Lead With Empathy, But Be Direct in Your Communication

Lead With Empathy, But Be Direct in Your Communication

We’ve all heard the popular advice, “Communication is key.”

Inevitably, there will be times you feel put off by something someone said or did. If it’s a recurring topic or concern in a growing relationship (colleague, friend, family, partner), it’s important to talk about it. That is, if you want something to change.

I have friends and family who will go on and on complaining about someone. (I’ve been there as well). When I ask, “Did you tell them that?” The response is, “Well…” with a long pause.

Don’t get me wrong, speaking up when someone rubs you the wrong way isn’t always easy (especially if you tend to be conflict avoidant). 

Fearful thoughts can rise when we think about confronting someone (more on conquering fear later in the chapter). But avoiding a conversation altogether causes negative feelings and resentment to build. It’s like if you swept all the house clutter under your living room rug (instead of putting it back where it goes). The pile would build and build until you finally address it.

Use this blog post to help you break through fear of confronting a problem, feel confident in what to say, and be effective in how it’s delivered.

Communicate to Be Real (Not Perfect)

Most of all, allow yourself to be human. 

It’s okay (and natural) for conversations to feel messy and imperfect. After all, you’re likely navigating messy thoughts and feelings. Have compassion for yourself. We’re all doing the best we can with the resources we have at each moment. 

Don’t beat yourself up for all the things you thought you “should” have said (after the conversation). Or as my friend’s therapist once told her, “Don’t should all over yourself.”

Being honest and “real” deepens our connections (both to Self and other). Honest conversations (in the uneasy times) are where the real growth lives in your relationships. My goal is to suggest tangible communication tips that will help you build trust, avoid confusion, and communicate more efficiently.

What Is an Empathetic Leader?

Empathy (Noun): the action of understanding, being aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings and thoughts of another (Merriam-Webster dictionary). 

In other words, it’s imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes.

When addressing conflict, you want to soften your words with empathy so your delivery doesn’t feel so sharp. Empathizing with someone when sharing feedback is like tossing a play pit ball at them versus pitching them a baseball. The play pit ball might catch them off guard, but likely won’t leave a mark. Whereas if you threw a baseball at them, it’ll leave a bruise, or worse, fracture a bone. 

Leading with empathy is a strategic way of communicating because it demonstrates respect, consideration of someone’s feelings, and understanding. 

When people feel that you genuinely care, they are more likely to be receptive to your feedback. This is especially important in work environments if you want to inspire positive change and growth in your team. An empathetic leader is someone who acknowledges the feelings of others on their team while considering the impact of their words and actions. 

What does empathy look like in action?

  • Asking questions to gain a better understanding.
  • Softening your tone of voice.
  • Expressing open body language.
  • Actively listening to the other person (without interrupting or dismissing their experience).

Benefits of empathy in a work environment include:

  • A culture of trust (since each other’s needs are considered)
  • Good leadership
  • Innovative ideas (because people feel it’s a safe space to open up and share)
  • Job satisfaction (and thus, employee retention)
  • Positive work environment

Great Leaders Express Empathy in Conversation to Build Trust & Rapport

I was 21 years old, about 3 months out of college, and deciding between two job offers. 

One job was in the health food industry, which I was very passionate about at the time. The downside is it was a 45-minute commute without traffic.

The other job offer was in the tile industry. Nothing about the tile industry lit an excited spark in me. However, it was only a 15-minute commute that took backroads and avoided the highway’s rush hour traffic.

The tile industry promised all sorts of fast growth opportunities four to six months into the role. It looked really promising on paper. The health food industry job offer was with a startup company. Which as you may know, comes with higher risk in stability (since the company isn’t as established). 

Navigating the Crossroads: Balancing Personal Choices and Parental Guidance

My dad has always been a helpful guide in my professional life. 

He’s offered great advice and has encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone in the name of growth. As a young adult, anxiously deciding between two seemingly great opportunities, my dad was encouraging me to go after the position with the tile industry. 

To him, it seemed like the safer option (fair enough for a parent who’s looking out for their child’s future).

After making a personal decision to accept the job with the health food company, I remember calling him to share. With excitement, I delivered the news. I heard the disappointment in his voice as he told me why he thought I was making a mistake. 

The conversation blew up from there. 

I felt hurt and unsupported for making a decision that felt right for me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate his opinions, especially as a guiding figure in my life. And years later, I saw that it was coming from a place of wanting me to succeed.

But his delivery was sharp and lacked empathy, which prevented me from feeling the truth of his intention at the time.

