re very heated and emotional in the moment and really being thoughtful? So it’s really integrated into the flow of work, but what I would say some of the shift, even in the last eight years that I’ve seen, is companies and people today are looking for what’s the shortest, sharpest, quickest, kind of like the ristretto, what’s the ristretto version of mindfulness? What’s the quick win? And so I think more and more, although I think it’s really important for people to find longer pieces of time to unplug, to step away, to disconnect, to kind of free the mind, even little moments of pause in the day can have really impactful results in terms of kind of decluttering our brains which are so full and active and overloaded to be able to be more present and focused. And I would just say one other thing, in terms of transitioning, a lot of what we were looking at kind of pre-pandemic was helping people to have strong focus, improved focus, because focus is such a premium in our working worlds and in our lives and I think what the pandemic has taught us is focus is important but awareness is critical. Awareness of our own default mindset, awareness of our biases and blind spots and our triggers and our shadow selves, if you will, to really be able to raise that awareness individually with teams organizationally. That’s where the compassion piece comes in. 


Alex: That’s so important. And so important for coaching. I find it difficult to think about being able to be successful at coaching and not be doing these practices, either deliberately or ingrained in the way you’re thinking about how you operate. And it’s interesting that some people have more of a default to have this level of introspection and mindfulness, even without knowing some of the practices and having done specific work around it. But it’s like a muscle, right? We call it a coaching practice, and it’s the same with mindfulness. It is really a muscle that you can train and some people already by default are operating in a way that is aligned with some of those practices but some people are not yet doing that and I think it’s very interesting, like mindfulness within coaching and for coach practitioners because it’s both a tool for yourself and a tool that you can deploy with clients. I find this whole topic an increasing area of interest for me, what we’re doing at as well.


Marissa: I just want to reinforce exactly what you said, Alex. I mean, we describe it as a muscle as well and as a practice, right? And so it’s not mindfulness perfect, it’s mindfulness practice for a reason. I’m sure you say similar things as it relates to coaching, right? I think where people get hung up and where they feel like failure is when they have a perception that what they have to do is empty their mind and have a completely empty mind and that there’s this goal that they’re supposed to achieve and if they can’t achieve that, then they can’t do it. And as somebody who’s been training my own mind for decades now, I never have an empty mind but what I do have hopefully a little bit better than when I started is an aware mind, a mind that is able to observe myself before I get triggered or before I become reactive. And that’s really the key here and absolutely can be done to benefit oneself and to benefit clients.


Alex: Absolutely. As you’re saying that the empty mind, I’m an old school meditator so I don’t use the apps or anything like that, I just focus on my breathing, and sometimes you go with the flow and see where it takes you and sometimes, at some points, I stop just that flow of thought and focus on my breathing or focus on different colors and things like that and achieving that state where you are fully one with your mind and there are no thoughts, it’s happened to me a few times and it’s an intoxicating state. It’s incredible. But one of the thorny, tricky aspects of that and I guess it relates to spiritual development and any kind of development in general is that, sometimes, having those omega points and those peak experiences lead me in this case to focus on that state as an outcome and if you’re pursuing that, you can never get to that state, which is just such an interesting way to think about life in general and development. It’s like if your so focused of when you want to go, then you don’t realize that you’re always going to be going somewhere and you have to be present. And it’s just like this trick, it’s this puzzle, right? It’s like, yes, you want to be there but if you want to be there, you shouldn’t be thinking about being there all the time. Meditation just unlocks this space to think in different ways. And then you can bring it back to any situation in life and it gives you these just layered perspectives that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise see. That’s my experience with a little bit of meditation, like clearing your mind and just the uniqueness of that meditative pathway and the perspective that it opens. So that all just came to me as you were saying two or three words about emptiness. At the end of the day, meditation is all about emptiness. It’s like music —


Marissa: True.


Alex: — and how it plays against the background of absolute silence and the interaction of the notes and the silence is really what creates music. It’s the same with meditation for me.


Marissa: Agreed, agreed. And kind of craving of getting there to that idealized state is the practice, is recognizing like, “Oh, I’m attached to the outcome that I’m seeking and why can’t I just dial that in every single time I sit on a cushion?” if that’s the way you’re meditating.


Alex: You’re attached to non-attachment.


Marissa: There you go. How human of us.


