Closeup of two pairs of hands, one black and one white.

As Head of RTI's Racial Justice and Equity Program, Cara Valentino wrote the following August message for RTI staff, encouraging us to reflect on our lived experiences with structural and interpersonal bias, and how we can foster a culture of belonging at work and beyond. We invite the Insights audience to join us in the same spirit of reflection.

Last month I was in my garage and got a splinter in my index finger. It was a deep one and hurt quite a bit. I managed to get it out, put some Neosporin and a Band-Aid on it, and continued about my business. But it hurt a lot, and for a few days it was quite sensitive. Working on my laptop was uncomfortable, I couldn’t use that finger to dial my phone due to the Band-Aid. Even ringing the doorbell at a friend’s house later that week was painful. You could say I was suffering.

And while it was painful and occupied my brain space in ways I would rather not have experienced, I didn’t whine about it—the world is not an environment free from suffering or one where we’re always happy. But as the week progressed, I found myself noticing other people’s reactions to my finger. “Oh!  What happened?  What did you do to your finger?” they would ask. Many were very empathetic and told me stories of splinters they or their children had gotten in the past.

Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist, explains that there are three different kinds of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Cognitive empathy is when you notice that I have a splinter in my finger. You understand that it means I can’t do my work, ring the doorbell or dial numbers on my phone, because that index finger is something I use for many daily activities. And you understand that it’s difficult for me, but your understanding doesn’t change my suffering.

Emotional empathy allows us to take a deeper look at what it must be like for me to have that splinter so deeply in my finger, that it causes physical and emotional pain. From this place you might imagine, “What would that be like for me if I couldn’t use my finger to get my work done…that could have a lot of consequences.”  But still, your emotional empathy doesn’t change my suffering.

Compassionate empathy is when we are so moved by that suffering that we want to help. You realize you would never want to suffer like that because it would be intolerable. You realize how easy it is to take pain-free fingers for granted. And because you would refuse to endure a condition that was so easily solved, you couldn’t possibly allow me to suffer like that. That’s when you’d reach for the alcohol and the tweezers. You’d sanitize my finger, pull out the splinter, coat it with antibiotic ointment and add a protective covering or bandage.

Cognitive and emotional empathy are the precursors that move us towards compassionate empathy, and when it comes to racial justice and equity in the workplace, we desperately need more compassionate empathy.

Perhaps you are in a meeting with a Black colleague who is more than qualified for their role, where there is a question is on the table that requires their expertise. They offer their opinion, and it is shut down. This happens frequently for Black professionals—they offer a solution to a problem but are ignored. Or someone else who is not Black speaks up with the same good idea, and they are recognized and celebrated. Can you imagine what that must be like?

Cognitively, you notice this is a sub-optimal professional situation for your colleague AND for your organization. Emotionally, you can imagine how frustrated and devalued you would feel if you were in their shoes. Taking an imaginary walk in those shoes, you might also think about the implications, and the downstream effects on your Black colleague’s career. What must it be like for them to have worked so hard to produce their professional excellence—years of study and expertise-building, combined with significant financial investment—but then have that ignored?  How might that person feel inside at that moment?  How might it affect their morale and motivation?

What if, in that same moment, you were to speak up out of compassionate empathy?  At RTI, our leadership development training program emphasizes leveraging “I notice/I wonder/I’m curious” to address situations like what I’ve described. We can say “I noticed Keisha had an idea that didn’t get much discussion time. Greg’s idea sounds very similar to her suggestion. I wonder if Keisha is open to sharing her thinking behind the original idea…let’s open a space to hear that” and give Keisha an opportunity to speak. If people try to interrupt her, you could say: “I’m noticing that Keisha hasn’t finished what she was saying, I wonder if the investment in a few minutes of time would be possible…I’m curious about what we might learn if we have a chance to hear it. Keisha, please continue…”

That moment is a demonstration of compassionate empathy. You have modeled for your team so they can see what that looks like in practice. And, to a certain degree, you have shifted the landscape for Keisha, as well as alleviated some of her suffering, because now she has a chance to share her brilliance and expertise. You have also provided a service to RTI, which is now in a better position to receive the benefits of Keisha’s previously untapped talent.

You removed the splinter of forced invisibility that shuts off Keisha’s innovation and excellence by naming her as the owner of the original idea.

You sanitized the sore spot by wiping the slate clean in allowing her to share her idea and the thinking behind it.

You added antibacterial ointment by stopping any infectious bacteria in the form of interruptions.

Each of us is only one person. But as we continue to demonstrate compassionate empathy, even if we never talk about what we are doing, people will see us navigating awkward moments with courage and grace, and it will begin to catch on and form a level of protective covering.  

When we use our own hands and voices to remove the splinters of suffering from the hands of others, we are all empowered to advance our mission of improving the human condition. We don’t have to be a particular race or gender or even a manager to do this, it doesn’t matter.

Every one of us is capable of removing the splinter.