Many people describe themselves as empathetic, saying things like, "I feel other people's pain" or "people vent about their problems to me because I am a good listener." These are misguided statements; rather than being emphatic, these well-intentioned people are sympathizing. While nuanced, there are important distinctions between empathy and sympathy.
Sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone, usually pity. It's relatively automatic, effortless, and often sounds like commiserating. "That really sucks. No wonder you're so mad! I would be, too!"
Empathy is the ability to understand other people's feelings because you have a shared experience. You can console because you have walked in similar shoes. Empathy sounds like, "I hear you, I've been there before, too. What can you do to make it better?"
The difference is subtle but important. While sympathy is an appropriate response in certain cases, many times it causes collusion, validating that he or she is a victim of circumstance. This only adds to drama and negativity.
Being empathetic is more effective; it fuels connection and creates accountability to solve problems. As Amy Fortney Parks, educator and psychologist states, "Empathy is when you're down in a deep, dark pit and I climb down with you and say, "It's really dark down here. How are we going to get out of here?" That's empathy. Stepping into someone's shoes, figuring out what he or she is feeling and how to solve the problem."
Here are some tips to be more empathetic:
Don't Give Advice
We naturally want to give advice, but this usually is not what the person is looking for, nor does it help him or her step out of victim mentality. Most people just want to be heard so listen thoughtfully and offer to help develop a solution.
Workplace example: someone just got moved in a company reorg
Don't say: "If I were you, I would put my head down and work hard."
Do say: "This must be very upsetting news for you. Once you've had a chance to process it, I'll help you brainstorm a path forward."
Avoid Saying "You Poor Thing"
Most people dislike being pitied; it makes them feel small. Since empathy is about understanding and empowering, acknowledge the situation and redirect to problem-solving.
Workplace example: someone just received tough feedback from his/her manager
Don't say: "I'm so sorry. That's awful. I feel so badly for you."
Do say: "That sounds like tough feedback and it must have stung. How are you going to address it?"
It's so easy to fall into the gossip trap when there is interpersonal conflict in the workplace. Don't engage, don't collude! Complaining about a coworker behind his or her back is toxic behavior; it tears apart a culture and it not only doesn't resolve the problem, but it also makes it worse.
Workplace example: someone is in a conflict with a co-worker
Don't say: "I would be upset, too. She never pulls her weight on the team. I wish her manager would do something about it!"
Do say: "It seems that you are upset by the situation. What can you do to make the situation better? Can I facilitate a conversation between the two of you?"
Don't Paint a Silver Lining
On a different note, being empathetic isn't about minimizing or putting a sunshiny positive spin on every hard situation. Most people don't want to hear how everything is going to be just fine. Instead, acknowledge the person's feelings and help him or her determine one thing that can be done to make the situation better.
Workplace example: someone is feeling overloaded with work
Don't say: "It's going to be okay; things will slow down next month. You can make it! And at least we are busy; it's job security!"
Do say: "I can imagine you may be feeling stressed about your current workload. What can be done today to make things feel more manageable?"
Empathizing with others will make them feel more respected, connected, and supported while at the same time holding them accountable for finding a solution rather than wallowing in a pity party. It takes intentional practice to be more emphatic but doing so will make you a better coworker, manager and friend.
Thanks for reading! Please share, like and comment to spread the message!
I recently found myself in a situation where I needed to apologize to someone I hurt. I was conflicted, my thoughts filled with self-justifying righteousness, “I am right, and I am hurt, too!” Yet at the same time, I was filled with regret, choking on unfinished words and self-reproach. “This isn’t turning out the way I want it to,” I said to myself. Ugh…the only way to get myself out of my self-inflected situation was to say, “I’m sorry.”
Apologizing is difficult, especially when the stakes are high and the hurt runs deep. It’s easy to let yourself off the hook, blaming the other person and minimizing your role in the situation. When you finally bring yourself to say the words, stress hormones flood the body creating fight or flight responses. Your brain screams, “Don’t do it! Run!” or “Get mad! Don’t go down without a fight!” It’s takes everything in your power to go through with it. Your mind spins as you think of the million ways to express yourself. But in the end, it’s worth it. When you apologize, it allows space for both you and the other person to move forward, to let go, to forgive. It will make you and the other person feel better.
So how do you apologize the right way?
Write Down the Outcomes You Want
Before you go into a high stress situation, know what you want to get out of it. Write down your desired outcomes and keep them handy during the conversation; it will help you stay on track if the person responds emotionally and you can review them if you find yourself getting emotional or making excuses. Examples of outcomes might be to repair a damaged relationship, defuse an emotional situation, or simply to own your part in a conflict.