Empathize to Show You Genuinely Care

As a leader, it’s part of your job to share honest feedback to help your team members grow (individually and in their job).

A little empathy goes a long way. It’s a soft skill that literally helps you soften the edges of honest feedback focused on improvement (also known as constructive criticism). Not only does empathy build trust in your relationships, it also helps encourage the other person to be more receptive to what you’re sharing. 

The benefits of empathy will ultimately strengthen and bond your team and relationships. Just like you would lift weights to grow muscle, practice empathy to build rapport. 

There’s not a one-size-fits-all communication formula that I can give you to guarantee a certain result. Empathetic communication is an intuitive dance. 

However, what I’ll share next is a process that has helped me give feedback when I’ve felt unsettled from an interaction. This process has helped me initiate conversation with more clarity and confidence, while working toward an effective solution for all involved.

Be Direct in Your Communication to Be Clear and Prevent Confusion

When I had conflict with people close to me, my brain used to feel like one big scribble (it still does sometimes).

I’d have all these overwhelming feelings and thoughts. I didn’t know how to share them in a way that would be concise, articulate, and productive. Not just for me, but for the other person, too. 

That’s until I read a book called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg. This book shares a four-step process to navigate conflict with clear and honest communication while promoting peaceful resolution. 

When I first used this process, it was messy and uncomfortable (like getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time). With practice, it helped me feel equipped and, thus, confident to voice my concerns. Effective leaders address difficult situations rather than sweeping things under the rug (and letting resentment build).

Please be aware this is my interpretation of Rosenberg’s communication tips. If the topic interests you, I encourage you to read the book and interpret how it may best fit into your life. 

Four-Step Communication Process for Peaceful Resolution

This process is a tool. It’s not meant to be robotic or rigid. If it sparks interest, I encourage you to try it in your own language.

Step #1: Observe

During the disagreement, what did you notice that may have contributed to unsettling thoughts or feelings? (From you and/or the other person). Think: body language, words, tone of voice, and anything tangible that happened. Try to stick to the facts.

Step #2: Feel

When the situation took place, how did that make you feel? 

When we are in an emotionally dysregulated state (intense and overwhelming emotions), it can seem hard to identify what exactly we’re feeling. However, naming the feeling is a helpful first step to bring awareness to it. That awareness helps you start to process and move through the emotion instead of dismissing it or bottling it up. 

Rosenberg shares a helpful list of feelings to help you name what you’re feeling (Google: “Nonviolent Communication Feelings PDF”). You can also look up a “feelings wheel” on the internet for an alternative.

Step #3: Need

Why did you confront this person in the first place? Do you want a behavior in the relationship dynamic to change? Are you asking for support? Do you want feedback?

Based on how you feel, share what you need (or want) from that person. What you need should be with the intention of peaceful change and resolution that is beneficial to the whole of the relationship. 

Having clarity on what you need empowers you to work toward a solution without being a damsel in distress, expecting someone else to save you or fix it. 

Like the Feelings List, Rosenberg also offers a list of “Needs” to help name and clarify (Google: “Nonviolent Communication Needs PDF”).

Step #4: Ask

Ask a question to invite the other person into the conversation. If you stop at sharing what you observed, how you feel and what you need, it’s a one-sided conversation. So, share your experience and then ask a question to open a conversation and involve the other person

Example of These Four Steps in Action

When I first learned about this four-step process a few years ago, I had just bought my first home. Again, my dad, as the guiding father he is, gave helpful tips along the way. A few months after settling in, a salesman knocked on my door selling reverse osmosis water systems. As someone who prioritizes health, I was intrigued and decided to invest. 

A few months later, pleased with my investment, I was telling my dad about it. After he heard the price, he raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and made it abundantly clear that he thought the investment was foolish. At this point, I’m 25 years old, live 6 hours away, and own my own home. It was time I set a boundary to his unsolicited (and sometimes hurtful) opinions. 

Using Rosenberg’s four-step process, here’s how I responded: 

“I’ve noticed when I share a decision you disagree with, you look away and shake your head (observation). That makes me feel ashamed of my decision, even if it’s what I think was best for me (feel). I don’t want to feel that way, I want to feel your trust and support. I need you to trust that I can make decisions for myself and learn from them, too (need). Do you understand where I’m coming from? Is that something you can support me in?” (ask).

Again, the goal in using this process is to not just voice the concern, but to encourage understanding and respect so that your relationship can move forward in a more positive way. He respected where I was coming from and agreed to trust me to make decisions, experience, and learn in my own way.   

