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Three ways to communicate with empathy

Updated: May 16

Communicating to your employees is easy, right? All you have to do is share words and concepts, how hard can it be?

Well according to one survey, almost seven out of ten managers (69%) admitted feeling uncomfortable communicating with their employees, being uncomfortable with “becoming vulnerable, recognizing achievements, delivering the ‘company line,’ giving clear directions, crediting others with having good ideas, speaking face to face, and having difficult feedback conversations in general.” 

It doesn’t surprise me that so many bosses find communication daunting. Unlike with basketball when the hoop is always the same, always 10 feet above the floor, our employees are far from being the same.

That’s because people take in and translate information in different ways when they receive communications. That constant pressure of “scoring” with what you’re trying to communicate leads to worrying, and often, even an “air ball.” Similarly, if the employee(s) you are speaking to are under a lot of pressure, they might be thinking about the work they are supposed to be doing rather than listening to your communication; much like a basketball player not being in the right place to receive a pass.

In our book (Bad Bosses Ruin Lives: The Building Blocks for Being a Great Boss) we share many tips on how to improve your communication skills. The area we’d like to focus on in this blog relates to communicating with empathy, which has to do with the way you communicate, e.g. the tone, words, and approach that you use. This is critical to keep in mind, for even if you communicate in the most effective way, without empathy or bringing compassion to the situation, then it will fall flat and not meet your objectives.

Empathetic communication is delivering information in a way that understands and addresses the feelings and needs of the recipient. If done well, it’s a win-win, with you being able to effectively “throw” the message to the recipient, and them being able to “catch” it as they’re in the right space and frame of mind to do so.

To help you with this, let’s look at how to use empathy in three ways - the what, when, and where you communicate information:

1) Consider the "what"

Using empathy in sharing information is impacted by both what information you share and what words you use. Here’s an example of when I got it wrong when it came to the first part.

I had an employee who was on maternity leave, something I had never been on myself at this point in time. Because of this, I couldn’t put myself in her shoes and didn’t do what I now understand to be important, which was to ask her what kind of information she wanted from me during this period of time. The result was that I hoarded information, not sharing it with her because I thought she wouldn’t want it, thinking that she’d be too busy taking care of her newborn to read any of it. Wrong! When she came back from her leave, she was quite angry with me for doing this, saying that the information would have helped her feel more connected to the business and her colleagues, and would have made her transition back to work much easier. Ouch, did I get this wrong or what?

2) Consider the "when" 

Believe it or not, the timing of when you share information can have an impact on how it makes your people feel, and thus needs to be addressed in an empathetic way. Here’s an example from our friend Pat, with a boss who got it completely wrong.

The situation was that on Pat’s last working day before they had a week off for the holiday season, Pat’s boss said that they needed to talk to them immediately. They jumped on a call, where Pat was told that the team was going to be reorganized and that Pat would find out more details when they came back from the holiday break. As you can imagine, Pat panicked, wondering how this would impact them and their team, and spent the entire week worrying about it instead of enjoying the holiday with their family and friends. In this situation, my challenge to Pat’s boss would have been, did you really need to do it then? What would have happened if you had waited another week?

3) Consider the "where" 

Another thing you may not have considered is where you share and put the information. Do you share it in an email, on a team call, or even a text? Make sure that the information is available in a form the employees can refer back to to refresh their memory, and that they all know where it is. There are so many ways to do it, so think about what will work best for your people and for the specific communication.

You may also want to signpost your people to find out more information on their own, especially if it’s ongoing or far into the future. What kind of FAQ or other information do your employees need to save you time from answering questions and so they feel the most informed?

We hope you’ve found this helpful. Please go to our website where you can find more information on our book and how to be a great boss.

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