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Connection Overload

Is conflict at work happening because people are overwhelmed by all the relationships they need to manage?

Talking with a client recently about the number of connections with customers and team members that he was dealing with gave me an insight into a problem I’ve been seeing more of just recently. The problem is this:

Sometimes, people who are great leaders, who are brilliant at their job and whose teams are delivering great results, can simultaneously have really poor relationships with their peer group of other leaders.

Why is that?

It seems weird to me that people with the interpersonal abilities to lead and manage so successfully aren’t also able to get on well with their colleagues. Somebody with those skills would be capable of great influencing, of good listening, of super coaching. So why weren’t they always being welcomed around the boardroom table as well?

Thinking about what my client had been saying, and about the sheer volume of connections he mentioned, made me wonder about this question:

Can people be overloaded by the amount of interpersonal connections they need to manage, so that their ability to have successful relationships in all areas is impaired?

In trying to answer that question, I remembered some research I’d seen around Dunbar’s Number and Compassion Fatigue…


Readers are probably familiar with Dunbar’s Number:

the cognitive limit to the number of people we can maintain stable social relationships with

The limit is thought to be around 150 people – for relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. (For those people we don’t have a ‘persistent’ relationship with – don’t interact with them that often –  the number could be higher.) I wonder how close some of us get to the limits of Dunbar’s Number, when we consider all of the client, supplier, colleague and team-member relationships we need to focus on? 150 isn’t a huge number. If you added up all the people you need to regularly connect well with, what does it come to?


Research also shows that there are limits to Empathy too.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feeling of others.

Empathy is limited in a number of ways, two of which are significant here:

  1. Empathy is limited in that it depletes our mental resources – the effort of keeping information in mind is mentally and physically draining. This is why people in caring professions are warned about the dangers of compassion fatigue – a subject I’ve written about previously here.
  2. Empathy is also limited in that it’s a finite resource until refreshed. Using empathy in one area of our work and lives reduces the amount available for other areas. This was shown by a study (click here) in which people who reported taking time to listen to colleagues’ problems and worries and helping others with heavy workloads felt less capable of connecting with their families. They felt too emotionally drained and burdened by work-related pressures to also be empathic at home.

Putting together the Dunbar’s number data and this sense of empathy as a limited resource, made at least part of this issue clearer for me. This is why some clients – often those who are otherwise great leaders – might sometimes struggle to be effective in relating to their wider peer-group. It’s quite possible that they are overwhelmed by the volume and range of relationships they need to manage.

If you’re at the head of an organisation, and you notice that some of your team leaders don’t seem to be getting on with each other, this idea of connection-overload might be one place to look.

Some questions to ask might include:

  • Are some of your team leaders having to spread their cognitive powers too thin, having to ‘know’ the preferences etc of too many people?
  • Is their empathy overloaded – their ability to relate well to others simply depleted?

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. Tell me about connection-overload in your organisation or for you personally. Where are the limits of your empathy? What’s your own Dunbar’s Number?


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Why not make a difference when you can?

How to use simple observation skills to make someone’s day

A few experiences recently have reminded me how important this is.


I had my weekly ‘thinking morning’ in my favourite coffee shop earlier this week. New staff member is there, just finishing her training. I’m writing notes but also got my ears open and she asks the manager about the plants around the cafe. The manager says that watering the plants is on the roster, but that nobody really knows anything else about them. New staff member looks around and says: “They’re all succulents, simplest plant in the world to take care of. I’ll look after them.”

Of course, my spidey-sense is really tingling now, because here’s somebody who’s just revealed both an expertise and a sense of purpose. I decide to buy an extra coffee as an excuse to open a conversation: “I heard you mention succulents – sounds like you know your stuff about plants?

This simple bit of listening and initial nosiness was all it took for me to hear this woman’s life-story and how this was a stop-gap job until she could work as a florist. And you can tell when just hearing someone like this, being witness to their hopes is big deal! All the succulents were well looked after and sung to that morning.


Last month I had lunch with a friend who I first met as a business acquittance a few years ago. He never misses a chance to ask if I remember what I said to him back then, during what was then a tough time for him. I don’t really remember what I said, but I do remember the impression I got of him at the time, which was of someone just hanging-on by his fingertips, with the strain showing, but also with this little flame flickering inside him, of something very important he wanted to fulfil. Just looking at the way he stood and a simple bit of listening about what he was trying to achieve was enough to reveal all of this.

