Article

Shannon Weber on how to show up for others in hard times

By Susan Lahey

Published April 28, 2020
Last updated April 28, 2020

When Shannon Weber was starting her career, she led a team at a crisis hotline. Phone calls were supposed to last only 15 minutes, during which time volunteers were instructed to establish rapport (without divulging any of their own personal information), listen, and refer callers to resources. Extending the relationship beyond that was against the rules. Fifteen minutes, Weber explained to her staff, is the optimal window for helping someone change the course of their life. Now, for a black-belt codependent like me, 15 minutes doesn’t even seem like enough time to get started. But, as Weber points out, a small change can be huge: If someone is hiking and switches to a path only a few feet away, they will still wind up in a completely different place from where the original path would have taken them.

This revelation is the first jewel in a string of short, clear, potent insights comprising Weber's book Show Up Hard: A Road Map for Helpers in Crisis. Weber—this one, not the other writer whose bio is very similar—is a social entrepreneur who teaches teams a framework she developed over 25 years in social work. After seeing how universally applicable the framework was, and how relieved people were to learn it, she decided to put it in a book.

If someone is hiking and switches to a path only a few feet away, they will still wind up in a completely different place from where the original path would have taken them.

Show Up Hard tackles how “helpers”—be that a friend, family member, colleague or manager—can learn to recognize from sensations in their own bodies, among other things, whether they’re connecting appropriately with the person they’re trying to help. It discusses how helpers can avoid overextending themselves into someone else’s journey; how to cope with the uncertainty of not knowing the “right” answers or being able to control the outcome of their helping, and more.

A big piece of Weber’s framework is how helpers show up. Many people show up as “missed connections” who aren’t fully present with others while they’re going through struggles. Maybe they do a lot more talking than listening. Others become enmeshed with the person in crisis, getting more invested in the outcome than the person they’re allegedly helping. Then there’s showing up as a “Compassionate Witness” to someone else’s journey. You’re fully present for a moment to help facilitate change.

[Related read: 4 things you can do to practice empathy at work]

“As a witness of another’s experience, it is not up to us to save them, to define their success, to fix a situation, or even to know the right answers,” she writes. “The Compassionate Witness is not attached to the outcome.” But rather than leave it there, she goes on to tell stories—mostly of her own experience—about learning how to learn to embrace and embody that role effectively.

Weber began her own journey as a social worker as the oldest of 14 children, eight of whom were adopted.

“So much of who I am is because of my parents, who were so incredibly loving and generous and compassionate and taught us that it was our responsibility to create good in the world,” she said by phone. “They taught us that you give what you have…at the moment. That might be a listening ear, another time it might be money, another time resources. You give what you have to give.”

"As a witness of another's experience, it is not up to us to save them, to define their success, to fix a situation, or even to know the right answers." —Shannon Weber

It wasn’t until later, when she was unexpectedly divorced with three children, that she learned the other side of that coin: self-care. You can’t show up hard if you’ve allowed your energy stores to be drained. She said if she’d been on her own, she still might never have learned how crucial it was to take care of herself. What she couldn’t do for herself, she found she could force herself to do for the sake of her children: that is to pursue emotional and physical restoration in between “helping.” At the time, she had very little money and replenishment looked different from what most people expect. It wasn’t getting a massage, going on a vacation, even going to a movie, because she couldn’t afford those things. Instead, her restoration might be dancing in the living room, trading babysitting with a neighbor, or taking night hikes. In 25 years, Weber has worked in a variety of high stress environments that includes crisis centers for HIV providers, making referrals for HIV affected couples who want to conceive, in courthouses where she helped people file restraining and other types of protective orders. Her ability to be resilient through it all depended on her ability to watch her sleep and care for her own needs for creativity and peace.

[Related read: Can burnout actually be good for you?]

Stamping your emotional passport

Today, having emotional intelligence, empathy, and knowing how to deal with employee struggles with mental illness—including things like anxiety and depression—is increasingly important for managers, even before COVID-19 and indisputably afterward. But few people outside of social services are trained to fill this supportive role. Show Up Hard emphasizes that it’s not about doing everything right. As a trained social worker, Weber considers herself still on the journey, traveling through different emotional experiences and collecting what she calls stamps in her passport.

Of all the pithy and profound messages in her book, she said, “I want to really call people to see themselves as leaders. Leadership isn’t about a certain title or a certain hierarchy. How many times are you really changed by the CEO? It’s more often the front desk person or the person who took the time to see you.”

People often feel daunted about trying to help someone in crisis, but it’s always a learning experience and it’s best when you show up as someone who is open and curious, rather than as the expert. Allow people to be the leaders in their own lives. Frequently, she said, we can have our own narrative working in the experience; we tell ourselves a story of some gain we might get from helping, whether it’s to mitigate our shame or reward our ego. If we’re operating from that place, we may not be helping much, but Weber said that’s a temptation she still has to wrestle with sometimes, too.

"I want to really call people to see themselves as leaders. Leadership isn't about a certain title or a certain hierarchy." —Shannon Weber

Paying attention to how our bodies are responding in the moment can help. Are you aware of your body tensing up, sending you signals of urgency or anxiety about the situation? You might be over-investing in the outcome rather than being a calm presence in someone else’s journey. How are you breathing? How is the other person breathing? The body, Weber told me, “knows things and remembers things that the brain might not think are super important.” Her experiences in contact improv, dance, and yoga have taught her a lot. One chapter in her book is dedicated to an idea she learned in yoga: to have a strong back and a soft front. To her teacher, that referred to a yoga pose, but to Weber, it represented the intersection of empathy and resilience.

[Related read: Being human at work: the benefits of showing up whole]

Be the organization where people show up

While the book focuses on the personal journey of a helper, much of Weber’s work is with organizations that want to be more empathetic and emotionally intelligent. That may be her next journey as an author, helping companies to evolve in this direction.

Even organizations and managers with the best intentions can do damage while attempting to help, Weber writes in Show Up Hard. For example, this might be the organization that’s committed to social justice but lacks honest feedback loops where people can openly appraise whether work culture aligns with the organization’s vision. Or it happens when people in a position of power relegate the emotional labor to others around them. Because of the urgency of this issue, she’s created a free 30-day ecourse that anyone can access.

[Related read: The weight of emotional labor in the workplace]

“The empathy journey I’m talking about is more than making a storyboard or profile and persona,” Weber said. “There’s a risk to being deeply empathetic. You’re going to find out you’re wrong. You’re going to fall in love. And your worldview is going to change... You’re going to be deeply moved.”

The way Weber paints it, an empathy journey is an adventure, one that anyone can go on. One that requires courage and a willingness to learn and fail, for the sake of compassion. It’s a journey that we may be called to especially now, when the whole world is going through an experience that is frightening, stressful, anxiety producing. But we’re going through it together and we can all be compassionate witnesses to one another’s journey through this time.

The way Weber paints it, an empathy journey is an adventure, one that anyone can go on. One that requires courage and a willingness to learn and fail, for the sake of compassion.

“I’m profoundly hopeful that the current crisis is illuminating our lack of structures to support people,” she said. “Out of all this pain there’s an opportunity to do something much better.” She quoted Mother Teresa, whom she greatly admires: “Today, if we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”