Check Your Emotions. Choose How You Want to Feel
Emotions don’t have to dictate your feelings and reactions. Even when they are strong, you can still choose how you want to feel. You can choose to feel compassion, relief, or ownership. Or you can also choose to feel angry, justified, or shameful. It’s up to you to determine your outlook on the situation, so check your emotions and choose to see the bright side of apologizing.
Apologize. Own it. Don’t Over Explain Your Actions
It’s best to just say, “I am sorry; I own what I did.” Most people don’t want to hear excuses because they water down the apology and make it feel insincere. Sometimes though, it may be appropriate to explain your side, but only do it to help the person forgive, not to minimize your role in what happened. Over explaining sounds like excuse making.
Express Regret, Be Specific
In addition to saying, “I’m sorry,” you should express regret for hurting the other person. For example, “I regret hurting you; it was wrong of me to blame you and it damaged our relationship. Our relationship is important to me and I understand that I have to earn your trust back.” This validates the person’s feelings which is what most people want out of an apology. Being specific brings a tone of sincerity and it shows you understand how your actions affected the person.
Ask Questions and Listen
Remember, the person you are apologizing to isn’t there to only hear you out. Give him or her the opportunity to respond. Ask questions to draw out meaningful dialogue, listen carefully and don’t get defensive.
Make Commitments and Keep Them
After you’ve apologized and expressed regret, make a commitment to change your behavior. Outline what you are going to do differently and follow through. Everyone makes mistakes but there is nothing worse than repeating it because you didn’t change your behavior. Trust can be rebuilt quickly if you demonstrate that you’ve learned from what happened.
Smile, Say Thank You and Leave
At the end of your apology, smile. Smiling makes everyone feel better and it releases tension. Thank the person for listening and then leave. Most people need time to process and hanging around afterwards doesn’t allow the space required to do so.
Following these steps will help you deliver a sincere, meaningful apology and will start the process of forgiveness. As famous cartoonist Lynn Johnson famously wrote, “An apology is the super glue of life. It can repair just about anything.”
Thanks for reading and as always, I appreciate comments, likes and shares!
We all have high maintenance people in our lives. You know the person...the one who is never satisfied, the one who never stops talking, the one who makes snippy comments, the one who doesn’t follow the process, or the narcissist who is always right. No matter where you work, you’ll have to deal with those who make things harder than they have to be. While it may seem like your life would be better if you didn’t have to deal with people like this, difficult people can actually make things better in an organization.
Humans are designed to solve problems; that’s why we are all so different. We each see the world through our own lens and bring different perspectives to the table. In the workplace, having different and even opposing opinions is critical to good decision making. While it may “feel” better to have peace and harmony, it’s not ideal. Conflict is good if it’s handled appropriately because it forces a team to look at all the possibilities. Conflict should be encouraged and managed.
That’s all fine and dandy, but what about those difficult people who drive you crazy? How can you minimize their impact on you while still gaining the benefits of having different styles on your team? Here are my tips on how to handle yourself when you are ready to pull your hair out.
First Look Within
Always start with yourself. Is the person you find difficult really the problem or are you overreacting? Are you making assumptions or being too sensitive? While it’s easy to blame the other person, you may have a role in the situation. Ask for feedback from a trusted coworker about how you’re perceived when you are dealing with the difficult person. You may be surprised what you learn.
See it From a Different Perspective
Take a walk in the person’s shoes. Try to think like him. What are his motivations and fears? What’s his personality type and how does that show up when he’s stressed? If there is one thing you can do to improve your situation, it’s to try to see it from other people’s perspectives. Doing so will give you insight so you can flex your style to better match his, allowing you to have greater influence over the outcome.
Address it Directly
The best way to resolve issues in the work place is to deal with them directly. First, make sure you are not emotional; you will get the best results when you can be pleasant and agreeable. Ask questions first; always seek to understand before launching into your grievances. You may learn that your perception of the situation is incorrect and you’ll then be able to pivot if necessary. Explain why and how her behavior is negatively impacting you and others. Offer solutions to how she might be able to more effectively work within the team. Yes, it can be intimidating to approach a difficult person to give feedback, but 9 times out of 10, you can make progress by addressing the issue head-on.
Many people lash out and act inappropriately when they feel they aren’t being heard. Sometimes, all it takes to positively affect bad behavior is to listen to them and validate their feelings and concerns.
Pick Your Battles
Some things are not worth being upset about or fighting for. Sometimes the best solution may be to just let go of your annoyance or frustration. How do you do this? Find something positive to appreciate about the person. Remind yourself that he is human and has hopes and fears, just like you. Smile to yourself, and say “how fascinating” when he exhibits poor behavior. Choose to accept the person for who he is and where he is on his journey. Only flight the battles worth fighting.
Don’t Take it Personally
It’s easy to make everything about you. I’m here to tell you that 99% of the time, it’s not, so don't take it personally. People are not purposefully trying to make your life miserable. Letting yourself become offended or defensive will only escalate the situation and prolong conflict. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is really about whatever is going on with the other person.