Practice the Four-Step Process on Yourself First

If you want to feel comfortable using this four-step process, practice it on yourself.

When I was going through a rocky season of my life, I found myself letting the pool of low emotions consume me. I’d wallow, feel low energy, and be unproductive. I started practicing this process in the morning to organize my thoughts and feelings so that I could tackle my day with more clarity and an uplifted mindset. 

For about a month, I made it part of my routine to wake up and brain dump (journal) the thoughts that were ruminating, and feelings tied to them. I’d write down what I felt, what I thought I needed, and an action I could take to support myself that day. For example, if I woke up feeling uninspired, I knew fresh air and sunshine always helped. So, I prioritized a walk in my schedule that day. 

Not only did this help bring awareness to how I felt, but it also helped me move through those low feelings instead of ruminating, victimizing myself, and staying stuck there. 

Ask Genuine Questions to Better Understand and Avoid Further Conflict

The biggest mistake I see in conflict is the lack of reciprocity.

Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things for mutual benefit. Most people blab on in a disagreement, trying to prove their point rather than listening to an opposing perspective. That’s why conflict is often left unresolved.

People either let their ego dominate the conversation or aren’t receptive and open-minded to varying viewpoints.

To be an active listener and participant in a conversation, you need to ask questions (don’t make it all about you). Ask from a place of curiosity to widen your perspective. With more perspective, you’re more likely to discover a solution that you hadn’t seen before.

Asking a Question > Assuming the Answer

If you feel triggered, confused, or unsettled in a disagreement, perhaps ask the person to clarify what they mean. This will stop you from making negative assumptions (which can make a problem worse). Emotions are what drive us to jump to assumptions about another person. Again, harness your emotions so your emotions don’t harness you.

Assumptions Lead to Disappointment

Years ago, I was in a relationship with someone who was in the military and had a fluctuating schedule. We finally had a free Saturday together, so I seized the opportunity to make plans. We had a slow morning, made some coffee, and then he went to putz on his computer.

As someone who likes to have a plan (or at least be on the same page), I asked him when he wanted to leave. He responded, “Soon.” I headed to the bathroom to start getting ready.

After about 30 minutes, I finished getting ready. He was still at his computer, not ready. “I thought we were leaving soon?” I said with a questionable tone. He responded, “Yeah, soon. Like a few hours.” That’s when I realized that we had totally different definitions of the word “soon.” For me, “soon” meant 15-30 minutes. As you can imagine, I was a little frustrated.

Clarification Over Assumption

That experience taught me that no matter who it is or how well you know them, it never hurts to ask for someone to elaborate on what they mean. Especially if the plans or situation directly impacts you.

When we assume we know what someone means or is thinking, we create an expectation in our mind. This can lead to disappointment if that (unspoken) expectation is not met.

If you have a deadline or are trying to resolve a problem, ask questions to help you reach a solution quicker. If it’s a deeper conversation, layered questions (sub-questions that build on the previous) can help you gather more information, get clear details, and gain a deeper understanding. 

Don’t overthink whether you should ask. If your question is genuine, just ask it. And like I shared in a previous post about taking responsibility, if someone reacts unpleasantly, don’t take it personally. Their reaction likely has little to do with you.

Underlying Fears Can Make Effective Communication with Team Members More Difficult

The only way out is through.” – Robert Frost.

The worst thing you can do in the face of fear, is avoid it (ignore or distract yourself). Confronting your fear like the courageous warrior you are is the path to conquering it. 

Where Your Deeper Fears Come From

Has fear ever held you back from doing something that’s actually good for you? (Career opportunities, relationships, health and fitness, change, anything that’s out of your comfort zone). 

You might have made excuses like, “What if it doesn’t work out?” and “What if I’m not good at it?”. These types of fears can be related to your early relationships (with caretakers and/or significant relationships early on in life).

Perhaps you had a caretaker who’d go to the worst-case scenario or was a worrier. Thus, you learned to see the negative more than the positive.

Maybe you didn’t receive verbal encouragement and affirmation as a child. Thus, you didn’t learn how to believe in yourself and courageously try new things.

Or maybe you had a partner who was insecure and didn’t support your career endeavors. Thus, you started believing you weren’t good enough to do something you’re passionate about.

As you can see, self-reflection would be beneficial if you notice fear is holding you back from confronting a problem. Deeper understanding of where a fear came from will separate that fear from the truth. This will empower you to move forward with clarity and confidence.