The way he tells it, it went something like this:

Him: “I’m not sure if I can take this anymore, and I’m at the end of my tether“.

Me: “Sometimes, all it takes to turn things around is just hanging-on a little bit more“.

And it seems that simple homily was enough, because now he does exactly what that little flame was all about.


Then an email arrives from a former client, somebody I coached nearly 15 years ago. It’s to tell me how they’ve just made the next giant step towards realising a business plan we first crafted, on a beer mat (it’s a long story, but I kept a supply of them back then for doing just that…) , all that time ago. The email includes the line: “Do you remember when you asked me about X? That was the real turning point for me.

Again, I don’t really remember what I said. But I remember thinking about how strong and determined this person was.


So, this is my really important learning.

That there are opportunities to say and do things which make a huge difference for people, just waiting around for us to grasp them. And that people will remember you did this for years and years.

All it takes is a simple bit of observation, listening to what they’re saying, taking in all the other impressions you have of this person. And reflecting back something true about them.

As it’s so possible to do this, why not do it whenever you can?


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Compassion Fatigue

If my client is experiencing compassion-fatigue, how do I spot it, what might it tell me about their situation, and what should we do about it?

As I write this, it’s at the darkest, coldest time of year here in the northern hemisphere. Things seem strained, people feel under pressure and there are global-messages of scarcity, conflict and new cold wars.

No surprise then, that occasionally I’m seeing signs of compassion-fatigue in my clients. That said, compassion-fatigue is something that doesn’t need a global-background to happen – individual circumstances can bring it on at other times too.

Why would you be concerned about this as a coach?

My stake in the ground is that compassion is an integral part of a fully-functioning, well-rounded person and an essential element of great leadership. If it’s missing then not only is my client not able to be a well-rounded person or a good leader, but there is probably something in their life and work that is causing them harm. And we need to deal with it.

Other professionals face this too. I recently saw a great example with my accountants, dealing with a really difficult client. That client’s lack of compassion was the signal for the accountants (with great compassion themselves) to gently step-in and find out more about just what business problems their client was facing.

I want to say a little something about what compassion is – and how it fits with other similar sounding ‘states’ – before exploring how to spot compassion-fatigue and what it tells me about my client.

  • Sympathy is a heightened awareness of somebody else’s hurt. It typically sounds like this: ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I hope you are coping well.’
  • Empathy is the attempt to understand and even vicariously experience another person’s situation and emotional state – ‘being in another person’s shoes’. It focuses on experience and often reads like this: ‘It sounds like you had a bad day at the office and you probably need a break’.
  • Compassion is where someone feels empathy and then a desire to help alleviate the suffering of the other person. The emphasis here is on action. It typically sounds like this: ‘I can feel how hard it must be to go through this alone. Is there any way I can help?’

So there’s this sense that compassion includes both the awareness and understanding in sympathy and empathy – and then chooses (whether or not and how) to go beyond that into action.

Now I need to be aware of some clients’ tendency to be the ‘hero’ (click here to read my article on that) or to be always helping. But set that aside for a moment and assume that’s not the case here.

If I’m spotting compassion-fatigue, what I’m seeing and hearing in my client is an awareness (and possibly understanding) of somebody else’s pain. But no desire to get into action about it. Actually, I’ll probably see and hear more than that – closer to anger, frustration or despair at somebody else’s pain. Phrases like:

“Why is that idiot always in such a mess?

I’m sick of the fact that they can’t sort themselves out

I can’t always be the one who has to take care of things”

When I see or hear anything like that, my coaching alarm bells start ringing. My intention at this point is to make space for some exploration about my client’s own pain. It doesn’t have to be right then and there.

It also doesn’t need to be a sledge-hammer approach (“Sounds to me like you’re overloaded yourself – you need to deal with that first!”). Nor does it need to tiptoe around it (“How are things for you personally right now”). Although both of those approaches could be appropriate depending on my client’s level of self-awareness and reality-sense.

And occasionally I like to talk about the coaching process that’s going on in my head: “You know, when I hear that kind of complaint about somebody else’s pain, from somebody like you who is normally strong and compassionate, it makes me wonder what’s going on. What suffering we all carry around and that sometimes gets so heavy we don’t feel able to help carry other people any more.” – or some rubbish like that!

Bottom-line: if my client is angry, frustrated or in despair at somebody else’s plight, then there’s a good chance they are suffering themselves. They may not have realised it yet or their way of coping might be to deny it, but it is definitely worth exploring.


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