Expert Interview: Dr. Debra Lafler

May 05 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by Debra Lafler, DDiv to discuss compassion in the workplace. Debra Lafler

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Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Debra Lafler.

Debra is employed as an Employee Wellness and an Employee Assistance Program Manager for a large employer in Madison, Wisconsin, and is also a private coach, consultant, and speaker for individuals, groups, and employers in Madison, Wisconsin and beyond.

Academically, Debra has earned a doctorate degree in Spiritual Studies in Divinity from the Emerson Theological Institute, a master’s in arts degree in Health and Behavior Studies with a focus in health education from Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in Communications with certificates in Wellness and Coaching from the University of Wisconsin Parkside.

She has a nickname of “Doctor Soul” and her hugs are known to provide a sense of unconditional love, peace and healing. Debra, I’m so excited to have you here today.

Debra Lafler: Thank you for having me. We’ve been planning this for so long. I’m excited we’re finally doing it.

Mari Ryan: I am as well. Here we are today, suddenly in a world that we’ve been launched into and we’re in the midst of a crisis. We are no longer operating with “business as usual.” This is requiring leaders and managers to learn new skills that will help them lead during this time of crisis. One of those skills is compassion. In this conversation today, we’ll explore the need for compassion, why it is so important right now, and how managers and leaders can use compassion to lead their teams.

So, Debra, let’s start the conversation with why is compassion so important right now in our workplaces?

Debra Lafler: Yes, while it’s always important, now is a pressing time for the issue because of the state of fear that we are all in. What is nice is that we’re all dealing with this together. We all can relate. There are basic human fears that we all have. Your death, your illness, your losing control, your losing connection with people, your being isolated. In this situation in this pandemic is triggering all those fears. Even if there is not someone in front of you about to hurt you, the idea and the uncertainty around any of these fears actually happening is affecting us all on an unconscious basis where it’s regulating our nervous system. It’s as if there is a threat right in front of us, it’s the same type of feeling with our nervous system. Why that’s important is our brain, the way we operate is changing. When we are threatened, our higher cognitive abilities go off-line. We literally go into what we know as “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. That means that I’m ready to react, I’m ready to run, or I’m ready to shut down and freeze.

We’re getting pulled towards those states and the cognitive part, the thinking rationally, the ability to even remember things or make decisions, or problem-solve, is actually on the back burner for us. The only way to get those things forward is to regulate the body first. So, the compassion part for leaders and for all of us is to recognize that whoever we are communicating with is likely dealing with the feelings of fear, even if it is unconscious.

When I am talking with some people, I’ll say, how are you, and they’ll say, I’m fine ... and that’s it. Yet, I think a lot of us are saying that. I’m generally fine, I’m not dying right now so I’m fine, but there’s all this background things happening. The compassion part just is I recognize the humanity in this with all of us. I recognize that everyone I talk to probably has something that they are being triggered in some way. We don’t know their past, so little triggers can be big triggers for some people. So from the trauma informed lens of thinking I don’t know if their fight, flight, or freeze system is on high alert because of their past, and if so, I need to provide them the most feeling of safety, security, and trustworthiness that I can right now so that they feel comfortable enough to share and I help their system regulate so that they can think and problem-solve and communicate and all of that.

The compassion part is not just the empathy, but it is doing it intentionally to help the other person regulate, if we think of a nervous system regulate.

Mari Ryan: I’m curious, from your perspective when we think about this, do I have to think about compassion at the personal or individual level first? Is this something that I need to be aware of and not just thinking about we’ll think about the managerial and the leader perspective on this, but is this something that I need to be thinking about on my own behalf and this a skill or something that I can personally develop that can help me?

Debra Lafler: The compassion starts with ourselves, and then we can extend it out towards others. The knowledge of the nervous system is helpful, knowing that we are in those same states and that in order to regulate ourselves what is best for us. The feeling of the getting in touch with the physical body is the best and first step for all of us. Even if we say, how are you, I’m fine, I can say, well, how is your body feeling today. Maybe you’re not thinking thoughts, but maybe your chest feels heavy or you have a tummy ache, or you are tight or something. Our bodies sometimes tells us how we are feeling even when we can’t identify it with words.