Alex: It is just so powerful when you’re able to see those things because it is really a metaphor or pretty analogous to so many things in life. I mean, when you look at art, art is trying to get you to try to see things from different perspectives and sometimes it’s just experience. You’re looking at this majestic piece of art and you just experience this almost surreal understanding of either what the artist wanted you to feel or what you feel when you’re seeing it and I think that’s where it gets tricky with art, is it objective, is it subjective? But amazing art, I think it’s objectively incredible. And I don’t know if it’s the intention of the artist to take you to a specific place, but certainly the objective is achieved in terms of taking you somewhere. Whether that is the intention of the artist or not, that’s a different thing, but just so I love tapping into that realm and I find it, and I’m not a therapist, but like in the realm of psychotherapy and coaching, tapping into that state of mind is incredibly powerful and it’s so outside of the realm of everyday business experience and business strategy and I think the more you can tap into that as an organization, the more you can unlock the way of thinking that is probably more aligned with success in a quickly changing nonlinear world.


Marissa: Exactly. And unlocking creativity and unlocking innovation and unlocking resistance to change, having some change agility, and you talk about art, nature’s also a great unlock for being able to kind of separate oneself from oneself, if you will, separate from the busy, discursive, judging, thinking mind to allow that kind of dawn self, broad, spacious, expansive mind to come through. And you can do this if you are going up into the mountains or going to the ocean or going wherever, in a natural environment, or it can be really simple, because not everybody has access to that, whether it’s where they’re living or within the flow of their day. So I tell lots of leaders and the people who I coach, I say just take a pause and look out the window. Just look out the window. Don’t have an agenda around it. Just let yourself gaze into the sky, if you can capture a little square of sky outside your window and just be in that moment of spaciousness, that can have the similar effect.


Alex: Absolutely. So powerful and I was actually just watching Succession last night. I don’t know if you watch that show but they had an episode and I think it’s set in Norway.


Marissa: They were in Norway. I watched it last night too.


Alex: Love it. Now that people listening in would be able to see how long it takes us to produce an episode and release it. 


Marissa: Exactly.


Alex: So, yeah, that’s last night’s episode of Succession, so, yeah, Norway…


Marissa: Right, and they’re sitting there going, “That was three months ago,” or whatever it was.


Alex: Wow, they really take a long time with this production for Coaches on Zoom Drinking Coffee. It just ties what you were saying because it’s a definite business setting there and these companies in this retreat and just how people, the interactions between them in this Nordic landscape are very different than sitting in an office or something like that. I think it’s just the recency effect here but, right? Like the interplay of business and nature and Scandinavia, in your case, is very interesting.


Marissa: And, in fact, this is something that we do as well as one of our interventions, especially with leaders and it’s very, very powerful. People lose — they drop their work personas, they drop their leader persona. And, of course, the pandemic was a great equalizer in that sense as well. We shed our business attire or we went remote, you probably saw people’s kids or their cats or their dogs or whatever it was. And then for companies that rushed back into an office environment again, the tendency is to rush back into that, “This is my role, this is my persona, this is who I’m supposed to put forward to the world,” and if we allow ourselves to step away from that, then we can actually go deep with one another and we can be more real with one another again and then we can be more selfless even because we can expose not only like just what the strategy is and what the profit margin is and this and that, all of the principles that most companies need to focus on, but we can say what are my aspirations in terms of my leadership legacy? What are my fears? What are the things that I’m afraid to touch into and how can I relate human to human with one another? There’s real power in that too.


Alex: I love that. What is people-centered leadership and leadership development?