Difficult people are challenging but if you practice the above tips, you will be able to keep your cool, respond appropriately, and handle difficulty with grace and compassion. There is always something to be gained in every experience so ask yourself what you can learn and choose to let the situation make you a better communicator, coworker and person.
As always, thanks for reading! I really appreciate comments, likes and shares so please do so if you feel inclined. Click here to receive my blogs in your inbox.
Candidness is such a rarity today; maybe it always has been. We say we want it but tend to become defensive when we get it. Fear of negative reactions, conflict, and hurt feelings cause us to not want to be candid. But without it, so much goes left unsaid leaving missed opportunities to see new perspectives, course correct, and improve.
What exactly is candidness? Merriam Webster Dictionary has a simple yet articulate definition: the free expression of one’s true feelings and opinions. Candidness is the quality of speaking with honesty, authenticity, and directness.
But in my (candid) opinion, what’s missing from these definitions is the fact that effective candor is a two way street. It not only involves expressing your true feelings and opinions, but also listening (and considering) what others are saying. It’s not about “just telling it like it is” and walking away. It’s about engaging in meaningful conversation or debate about topics that matter to those involved. Candor is a dialogue, not an opportunity to stand on one’s soap box pontificating, lecturing, or spewing hurtful opinions (think Donald Trump). When candor moves away from individual points of view, it opens the door to honest communication where you can explore meaningful, opposing, even uncomfortable, ideas and perspectives.
It’s simple…without direct, honest feedback, no one and no organization can improve. Smart ideas are left unexplored when people are too intimated to speak up and share their thoughts. Assumptions go unchallenged leading to poor decision making and failure to anticipate what might go wrong. A lack of straightforward communication affects every relationship and every organization. Candidness is essential to solving the problems we face on a day-to-day basis.
The Decision to be Candid is a Personal Choice
No one can make you be candid. It’s 100% up to you to decide whether or not you are going to engage in thoughtful, honest, mutually beneficial communication. Sure, some people make it easier to be candid than others, but ultimately, it’s your responsibility. It might be messy at first…there is always a learning curve when you are figuring out how to effectively communicate with those you live with and work with, but it’s worth the effort (and pain). Like any skill, candor takes practice and self-evaluation. When the delivery of your message isn’t well received, it may seem easier to shut down and clam up, vowing to never give feedback again, but this is the opposite of what you should do. Evaluate yourself. Was your tone to harsh? Did you have poor timing? Did you try to sugar coat the message? Which leads me to…
How to Be More Candid Without Damaging Relationships
We all fear being too candid. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or make them mad, we don’t want to be viewed as a jerk, we fear that our words will be held against us, or that we may be passed up for a promotion because we shed light on a problem. These are all excuses. Candor can be done in a way that improves relationships, builds trust, and helps you be more successful. Here are some suggestions…
Candid feedback does not mean cruel feedback. Remember that the person in front of you is a human being (rather than an obstacle) with hopes, dreams, fears, and feelings…just like you. Being direct can be (and should be) done with compassion. Candor is not about attacking, blaming, shaming, or finger pointing. It’s about authentically sharing your thoughts and feelings to improve a situation. This means being clear on your intentions, motivations, and objectives. Make sure they are in the spirit of building up rather than tearing down. That being said…
2.Don’t Beat Around the Bush
Candor requires direct, straightforward speaking. Say what you think, say what you mean. Sugar coating the message minimizes your impact and it leads to misunderstandings. But…
Remember that what you are about to say is your opinion and as much as it feels like the absolute truth, you might not have the whole story (read my blog on not believing everything you think here). You may be flat out wrong. Being candid is about creating a dialogue; remaining objective helps to keep the door open rather than slamming it shut. To do this…
4.Have Specific Examples
The worst kind of feedback is unanchored feedback. Without specific examples to support your opinions, it’s hard for anyone to gain deeper insight or take you as seriously as they could. Plus without them, immediate defensiveness is created. I’ll give you an example: “I believe this this is a bad idea” vs. “I believe this is a bad idea. We don’t have enough information to proceed. Recall the last time we made a knee jerk decision…we had to undo 6 months’ worth of work and start over.” And when it’s over…
5.Ask for Feedback
As I mentioned above, being effectively candid takes practice and the best kind of practice involves analyzing what went well and what went wrong. Plus getting the opinions of others on your candidness gives you the opportunity to get better at receiving feedback, showing that you truly value candor, even when it’s directed at you.
Make no bones about it, candor doesn’t come easily. As Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, states in his book ‘Winning’, “we are socialized from childhood to soften bad news or to make nice about awkward subjects… people don’t speak their minds because it’s simply easier not to. When you tell it like it is, you can so easily create a mess –- anger, pain, confusion, sadness, resentment.” We must let go of these fears to become truly effective communicators. We must be willing to the hard work.
