Radical Workplace Empathy Explained by Esther Perel

Endeavor Webinar Series:

Insights by Esther Perel

Continuing its webinar series aiming to support its network in navigating through the crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, Endeavor hosted a session with Esther Perel, the experienced psychotherapist and organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. 

Straying away from the normal business talk, Esther offers an insightful view on interpersonal relationships within one’s home and business, while introducing the audience to the idea of the “relational dowry”. Everyone has a relationship resume that is cultivated at home – in their families, communities and romantic life – that influences the way one interacts with colleagues at work. In this session, Esther shares a framework for how to cultivate relational intelligence, followed by an opportunity to connect with a small peer group to discuss how this can be applied to one’s own relationships at work and at home.

A Time of Existential Stress

Esther holds the time of isolation that we have experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic accountable to a sense of universal grief. She explains that grief pertains to something that we have lost; and in this case, we have lost the world that we have known and the way that we have organized reality around us. The fact that there weren’t and still aren’t any set procedures to follow before, during and at some point, after the COVID-19 pandemic, hovers over the daily activities that we take part in. “Not knowing what’s going to happen next and what form the new normal will take is a worry that we all feel. Some more or less than others” she states.  

“We have never been more physically apart, but we have also never been so emotionally close”

Esther claims that, nowadays, when people ask you how you’re doing and how you’re feeling, there is a greater sense of interest and concern as we are essentially all in the same boat. We can all attest to our homes being the place in which every role in our lives overlaps; as a mother, father, CEO, student, a friend, a colleague, a child. As highly contextualized beings, Esther draws attention to the difficulties that COVID-19’s quarantine precautions pose to us. We have grown up attributing a determined place and time to every activity and every role we partake in. The time between our transitions to these roles and places allows us to differentiate the requirements needed from us at each place and time. The collapse of these roles and their new place in one’s home, in the frantic manner in which the move was brought about, is very confusing. 

Adopting New Habits 

Esther deems it important to pay attention to how we are able to maintain boundaries and develop routines that facilitate our daily activities in order to give them the correct meaning we attributed to them before. More importantly, these new habits will reinstate the meaning of each activity, as going through this process is what gives them their own unique meaning. The key point she successfully portrays is that we are not working from home, but we are working with home. We have to work with what we have as much as we can to adjust our prior practices to ones that will fit more to our new environments.  

“Instead of having instant connections, we fear having instant contamination”

According to Esther, people are fearful of intimacy during these times. Instead of aiming for instant connections, they are in constant fear of being contaminated. This is due to the fact that lockdown and remote work have fundamentally changed our relationship with the space in which we share with strangers. It’s evident, as we all have experienced these past months, that we can never fully connect through a screen. Esther accredits this to the disappearance of mirror neurons, which are what usually provide us with the sense of trust that we have in reality and in humans. 

In addition, Esther explains that in the last ten years, there has been a revolution of the workplace, since the world of emotions has entered it. The two aspects of our lives being work and home have completely become identity driven and the goal of going to work is no longer just about making money and clocking out, but it has now become a learning and developing space for one’s character and skills. 

Purpose. Meaning. Belonging. Connection. 

These are four aspects that build our character. Esther reveals that we normally looked for and built these characteristics through our communities and religion, but now more often than not, we tend to find them through our work/workplaces. The entry of the “vocabulary of emotion” into work has led Esther to believe that the workplace has now shifted from a production economy, to a service economy, to an identity economy. Relational intelligence has now entered the world through these shifts and the two axes in which relational intelligence classifies itself are hierarchy and affectedness. These axes explain how you build trust within your company and how each action and by whom affects everyone in the company.  

Central vs Peripheral Relationships

People go to work and apply for jobs with two resumes; their accomplishments and their relationship history. Esther observes that we are all raised with different histories that have shaped us to view people and relationships in a certain way. She differentiates and classifies the way that relationships were taught and portrayed to you throughout life as central and peripheral. 

Central relationships are experienced as nurturing and supportive, but can also be experienced as demanding and filled with duties. With central relationships you are taught that you are not alone and people exist to help you and love you in life. Peripheral relationships are based on the notion that you only have yourself to trust and given that, nobody will be able to get the job done as well as you can, or in the way that you want. You are able to stand on your own two feet without the help of others, and this could be because you had no-one to rely on from a young age. Esther connects most entrepreneurial and CEO practices to be autonomous and self-reliant. Collaboration could feel like a weakness, and you could lead with the mindset of “if I don’t do it no-one else will”.

Finally, Esther insists that although it may seem as we go for sameness in partnerships and in the workplace, in reality, we gravitate towards people who fill in the missing pieces of ourselves and those that complement us. Taming the fear and maintaining intimacy is crucial nowadays, along with developing routines that facilitate our everyday lives, since “The surprise elements of life are dimmed at this moment” as Esther says.  


New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. As a psychotherapist, Perel has helmed a therapy practice in New York City for more than 35 years. In parallel, she serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Fluent in nine languages, Perel’s celebrated TED Talks have garnered more than 30 million views and her bestselling books have been translated into nearly 30 languages. Perel is an executive producer and the host of the award-winning podcast Where Should We Begin?. Her new podcast, How’s Work?, focuses on the invisible forces that shape workplace dynamics and she is now recruiting pairs of all types for season 2. Learn more at howswork.estherperel.com/

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