Marissa: So people-centered leadership, that is actually a catch-all name for a leadership and staff program that I have been partnering with Amgen and, specifically, within their operations division to build over the last year plus and so it’s heralded by the operations president, his name is Esteban Santos, and we’ve done a great article interview with him in Forbes Online for listeners who are interested, but it captures a lot of what we started to pull together in our book on Compassionate Leadership, which is about human-centered leadership. Leadership that is, as we call it, both/and, not either/or. And just to kind of unpack that a little bit, we discovered in our research and our research partnered with Harvard Business Review and Forbes and partners in academia as well was really centered on what are the success factors for leaders in the 21st century to deal with constant uncertainty and change, to deal with fast-paced, always-on businesses, and what we recognize in our interviews and we did a lot of one-on-one interviews with CEOs and CHROs of many Fortune 500 companies is that there’s a false dichotomy around, especially coming out of the pandemic, “I either have to be a leader that is focused on strategy and priorities, performance, getting things done, or I have to be a leader that is caring and human focused and taking care of my…,” and that false dichotomy, actually, if you’re over-indexing on one or the other, you’re going to have some mixed results in terms of people knowing where they stand, people actually feeling a sense of trust and psychological safety with you, people feeling, on the one hand either burnt out or on the other hand completely disengaged. And so this people-centered leadership approach, as Amgen has identified it, is really marrying what we call the both/and aspect. It’s both performance driven and human centered, people centered, in their case. Of course, we want to be caring and compassionate but we can’t forget that we also need to drive business results. And so we look at ways that we put that together and how they’ve done that is through many different things that they’ve done. I mean, they have really put a huge investment. And it’s not just Amgen. I mean, we have many other partners that do this, it’s just I’ve been working super, super closely with Amgen for the last year, but they’ve invested top down. Their operational leadership team has done some deep dives in terms of looking at the different elements of people-centered leadership through targeted programming and then they’ve invested in their VP group, with their executive directors and kind of filtering it all the way down so everybody has kind of like a shared “This is how we do things is through a people-centered leadership lens.”


Alex: That’s wonderful. I mean, it’s so important for organizations to balance those aspects we were talking about and balance — how can we formulate the best strategies and what do we have to do as an organization to be able to open ourselves up to the right way of thinking to be able to enable that which I think really focusing on — I mean, the whole reason why I decided to get a PhD in organizational psychology coming more from a business perspective and I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, and both my mom’s side and my dad’s side, they were all entrepreneur. Even my grandmother was an entrepreneur. So I’ve seen that throughout my life but what appealed to me about getting pretty in depth in the field of organizational psychology was a recognition that, in the future, CEOs of large organizations will probably come less from sales and marketing and more from understanding complex structures, system dynamics, which, at the end of the day, are really people-centric ways of looking at the world. So I remember when I made that connection, I was like, well, how interesting to get into a profession and really an academic pathway that allows you to understand those dynamics. So what you’re saying really resonates with me and I think the last two, three, four decades have seen such a shift in the way organizations are looking at people and systems as a whole. But I think we’re still in the early stages of a true transformation where we go from having leadership development initiatives to really creating cultures and that society at large would recognize some of the values and they need to shift into this new way of thinking.


Marissa: Agreed, and I love that you’re seeing it as a transformation. It’s not just a kind of, okay, we do a training or we agree on some principles and then everybody’s people centered. I mean, where we are in people-centered leadership right now, for Amgen specifically, is we understand it conceptually, we’ve touched so many leaders, and now, what does it look like when the rubber hits the road? What does it look like when we have to make critical business decisions that impact people? What does it mean when our priorities are shifting, not of our own accord, because of outside market factors? And so it is a transformation and I can speak, I hope I’m okay speaking on behalf of Esteban and his vision and Amgen as a whole, but they see it as an investment over years. It’s not just a one and done. It’s not just we talk about people-centered leadership and everybody becomes people centered. And so that’s something that I personally find really inspiring and, also, it gives me a sense of, dare I say, joy, that I’m part of a collaborative solution to look more holistically and in that systems way that you described at how we’re supporting organizational culture.


Alex: So you have two very interesting books that you’ve co-authored, so one from 2018 was The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results, and the other one is Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way. So, pulling from those books in terms of what we’re talking about right now, what are some of your learnings from the journey as a consultant and also as a thinker and leadership author that applies to these, specifically, I think from kind of the frame of our audience are mostly coaches so from the perspective of a coach working with leaders in organizations?


Marissa: Well, first, I just want to do a little bit of a disclaimer before I’m called out for misrepresenting myself. So, in both situations, I’m not a lone author and for Mind of the Leader, I was a contributing author along with two of my colleagues, Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard and actually an entire team of people within Potential Project and the co-author for Compassionate Leadership, which came out in 2022.


Alex: I think I did say co-author.


Marissa: Yes.


Alex: But I appreciate you being very thoughtful about that because, yeah…


Marissa: Yes, exactly.


Alex: It’s important.