Breakthrough Fear Quickly with Fear Journaling

Another effective technique to breakthrough fear is fear journaling.

When conflict rises, thoughts and feelings can get so intertwined, causing confusion and frustration. It’s like spaghetti junction in Atlanta at 5pm in the middle of a work week (Google “spaghetti junction” and you’ll know what I mean). 

I like fear journaling because it helps take the ruminating fear thoughts and spits them out on paper. This allows you to fully see it for what it is.

Fear journaling will help you discern if the fear you’re believing is true or not. Once you discern what is true, you can let go of the untrue parts from taking up any more precious mental space. It’s a rinse and repeat process until you start believing the truth (more than the untruth). Eventually, the fear won’t have as tight of a hold over you.

How To Start Fear Journaling in 3 Steps

Step #1: Write out the fear 

Write out whatever you’re anxious or fearful of in a FULL sentence (no bullet points. I want the whole, “I am fearful of…” or “I am anxious about…”). Give details! When you write it out in a complete sentence, you may start to see how silly and untruthful it is.

Step #2: Write something you’re proud of yourself for

Look for evidence of your courage. Maybe that was completing a task you’d been avoiding or a time something worked out for you.

Step#3: Reframe 

In the context of psychology, a reframe is changing the way you look at a situation, problem, or concept. The goal is to look at it in a more positive light. Write a statement that helps you see the fear in an empowering light.

Face Your Fear of Confrontation Head-On and Conquer It Through Action 

I used to feel so sensitive to the cold. Cold water, cold weather, cold buildings – I’d try to avoid it at all costs. Living in Florida, people thought I was crazy when I said how much I loved the humidity. It was warm! 

It was January 2022 and I had been dealing with more health issues and financial insecurity. I felt self-conscious and like a shell of my true, vibrant self. A friend had introduced me to cold exposure (my arch enemy) for the purpose of resilience building. Examples of cold exposure practices are ice-baths, cold showers, and polar plunges in a natural body of water (ocean, lake, etc.).

I did some research and read on the multitude of benefits, both physical and mental. It helps reduce inflammation, increases cognitive performance, enhances mood, aids in skin health, and improves your immune system function. If something has positive health side-effects, I’m apt to at least give it a try. And so I decided to do a polar plunge in the Atlantic ocean in January when the weather averaged low 50s.

I put on my bathing suit, covered it with sweats, grabbed a towel, and drove to Atlantic beach. As my toes touched the cold sand, I shivered and started questioning everything. Should I really do this? It might be too cold. Should I turn around? I can still change my mind. Doubtful and anxious thoughts filled my mind. 

I had read and learned about the power of breathing to help manage cold exposure and calm the mind and body to come into a more regulated state. I started warming up my body with light movement while deepening my inhales and exhales. 

Embracing the Chill: A Leap into Resilience and Empowerment

After a few minutes, my body started warming up, so I took off my sweats. Another shiver ran down my spine as I felt the cool breeze on my skin. It was time to confront the thing I avoided the most: cold. 

I walked hesitantly, yet committed, toward the ocean. First step in…oh wow that’s cold! The water was probably ~50 degrees. I continued walking until I submerged my entire body, still breathing deeply. After the first minute, it got easier. After two minutes, my body temperature started to regulate and I was no longer shivering. I gave it three full minutes and then got out. 

I was surprised how in just a few minutes, my body started to acclimate. I felt proud of myself and accomplished for facing a fear I’d avoided for years. That was the start of my cold exposure journey. From then on, I made it part of my routine to do this at least once a week. Overtime, it was easier to spend longer in the water. I’d get to a point of feeling comfortable in the cold water, swimming and playing care-free in the waves as if it were the middle of July. 

Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I’d still have the doubtful thoughts flood my mind as I stepped foot on the cold sand. But doing the thing I was most resistant and afraid to do is what helped me overcome the fear. 

If you tend to avoid conflict in fear of confrontation, it’s an opportunity to face your fear. Doing the thing you’re afraid of will build your confidence and help you feel more equipped for life’s future trials. Like the cold exposure taught me, the path to feeling liberated from your fear is in the fear. 

Next Time You’re Hesitant in How to Approach a Confrontation, Be Empathetic but Direct in Your Communication

The goal in addressing conflict is to gain respect and understanding for one another, while coming up with a solution on how to move forward effectively. 

First, express empathy in a conversation to build trust and rapport. Then, be direct in your communication to be clear and prevent confusion. Finally, face and conquer your fear(s) of confrontation through action. 

These steps will grow the relationship while creating an efficient and productive solution to the problem.