My father died: lessons in navigating loss and creating cultures of caring. An interview with Gale Nichols

How can you create cadences of care within your organization?  What does it look like to have everyone invested, actively supporting hurting employees?  Gale Nichols works at the Kelley School of Business and she played an important part in my own story of loss.  Gale shares about the death of her father as well as how she created a culture of proactive care in her role as the Director of Student Services and Global Programs. 

You can listen to the entirety of our conversation below. The Handle with Care: Empathy at Work podcast can also be found on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play.

Gale Nichols. Kelley School of Business at IU, Director of Student Services and Global Programs

Gale Nichols. Kelley School of Business at IU, Director of Student Services and Global Programs

Three primary lessons emerged from my conversation with Gale

  1. Learn to listen and ask good questions.  Resist the urge to first offer a quick answer or the solution that worked within your own story.  In the words of Steiner’s haiku:  tell less and ask more. Your advice is not as good as you think it is.  You can practice this question asking now, even before a disruptive life event affects someone close to you.  In your next social interaction, resolve to talk less and listen more.  Pay attention to how much air time you take up during the encounter.  You will build the skill of listening and question asking through practice. 

  2. Take an honest look at how connected your organization is in providing care.  What are your current support systems?  At the Kelley School, an interconnected web of stakeholders, from the Dean to the professors to the office of Student services exist to help students thrive.  How about in your company?  In your community or place of worship?  How are people cared for?  Who is falling through the cracks?  Are there processes in place?  Is care and empathy seen as the responsibility of just one individual or department?  If you don’t know, take time to ask.  Or bring on a professional.  In my role as a workplace empathy consultant, I conduct interviews, administer surveys, and assess support systems in order to to give you a comprehensive picture of your existing cadences of care.

  3. Recognize that not everyone’s path through grief will look the same.  As Gale said, there are ups and downs, the person who seemed fine in the morning could be weeping by noontime.  If you are walking through something hard, be patient with these upheavals, allow yourself to feel the big emotions.  And if you are a caregiver or a manager or a friend, in the words of Gale, “go with the flow and meet them where they are”

Gale in Japan

Gale in Japan

Here are some additional excerpts from our conversation:

Create spaces for hurting people to support one another

19:40- Gale Nichols

One thing that I'm really pleased about and proud of that we've launched here in the MBA program this year. It's called Kelleys helping Kelleys and it's a kind of support group. It's student facilitated, just for the students who are going through a family illness or have experienced a death in their family or their close circle. And, at any given point in time, we have six or eight students something like that who are participating in this group. They meet every other week and they're just helping each other and talking about what's going on. What they need. They're checking in on each other in between meetings and they've really valued that connection. The genesis of that group was this:  for whatever reason, back in the fall, I had what seemed like an unusually large number of students coming in to tell me about difficult situations that family members who were seriously ill or family members who had died recently. And the students were often saying, I don't want to tell any of my classmates about it. I don't want to burden them. Everybody's so busy or they wouldn't understand or what have you. But yet, they really needed somebody to talk to, somebody who was in the same circumstances with the courses, with the job search, with all of the things that MBA students are going through. And I wondered what it might be like to form a support group of students who are going through or have recently gone through these same kinds of situations and I tossed the idea out to some of these students and they said I would love that. And it's taken on it's taken off and I really don't have any role in it at this point except for arranging a room for them…

…Yeah. I wonder what it would be like in a workplace to organize such a group to have that energy. Yeah yeah. HR or some function, sort of organizes it and creates the space for it but doesn't manage it, doesn't facilitate it, just lets people know about it. Yeah. And if they care to join the group, great, if not: great. I see how it's helped the students. And it doesn't need a formal facilitator or a psychologist or anybody to be part of it.

You can’t fix every problem

27:13 - Gale Nichols

The biggest challenge is, this is, this is, just an issue within myself. I want to fix everything and learning that I can't fix everything has been harder than I might have anticipated. I can't make their loved one healthy. I can't do their classwork for them. I can't make decisions for them about whether they should take time off from school to go be with their loved one or stay here and reduce their course load so they can free up some time. I just, I can't solve every problem and I don't know how to solve every problem.

Gale in Israel

Gale in Israel