It’s to get in touch with our physical bodies, how are we feeling and then if we are feeling anything within our bodies we don’t need to know why, we can start to regulate it in terms of, oh, I’m feeling like my chest is heavy, let me sit here and breathe deeply for a few minutes, and it will help the body start to regulate so that the mind can then wrap itself around are there emotions here, are there thoughts here, and maybe not. Maybe just helping the body. All of a sudden, the body relaxes and you realize, oh, I am okay. So, it’s getting in touch with our bodies, having some techniques to do so, and then we can move into higher states of consciousness.

There is what we call the three “Rs.” Regulate first, then relate, and relation more like emotions and empathy, and then reason. So, how do first sit with my body, then get in touch with how I am feeling, and then I can start to reason through things. We can do that with ourselves and then extend it out towards others, but I can only be of service to another if I myself am regulated. I like to think of it as … imagine a baby crying and you want to be that comfort for that baby. If the baby is a mess, crying and scared or nervous, as someone trying to comfort that baby, you are a place of peace and safety for that baby. You would hold the baby close to your chest so that they felt the personal contact and you would breathe in deeply and slowly, maybe rocking rhythmically. It’s putting the baby’s body into regulation.

It’s that same feeling when you are with another person. We don’t have to touch them, but if I am the most safe person for you, and I’m grounded and I’m grieving deeply, with mirror neurons we start to mirror each other, and so, you being in my presence can help you. You can say, wow, I don’t know what it is about sitting with her, but every time I do, I feel calm, I feel seen, I feel validated, it’s like I can breathe again. We can do that for each other in person, sometimes on the phone. we have a lot of … we think that it’s only words that we usually need. Sometimes it’s a visual and that’s why video conferencing is really nice. There is something beautiful about it, like seeing somebody’s face, or even hearing their voice. Sometimes it’s like, gosh, I love to email you, but when I talk to you on the phone, aww, it’s hi! That was awesome, I love hearing your voice. We need all of our senses to be involved and every added sense can help us regulate. So, the best is when you’re in person, but without that, can we do video? Without that, can we do voice? Without that, yes, can I do email? There’s always these levels of things that I can do.

To start with ourselves, you had asked about what somebody can do. One of my best techniques is what I call “ground yourself,” which is funny, now that we’re all at home, it’s like, what, are we all grounded? Ha-ha.

Mari Ryan: Yeah, we are.

Debra Lafler: Yeah, we are. We’re grounded. But grounding is getting in touch with our physical bodies and that we are here in the present moment. When we’re nervous and the fear takes over our brain, it’s like our senses go away and we’re not here. We’re invisible, or we’re flighty we’re often thought. So, it’s to bring ourselves back to the physical body.

I have a four-step process; I say, feel your bottom in your chair or wherever you’re seated, feel your feet on the floor, feel what it feels like to breathe, and then breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of five, and repeat it again. In for a count of five, out for a count of five. Then one more time, in and out. If you start to go away again, you say, bottom in the chair, feet on the floor, what does it feel like to breathe, and can I feel myself do that slowly. Then the body will start to shift itself.

We can do that all day. We can do that anytime we’re flustered, anytime we’re nervous, sad. It’s okay, feet on the floor, bottom in the seat, breathe. You can do it with your eyes open, you don’t have to meditate, it’s a really nice tool.

Mari Ryan: Such a simple, but yet so powerful way of being able to literally ground yourself. You can do that before you start every meeting and make sure you are present, you are aware, you are creating that sensation for yourself. Great suggestion, love it!

Debra Lafler: Thank you.

Mari Ryan: It makes me think that we all, not just managers and leaders, but we all need to be much more aware and not quite on alert, but just sensitive to how everyone is feeling right now. I have experienced just in the last week where several of us were on a call, there was some comment that got passed and all of a sudden this person was responding with a defensive kind of stance that was like, where is that coming from? What we didn’t know was she has a family member that she was waiting to get test results on and she was super-hyped up about the concern for that. So, we can’t even tell when somebody shows up in a situation like this, which is how many of us are meeting these days, we can’t tell what’s happening for that other person.

Debra Lafler: Right, and you may never know. In that case, you did find out what was happening, but many of us are dealing with things, especially now at home. It’s not just the work stuff. Now you have spouses or parents or kids or pets and each of those entities has its own issues. Now we are all unable to get away from each other. I feel blessed that I don’t have intense issues. I know that at this time many people have family members that have anger issues or even, we don’t know what someone’s individual issues are, so maybe when they feel these feelings of fear, they get angry. Like you said, she was defensive.