Marissa: It’s exactly important. And there’s an engine behind all of us at Potential Project. We have a research, they call themselves a bad sciences team because they’re in behavioral and data analytics and we have lots of other people who are supporting our thought leadership in this space, but I would say to your question about what is the learning journey, so with Mind of the Leader, pre-pandemic, as you mentioned, 2018 is when that book came out and part of what I spoke about earlier in our conversation is my personal and Potential Project’s journey with mindfulness. It’s like a core strategy for leaders in organizations. And in our core, like our headline for Mind of the Leader was leadership starts in the mind. If I can understand my self and be more mindful and aware, then I can lead myself better and I can lead others better. That was the essence of it. And I think where we came to was recognizing that mindfulness, in and of itself, was maybe not enough, that there was another layer that needed to be unearthed, and we did not go into the research for Compassionate Leadership with an agenda in mind about compassion is the — like we weren’t sure what would come forward. It was only through our own dialogues with leaders and hearing their narratives and being able to do some assessments and gather millions of data points from different places around the world that compassion started to come forward as that critical need which we then defined as that both/and, How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, I think, is the subtitle. And in terms of how this applies to coaches and their support of leaders and organizations, I mean, bottom line is we’re all human. And humans have brains and brains aren’t always completely switched on, especially when we are constantly moving, have multiple priorities, shifting priorities, all the rest that we’ve already talked about. So connecting human to human and recognizing that that default mode network that we all have, that’s just kind of like the automatic processing, whether we call it the vast System 1 Thinking, we want to override that a little bit and how do we override that to get the best out of ourselves so that then we can influence and get the best out of others, that’s where better awareness, better mindfulness comes in. 


Alex: That’s wonderful. Well, actually, I wanted to ask you about your HBR article. So I know you’ve written extensively for HBR. I am a subscriber of Harvard Business Review. I like to read actual physical thing so I kind of carry my actual HBR magazine with me everywhere I go. Actually, I just opened my Instagram from — I’ve always been private, I kind of like to keep my personal life personal, I just like to keep it kind of like private, but we have this really cool community at and I thought I get people asking me questions all the time so I just opened it up today, we sent an email inviting coaches to follow me on Instagram, so my first post —


Marissa: I am going to follow you.


Alex: Yeah, please do. I will follow you back. And why I’m bringing this up is I was looking at my profile, I was like, well, I need to start making it more kind of coach centric because it’s really all kind of like food and wine pics, so I posted some of the books that I’ve been reading lately and I should have actually added the HBR publication because I lug it everywhere I go, I just carry it with me, and I like physical books so it’s a problem but also it’s just nice to read physical. So, if you go — you’ll see that I’m — I’m going to start posting more about books, but HBR is a publication that I love reading so I would love to hear from you some of the pieces that you’ve written that you liked the most and we can add those as references to our listeners so they can actually go and check them out.


Marissa: You’re putting me on the spot here, Alex, because I’m going into my mental Rolodex of the articles, but absolutely, I think one of — and, again, I’m saying “our” because it’s me as part of a team within Potential Project, my other partners. One of our most read articles I think of all time is, it’s — I’m trying to remember the exact title but it’s within the —


Alex: Sorry I put you in the spot with this because I don’t have that many publications but if someone asked me about them, I’d probably really struggle. If you ask me what shows I’m watching right now, I’ll be, “I don’t know,” it’s hard to recall those kind of like, “Which are your favorite artists?” I’m like I’m always struggling to kind of think about, and I think it’s the same with publications even.


Marissa: Yes, and I can absolutely follow up so you can put it in your show notes but I want to say off the top of my head —


Alex: We will.


Marissa: — it’s on the topic of basically doing hard things in a human way and on the topic of, and I want to say it’s “Empathy Is Necessary but Not Sufficient” is the title. And what we talk about in that is really defining the difference between empathy and compassion, because I think there’s a lot, and we kind of, again, in the book, we really define this further, but this idea of empathy really being an emotion. I mean, if we look at it really neurologically, and compassion as an intention. And, again, we can talk about System 1, System 2 —


Alex: A little Daniel Kahneman, absolutely.


