The Importance of Empathy When Having a Difficult Conversation by Violet Dhu

One of the reasons why people don’t achieve their goals in having difficult conversations is because we tend to focus on the other person and what the other person has done wrong and our own needs. We forget that in difficult conversations, that the other person also needs to feel listened to and validated.

When we are anxious about having a difficult conversation, we often try to rush the conversation, or we avoid the conversation and try and sweep it under the carpet.  Alternatively, we just go in guns blazing with an urgency and a need to fix it.

We tend to have this unhelpful belief that our emotions and the other parties emotions are not necessary.  We dismiss the other person’s feelings and focus on the problem.  However, we all know that when dealing with an awkward or difficult conversation, it’s important to acknowledge the other persons perspective, and what their needs are. This is basic negotiation science.

Daniel Goleman describes three types of empathy. For us to successfully have a difficult conversation and do it well, we need to focus on all three.

  1. Cognitive Empathy – See their point of view
  2. Emotional Empathy – Feel what they feel 
  3. Compassionate Empathy – Be ready to take action and help

There are some common “Empathy Traps” that leaders face when having a difficult conversation.

  1. We think that we are empathic and we are not. We have this false belief that we feel empathy, but we are not demonstrating that empathy to the other party. 
  2. Empathy takes time and effort. And we just want to dive in and solve the problem and have the difficult conversation. 
  3. We need to slow down and truly listen to the other person. This requires us to be present and to silence our internal chatter. 
  4. We need to be open and willing to understand what the other person is going through. 
  5. We need to focus and take the time to understand what the other persons fears and concerns are. In the Harvard University “Difficult Conversations Program” the first goal is to reduce the other persons fear about having a difficult conversation. 
  6. We need to reflect on how we can demonstrate empathy when approaching the conversation. 

We can start by asking ourselves.

  • “How would I feel if I was in this situation?”
  • “What would I need from my leader, the team and the business at this time?”
  • “What actions do I have to implement to show empathy?”

It is important to remember that every interaction you share with another person is a chance to see things from a different perspective and a chance to show empathy. The following strategies will assist you in demonstrating empathy when approaching a difficult conversation.

  1. Invest the time and energy in preparing for the difficult conversation.
  2. Avoid getting stuck in a fixed mindset of, “I am right you are wrong”.
  3. Take the time set up the room so as reduce any physical barriers. 
  4. Give the person as much choice as possible. For example, give them options of times to meet.
  5. Protect the persons privacy by taking the meeting away from the site or to a time when other people are less likely to interrupt.
  6. Be aware of your nonverbal communication. 
  7. Focus on how “we can work together”, to resolve this together.
  8. Move away from the urge to blame or shame the other person.
  9. Describe how their behaviour is impacting on yourself and the business. 
  10.  Be honest with the other person and clarify expectations early.

Finally, the next time you struggle to see something from another person’s point of view, try to remember: You do not have the whole picture. At any given time, a person is dealing with numerous factors of which you may be unaware. Empathy is the key to understanding another person’s point of view.

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