We may find that we have a short fuse, and then we have a short fuse with others in the house, and then they have a short fuse, and now we’re fighting and upset. I think in the middle of all of this, we can’t assume that just by intellect we can all get better. A lot of times we’ll say, oh, you are recognizing you are angry – just stop it. That’s where the compassion we need for ourselves as well. So with the compassion is also a level of forgiveness.

Can we recognize that only what we are feeling? Can we recognize our actions, our behaviors? At this time a lot of unhealthy lifestyle behaviors are also getting triggered for people because they are coping mechanisms. Overeating, or eating all day, or not moving enough, or smoking or drinking, or whatever it is. You might recognize that and be like, oh my God, I’m eating so much! And then there’s the guilt and the shame. So now you have fear of everything, this unhealthy behavior, and then guilt and shame on top of it. We’re all trying to process this at the same time. The forgiveness is to say, wow, I am in this situation. I can see that. If you can look at it objectively and feel for yourself as if another, and say I can see that you’re very scared about this, or it’s making me really nervous, and I can see that you are trying to soothe yourself with these things. That’s a self-caring technique, although it ends up harming you. So, the level of empathy and forgiveness for ourselves, we can then extend it out to others.

Mari Ryan: That’s a really good reminder about the importance of forgiveness and the role that it plays for us because we know that this is not going to last forever. If we’re eating a little too much junk food or not getting enough exercise, it’s not forever. We can get through this.

Debra Lafler: Yeah, and giving yourself that hope, that optimism and hope, even though we don’t know when. I gave an analogy yesterday that I’ll use here; I said the analogy of a caterpillar turning into a cocoon, turning into a butterfly, and right now we have all been forced into a cocoon. When the caterpillar is in the cocoon, he doesn’t know what is next. He just knows he’s trapped in a cocoon and he is freaking out. My life is over of how I knew it, I’m now in this place that I don’t know what’s next, and I don’t know what happens when this cocoon breaks. But with the image of the butterfly can we have some sort of hope and optimism that when this is all over, there is beauty, there is a new life that we can’t even imagine, all of those things in terms of our potential and possibilities ahead.

Mari Ryan: I think that’s a great way to look at it. A really good way to think about it. Let’s think about this now from the managerial perspective. If we think about managers and leaders and the roles that they are playing today, how can they best lead with compassion?

Debra Lafler: First, I think, like we said, is to start with themselves, vital, with that place of empathy, forgiveness, compassion for ourselves, regulating ourselves. If we can see ourselves as not just a manager … we’ve had discussions in the field of changing manager to leader and then changing traditional management styles of top-down and authoritarian and dictator-type stuff, to more of we’re all peers, we are doing this together, there is collaboration, there is trustworthiness, there is empowering each other. If we can take that idea of a compassionate leader, a loved leader, a culture leader, an authentic leader, whatever we want to say in terms of that, what does that mean for us? It’s to see us as even now the steward. You are a steward of others. If you are a leader in terms of not being the one to demand things or show the way, you are there to trust in those who are under you to find their own way, but they need the encouragement to do so.

It’s like being with someone when you see their potential. You say, oh my goodness, you have the education, the experience, the ideas, you’re so creative, the skills, look what you can do. Say that person is still anxious and nervous about their value. As a leader, you get to be the safe place for them to be as a foundation to be seen, to be heard, to be valued, and then to give them a sense of autonomy of choice and empowerment, to give them the confidence to make the decisions on their own.

How can we help each other in this time? The compassionate leader leads with a place of safety, to develop a safe place where an employee feels they are emotionally safe with you, that when I’m with you, I know you care about me, you care for everything I am feeling, even if we don’t talk about feelings, that I can feel that from you, that you care for me, and that you are looking out for the best part of me, and that you support me in what I need right now. Right now, because of the state we are all in, we don’t rules, we don’t need more fear, we especially don’t need discipline, we need understanding, we need flexibility, we need to be trusted.

This whole remote world now, most employers who weren’t doing remote work before, even though it’s been talked about a lot in the last decade, there was fear about remote work in terms of how can I trust that my employees are doing work? There’s the old school of thought that if I can’t see them, they are not really working [indecipherable – 0:22:09.7] Everyone had to, and so now it’s like you have to trust your employees are doing their job, and if the employees feel trusted, they won’t feel as anxious.