Marissa: A little Daniel Kahneman, exactly. But, in essence, when we put people in fMRI machines and we scan their brains and we ask them to empathize, feel what somebody else is feeling, part of the brain that lights up is in the emotional centers of the brain, which is great and good because in order for us to actually help somebody out, we need to be able to have a sense of what their experience is, but in coaching people and in leadership specifically, this can get in the way because if we’re only feeling what somebody else is feeling, we actually lose our cognitive centers that understand what is right action to be a benefit for this person or persons. So, empathy by itself can be actually really limiting and it can be actually hindering to our ability to take action and be of benefit and to serve and help our people, our teams, and the organization as a whole. And that’s the difference between empathy and compassion is compassion in our brain lights up as the intentional part of our cognitive brain and asks itself a simple question, “How can I be of benefit?” And, sometimes, the answer to that question is to do nothing, which may seem counterintuitive but so often, when I speak to leaders at least and when I’m coaching leaders, they’re like, “Okay, can I just bypass the empathy part? Can I just get to action, because I know action. Action is comfortable for me. I know how to just solve, solve, solve, solve,” and they’re so quick to solve that the solve that they have may not actually be the thing that that person needs but what they do need is for somebody to simply be present with them.


Alex: Compassion and empathy. So much to unpack there.


Marissa: That’s a whole ’nother episode. 


Alex: Yeah, it’s absolutely another follow-up. At some point, we’re going to be doing follow-up episodes with different people so we’ll definitely have to list you on that for doing a deeper dive into this. When I look at the effect of technologies that we’re using every day to interact with each other, my primary concern about social media and the great connectors of the world, how technology is bringing us all together but it’s also distancing ourselves from ourselves and others to a tremendous extent, as we’re saying, in the way kind of society is being reshaped in the 21st century, in the first quarter of this century, that I think it’s hard to be empathetic to others when you’re kind of looking at a tweet and I think when you look at like everything that happens on Twitter, which I only really hear about in the news because I’m not really a Twitter user, if you have people together, other than in like LA traffic or something like that, they can probably come together and have a really good conversation, meeting of the mind, something that elicits compassion or empathy, but when we’re doing everything through technology, sometimes, in my experience and from what I’ve seen in the world, I think it’s the limiting factor.


Marissa: When I get the most down about where we are societally, it’s when I see people together but separate. So, we’re gathered around the same dining table but we’re all on our devices.


Alex: That’s so sad when I see that. Two people in a nice restaurant or any restaurant, and you see like a couple — usually, when I see like a couple doing that, I’m just, and I’m sure someone’s looked at me at some point and I’m having dinner and it’s a moment where you’re looking, both people are looking at their phones, but you can see the people that are actually doing that throughout their lives and what a sad thing to be on whatever you’re doing, emails, Instagram, or whatever it is, the news, when you have someone right there in front of you. When you scale up that way of looking at the world and interacting with each other, that can’t really truly be super scalable, right?


Marissa: Correct. And it goes back to what we were saying earlier. It’s a muscle, right? And if you’re not using your muscle, the empathy, your muscle of connection, your muscle of like interpersonal dialogue and dynamic, you lose it. Now, the good news is you can get it back again but I think that’s one of the risks.


Alex: But which muscles are we working that shouldn’t be worked on that much? It’s like if you go to the gym and you focus on a specific muscle group all the time, then you may end up looking pretty bizarre, right? And perhaps that’s kind of what we’re doing with the muscles we’re working.


Marissa: Yeah, no day is leg day.


Alex: Yeah, that’s funny. 


Marissa: Yeah, and so, for me, it’s digital disconnect. Take a step back, look out the window, don’t look at your phone. When you have five minutes, what do you do with your five minutes? I have a leader who had their own office as like a little separate unit on their property. They had their main house and a lot of people have this. And they said, “Now, instead of just going into my inbox when I’m between meetings or what have you or scrolling on my phone, I just step outside, I take one lap around that little green space that’s between the house and the office, and that is enough. It may be just two or three minutes but that’s enough to just kind of reset, reset, reset.” Doesn’t have to be big.


Alex: I love that and I think, as coaches, we should be more aware of when to find that space with our clients, for ourselves in between sessions, so I think, for me, the whole topic of mindfulness, empathy, compassion in coaching is, I think, a growing area of interest for many so I’m looking forward to having you back in the podcast and talking about it in more length. So, thank you so much, Marissa, for joining me today. I had a lot of fun enjoying our drink together.


Marissa: Last little sip?


Alex: Yeah. I actually — yeah, I have a little bit.


Marissa: I had just added a little bit. It is short and sharp but, yeah, thank you for having me, Alex. I really appreciate the conversation. I look forward to hopefully doing it again.


Alex: Likewise. Absolutely.