A phone interview with Brigit Ritchie in the midst of a global crisis opens like this:
Me: How are you?
Her: I’m doing okay… And I’m not okay. It’s a mix of everything. How are you?
Ritchie’s honesty is immediately disarming and inspires me to reconsider my usual chipper response (“Great!) and instead say truthfully, “Yeah. Me too.”
We both take a breath before launching into our conversation.
This 30-second interaction is at the core of Ritchie’s work at WE, a learning studio that facilitates workshops, retreats, and art experiences to re-imagine relationships in and out of work.
“It is WE’s mission to equip every person with tools and practices for lasting well-being through Relational Mindfulness: connecting with themselves, other people, and their community,” reads their manifesto of sorts.
You could almost be forgiven for writing off WE as another vague, New Age-style approach to understand yourself better. But, upon closer inspection, Ritchie’s roots—and her company—run much deeper.
From emotional rags to riches
Ritchie was an artist before she became a CEO that works with companies like Facebook, Warby Parker, and Uber. Right after graduating art school, over 10 years ago, she became a mother. She struggled to balance family, including a child with special needs, run an art studio and be creative, all while making a living and managing her college debt. To deal with the crushing weight of it all, she sought out a personal and professional support system.
“I knew a lot of women who were also post-college and had kids way too early, so I started these simple groups which formed the basis of Relational Mindfulness. We listened, gave and received support, and shared best practices for how to continue to grow professionally,” said Ritchie.
She began partnering with organizations to offer workshops and retreats to a larger circle of women in Los Angeles and, in time, launched a curriculum for female leaders. “It exploded. I knew how powerful [the program] was for myself, but the ripple effect was so profound. We had people who advocated for a raise for the first time, decided to get into or out of partnerships, considered whether they wanted to have kids and work. It was a wonderful, holistic impact that happened through the curriculum.”
She began partnering with organizations to offer workshops and retreats to a larger circle of women in Los Angeles and, in time, launched a curriculum for female leaders.
When the Time’s Up movement came to life about three years ago—now a nonprofit organization committed to “safe, fair, and dignified work for all women”—Ritchie decided to expand her efforts to ensure that any underrepresented group advocating for change could feel like the culture was more inclusive and to “create a sense of belonging for those who aren’t the loudest voice in the room.” She hired a cofounder and a team and started bringing workshops that highlight mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and inclusive leadership skills into workplaces.
The result was a “phenomenal” reception and buy-in from companies that wanted to reimagine their cultures. WE’s workshops are designed to provide a transformational experience that allow participants to look for meaning and belonging at work while creating healthy relationships and connections with each other.
Today, WE offers co-ed workshops from their loft space in downtown LA but the team travels often to provide courses within workplaces. They also teach others to become WE-certified Relational Mindfulness facilitators so they can bring it back to their companies.
In the spirit of sharing, Ritchie offered four tips that will help all of us connect with ourselves and others in the workplace.
[Related read: Not feeling it? Learn how to navigate the roadblocks to empathy]
Practice self care
“We have a saying at WE: ‘You can’t give away what you don’t have,’” she said.
If you’re in a support or customer-facing role, answering questions and holding space for people to give feedback, you need to give to yourself too. “It’s important to understand that we’re all human and there needs to be room in your role for your own personal wellbeing.”
If you’re in a support or customer-facing role, answering questions and holding space for people to give feedback, you need to give to yourself too.
That means acknowledging what you’re giving to others and what you can do for yourself to replenish that well. “It can be as simple as pausing to take deep breaths and check in with your body. These activities are available to everyday people like you and me who aren’t spending hours a day in meditation. You can set yourself up for success and maintain energy and sense of connection to their own values and health and wellbeing.”
Practice active listening
Active listening is Ritchie’s favorite thing to teach inside companies like Patagonia, goop, and Lululemon.
“It’s a concept that is usually associated with couples’ therapy or interpersonal work, but it’s successful in companies because it’s so simple,” she said.
The three principles to active listening are:
- Pause. Slow down to create more space for reflection instead of jumping in and responding when someone is finished speaking. Give their words a chance to breathe so you can connect on a deeper level.
- Reflect back. Share with them what you think you heard. This step ensures you’re hearing them right, validates what they said, and helps you retain information. “I heard you say…”
- Express direct, immediate appreciation. A brief and sincere expression of gratitude can go a long way to disarming a customer, co-worker, or employee. “I appreciate you taking the time to share this with me…”, “I appreciate the level of thought in bringing this question to me…” or “I appreciate that you brought humor to this stressful situation. Thanks for making me laugh, it made me feel better…” all work toward this goal of breaking down barriers between people.
[Related read: Why being an accomplice is better than being an ally]
Whether we intend to or not, we often make judgments about a person’s character based on their behavior in one interaction. This creates walls that restrict communication instead of pathways to connection.
We all experience stress and conflict differently. Some people explode, others are passive aggressive, still others go silent. There can be a huge disparity between how we process and express hard times. Ritchie says remembering empathy is an effective way to defuse a tough interaction.
“We talk about approaching conflict resolution with empathy. This doesn’t mean we’re creating permission for behavior or actions that offend. We’re simply giving people the benefit of the doubt that they are dealing with some tough stuff,” she said.
Practice relational repair
One of WE’s conflict resolution techniques is called relational repair. “We have a sequence that we walk people through, starting with a posture of empathy, then clearly stating a specific, tangible action and its impact. For example, ‘I was interrupted in the meeting and it felt like I couldn’t get my ideas across.’”
“We talk about approaching conflict resolution with empathy. This doesn’t mean we’re creating permission for behavior or actions that offend. We’re simply giving people the benefit of the doubt that they are dealing with some tough stuff.” – Brigit Ritchie
From there, you can invite a co-worker or manager to take a new approach, such as “I would love it if you could wait until I’m finished getting my idea across and then I absolutely want to hear what you have to say.”
Ritchie asks participants to wrap up the conversation by acknowledging the potential of their connection. “You don’t have to be best friends, but you can reimagine professional relationships by addressing issues that express to the other person that your relationship with them is important. Something like, ‘I believe it’s possible for us to work well together. You have great ideas; I have great ideas—we are really great working together. Let’s just take a moment to think about how to work together even better.’”
With a career devoted to inspiring these moments of human-to-human empathy, Ritchie has come full circle from her early days juggling family and art. She’s still a mom and an artist—she’s just a much better supported one now.