I think the first week of remote work everyone was like I have to prove that I am actually doing my work and a lot of it, so that I am not, someone is not hearing that I’m not getting the work done.  That element of am I trusted, am I trusted to be autonomous, you don’t have to micro-manage me, you don’t have to look at what time I clocked in and clocked out, I will get the work done in the best way I can. That element of trust is emotional safety and someone seeing in you the potential that you have and they are like, you got it. Just go for it.

In this state of fear, as a leader what we can do is recognize if our employees are in a state of whether it be fear or anxiety, or anger, and to be that person that someone can talk to. In that meeting, if you were that person’s manager, you could call them afterward and say, I noticed you were so upset during the meeting, I just called to see if you wanted to talk about anything. Is there anything that I can do to help support you through this? To be that support person for them, say look, I got your back if there is something you need me to do. I can step in and do something to help you in this time. That would be a good leader. There is some sort of empathy, compassion, safety, transparency, open communication, and the openness to say you can tell me what’s up and I can help you. If not, that’s okay, but I’m here if you would like to.

Mari Ryan: The safety piece is such an important element right now because in a world with an invisible demon that is attacking, we don’t feel safe. I think your points are well-taken about the need for managers to be able to create that safe space where people can feel that this is a place where you can feel safe.

The other element is that what you're talking about in terms of trust and some of these other aspects are what constitute the foundation of a psychologically safe workplace. But, I think for many managers who are launched into this with perhaps no previous experience and come from the world of if I can’t see you, I don’t know that you are working, I think it’s going to be a challenge for some of them to change their mindset about how they are going to be able to show up and be compassionate and trust their employees and give them the autonomy they need.

Debra Lafler: Yeah, and maybe … the self-awareness, whether we call it self-awareness or emotional intelligence … can the leader first identify within themselves what am I thinking, what am I fearing? If they are feeling anxious about their employees, what are they actually fearing? To sit with themselves with compassion too to say, are these fears real, or is that my fear but not reality? Is there something I truly have to be concerned about, or am I getting anxious and there is no proof. It’s looking at everything that we’re thinking, everything that we are fearing, and sifting through it, but we can only do that higher cognitive functioning and self-awareness through a state of peace within ourselves.

Again, the regulate our bodies first, then relate to ourselves, and then reason. If we are finding that we are too anxious, too fearful, too judgmental, I would say come back to the body. You can do the grounding type of work, but that might not be enough. So there is … just think of the baby too, like rhythmic rocking. Rhythmic physical motions actually help the nervous system regulate and get you back to a more peaceful state. So, something like going for a walk is super-helpful because the body is in a slow, rhythmic motion that is bi-lateral, your body is moving. It’s kind of like a rocking, it’s like a rocking chair that you are just moving the body slowly. For some reason that rhythmic motion, even just a few minutes, even five minutes, can help regulate the body.

When I say go for a walk, the people say, I don’t have an hour. I’m busy. It’s like, five minutes. Five minutes. Just walk down the block, two minutes out, and two minutes back. You’ll be surprise at that tiny little motion. It’s blood flow, it’s hormones, it’s biochemicals. Everything starts to adjust the body again to a more peaceful state. It clears the mind a bit just so you can think through the mindfulness peace of, okay, what am I feeling, what am I thinking, what do I absolutely need to do right now, and what can be put off, what’s not necessary? It’s coming back to that very basic, what can I control and what is most important right now, and letting go of anything that is outside our control.

Even like I want to make sure that my employees are working, not necessarily in your total control. So, what can you control? Communication. Checking in with them. Regular meetings. In the time of chaos right now, anything that can provide a sense of schedule that you can rely on, something that people feel peaceful about, you can provide that sense for your employees. It will help you and them at the same time.

Mari Ryan: You’ve given us some very important tips and insightful comments about how we can bring compassion into the workplace in the time that we need it so much.

If your audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they find you?

Debra Lafler: I would say my LinkedIn page is probably the best because I usually post things there that can take them to other – like even this, once we put this out there, I’ll post it on LinkedIn so that my followers can watch us.

Mari Ryan: Great, we’ve got that right on the screen there. Debra, thank you so much for your time today. As always, it’s just a delight to spend time with you.

Debra Lafler: Thank you, Mari.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, mental health, employee well-being, mental well-being, compassion, compassion at work

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.