In my experience, the deepest, most valuable relationships I have are with those who are candid with me and whom I am candid with in return. Effective candor = effective relationships.
Thank you for reading and as always, please feel free to share, like, and comment. You can also sign up here to receive my blogs in your inbox…just scroll down to the bottom of my home page and submit your email address.
It’s hard pick up the phone and call (or have a face-to-face meeting) when you can hide behind an email. I know from experience…I’ve typed many an email despite that nagging feeling that I should pick up the phone and call the person. My mouse anxiously hovers over the SEND button while I argue with myself...“I really should call. But emailing is so much easier. Ugh. Just hit delete and call. Ugh. Ok, take a deep breath and dial.”
I’m sure you’ve been there, too. You have to deliver bad news, receive painful feedback, talk to someone you dislike, or follow up with someone you were hoping would call you. There’s a pit in the bottom of your stomach. You tell yourself it would be so much less complicated to type up an email. You convince yourself that receiving an email would be easier on the person you have to communicate with, too. You come up with excuses as to why you HAD to write the email instead of communicating in person. You apologize for not calling (without admitting you lacked the courage, of course) and then hit send. It’s out in ether now…it’s out of your control. Whew, don’t you feel better?
The answer should be no. You shouldn’t feel better. Avoiding in-person communication, whether over the phone or face-to-face, is the easy way out. And taking the easy way out never feels good, especially in the long run because over time, it tears at your reputation and your self-esteem.
Making the call when you’d rather email takes courage and a commitment to always act with integrity. It shows that you respect the person you are communicating with. It demonstrates that you have strong character and don’t shy away from the discomfort of difficult conversations. When it comes to doing right by others, you should never take the easy way out. Just pick up the phone and call.
Oh, one more thing, making the call only to leave a voicemail doesn’t count.
If you’d like some tips on preparing for the call/meeting, please read this blog (the power of the WHY) and this blog (delivering bad news).
One of the hardest things to do is deliver bad news. I can’t imagine that there is anyone out there who enjoys it. As much as I believe in direct, honest communication, giving feedback, and working through conflict, I dislike giving bad news the most.
I recently had to deliver bad news to several people and it helped me put some things into perspective and I learned a few things along the way. Even though it was incredibly difficult, I am grateful for the experience.
So what did I learn?
I learned how important it is to simplify my message as much as possible. When getting bad news, most people shut down or go into fight or flight mode. At first, I tried to fit too much into the delivery of the news (such as all the reasons why) and it confused people. When I reduced it to one sentence, it made it so much easier. Just speak the one sentence.
Silence can be awkward and uncomfortable so we (ok, I) have a strong desire to fill it with more words. I screwed this up a few times by jamming in the WHY immediately after the message. I found I was much more effective and felt calmer when I allowed the silence to be silent. Therefore, after giving the news, I practiced letting the listener sit with it. This is so incredibly hard but so incredibly important. You need to let it sink in before going into the why of the message. And you need to take a deep breath before you continue with the WHY. Silence lets you do this.
I wrote a blog post on the importance of the WHY, so please feel free to reread it here if you would like to understand its significance. Just remember, keep the WHY simple so it’s easier to digest. Bullet point the reasons out, speak them in one or two sentences, and then give the listener space.
Back to taking a deep breath…more than ever before, I learned how important it is to stay in your body and breathe when giving bad news. I found that in anticipation of communicating the news (both in preparation and right before opening my mouth), I experienced the fight or flight rush of stress hormones. I really wanted to avoid this because it causes me to hurry…I want to get it over with as fast as possible. And I dislike the physical and emotional aftermath of adrenaline and cortisol. Before and during the delivery, I took deep breaths into my back and kidneys, paying attention to them the entire time. I can’t tell you how much this helped me keep my composure. I noticed that others matched my breathing, too, which helped them stay calm. Stay centered and just breathe.
I also gained some perspective on my need to try to fix things. I identify with being a problem solver and I found myself wanting to offer solutions when really, it wasn’t my place to do so. Understanding this before I went into my conversations helped me be okay with just delivering the message. Sometimes, you just can’t fix the problem for the person and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Throughout this process, my mantra was “compassion, grace, and gratitude.” That’s how I wanted to deliver my message, always keeping in mind the importance of treating my fellow human beings with dignity and respect, always being grateful for the experience, even when it’s uncomfortable. But I have to say, I’m glad it’s over.
Thanks for reading…writing this was very therapeutic. Now I am going to go breathe.
A Quick Blurb on what this blog is about.
Welcome to my blog! My name is Kerry Siggins and plain speaking, honest leadership is my mantra. My intention is to help those who lead (or want to lead) become better at saying and doing what needs to be said and done in a way that it can be heard and seen, one person at a time.