Breaking down empathy: What really made us praise Ardern’s response to terror

Photograph by Jorge Silva / Reuters

If there’s one image that particularly stood up after the terror attack in a mosque in New Zealand, is not the praying Muslims, not the injured and bleeding people rushed into the hospital, nor the funeral scenes. The one image that has received the highest attention, the widest written referral and probably the largest number of sharing on social media — is of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, wearing hijab, eyes full of sadness and grief.

The praise for the way Ardern chose to response to the terror attack — by treating the victims’ families with full compassion, by talking to them directly and not over the media, by showing up fully as a person and as a leader and respect that grief instead of rushing into diplomacy, politics, generic statements and other strategies that world-known leaders often tend to employ — she did the exact opposite.

It wasn’t generic. It wasn’t diplomatic and well calculated. It wasn’t a well-crafted strategy that meant to serve the governments’ interests in the long run.

Ardern’s instant reaction was real, authentic, raw and mainly empathic. “Empathic” is that one elusive trait that is hard to define, but when a leader demonstrates the real stuff — you can tell immediately.

In a hindsight, what made Ardern’s empathy remarkably authentic? What were the ingredients that played extremely well together, to an extent of creating such a wide positive reaction to her gestures, from the victims’ families, to media consumers around the world, to the prime minister of Pakistan who personally called to thank her?

Observing a few of the key components that turned the empathic approach of Ardern to the “real thing”, reveals three main ones:

  1. Deep listening
  2. Connecting on a basic human level
  3. The natural consistency of the agenda and approach as a leader.

Let’s start with explaining what “deep listening” even means.
Two of the common listening levels are “downloading” and “factual listening”. According to the description of listening levels by Prof. Otto Scharmer (MIT and the Presencing Institue), those levels are constituting a relatively superficial conversation. One side is talking, the other one is just waiting for their turn to speak. If the facts and the other perspectives don’t match what one side was already thinking, then they most likely won’t be received or even be heard, because those new facts create a dissonance. And by nature, change or the idea that I might be wrong — is hard to be perceived.

The next two levels are far more interesting, deep, and… rare. These are “empathic listening” and “generative listening”. They refer to the ability to see the world from another persons’ eyes, to share empathy (it’s not about agreeing — it’s about accepting that other views are legitimate), and at a deeper level to also create a strong connection and generate together something new and more complete.

Four levels of listening. By the Presencing Institute

The reaction and actions of Prime Minister Ardern after the terror attack were very much aligned with the two deepest levels of listening.

Ardern managed to see the world through the eyes of the hurt families, even for a little while; She “read” their needs correctly and offered support, comfort, and solidarity. Ardern offered the Muslims of New Zealand a basic human need: Belonging, by listening to what they really need at that moment — someone to understand what they’re going through, someone who’s not a Muslim, but creates that bonding. That desired connection.

By offering the Muslim families the support, the unbiased listening, without judging them as people and/or as a religion — Ardern connected to “them” in the most empathic way, and actually removed the term “them” away from the discussion.

I heard someone admired Ardern for her ability to treat the families’ grief without patronizing them. I paused to reflect on it and realized that this person was probably right.

It is fairly easy for a leader to show up on difficult episodes, share some comforting words, talk about “the responsibility of the nation” and hurry up for the next task. Ardern managed to avoid that trap and treated the victims’ families exactly as they are: Humans. Just like her.

For a while, there were no boundaries. When New Zealand’s Prime Minister was wearing the hijab and talked to the victim’s families, she was one of the people. She is, in fact, one of the people, but apparently, too many leaders — especially on the national level — tend to forget it.

Ardern’s grief, sadness, and frustration felt real — because they were probably real. It’s hard to fake real sorrow, though many tries. With all the good intentions, this simply doesn’t work. Ardern showed the inside of her humanity, the raw heart and not just the mind. And people responded to it, because if there’s one thing that all humans have in common — is a beating heart.

Imagine a leader, of any kind, speaking constantly against an issue or a certain group of people, but when a certain crisis within this group occurs — this leader is suddenly compassionate and understanding, speaking highly of this group. What would you feel with regards to this person’s trustworthiness?

I’m guessing that trust will not gain many scores in this situation. Actually, I don’t need to guess. It’s election time now in Israel, and I watch the people’s disgusted reaction to those leaders who are trying to be reelected, and suddenly make the time to “listen” and talk to people that they have ignored before, just because they need their vote now.

Credibility, trustworthiness, integrity — are all built on the premise of someone is being consistent (rather than unstable) and aligning their speech with their actions.

Ardern didn’t just show up with this empathy from nowhere. Known for her social and open-minded agenda (she describes herself as a “social democrat” and “progressive”), for her effort to reshape the national economy and focus on wellbeing, and for her support in minorities and discriminated groups in the population such as the gay community — her current support in the Muslim minority in New Zealand is very much aligned with her agenda.

Leaders who are known for their inclusive approach will be more likely to be received as authentic while approaching a group that is considered “the other”, instead of a populist.

We’ve seen populism before, and we’ve kind of had it. We need the real thing now, leaders who stay true to their values and walk the talk for the long run, not only when there’s a hidden interest, or when it suits them.

“You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
-Ardern’s direct words to the terrorist a few hours after the shooting

I don’t know what the future of national-level leadership will look like. What I do know, based on the global positive reaction to the empathy given by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Ardern, is that people crave a different kind of leadership.

Empathic leadership.

A leader who listens carefully to people, and connects to their needs and feelings.

A leader who doesn’t patronize, and is willing to perform their original duty — to serve the people.

A leader who is consistent, authentic and trustworthy.

A leader who shows empathy, not just talks about it.

Author of “Burning Out Won’t Get You There”. Co-Founder & CEO of Enkindle Global. Never say “no” to coffee & good conversations

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