Empathy First

Courageous Conversations (as we call them at LionSpeak) often involve confronting someone about a behavior that you’d like them to change. When I coach people on having these conversations, I ask them to empathize with the person whom they are confronting. And they say things like, “I’m not going to feel sorry for her. She knows when our morning meeting starts. This is a business. And she needs to shape up or ship out. Why should I empathize with her?”

I’m not asking people to feel sorry for the person or condone their behavior. Empathy means to put yourself in their shoes and really understand their subjective experience. It’s only through this process of empathy that we can ever hope to change someone’s behavior. Why? Because it’s the fertile soil where constructive criticism and requests for change can be received.

My business manager, Kelly, moonlights as a marriage counselor.  When clients come in and spill their problems at her feet, as an experience counselor, she can often see exactly what they’re doing wrong and where they need to change. But, she knows if she just starts telling them what to do, nothing will get better. They will become defensive and explain why they can’t do things differently. However, if she spends time (multiple sessions) laying the groundwork through empathy, she can lead them to phenomenal growth and change. She spends that time making sure they feel heard, understood, and cared for. When they know that she really gets them—their fears, their motivations, their obstacles, their hesitations, their feelings, and they know she has their best interest at heart, then, and only then, are they ready to hear the solutions she has to offer them, without defensiveness.

Likewise, when we are having Courageous Conversations with our team members, we have to be sure that we empathize first. We need to listen, understand, and care before we start making requests and offering solutions. Do you have to do this? No. It’s a business. You can say, “Do this or you’re fired.” But, if you want to keep that team member, if you want to coach them to their full potential, if you want to create a team culture unlike anywhere else, empathizing first is the key!

What often muddies the waters is that a lot of people think that you cannot be empathetic with someone and hold them accountable at the same time for a broken agreement, a harsh reply, or boundary that has been disrespected.  Many people erroneously believe that these two things are mutually exclusive.  But you can most definitely be empathetic and hold someone accountable.  You can understand their position, their feelings, and their motives and still ask for what you need.  Understanding doesn’t mean you have to let people off the hook.  What it means is that you can understand someone’s point of view, let them know they’ve hurt you or disappointed you, restate what you need … all without the need to hurt them back or the need to shut yourself down.  That is the healthiest of all responses.  But it takes discipline, practice, self-control, and intentionality.

Who do you want to be?  What do you want to be known for?  What do you want to stand for?  What do you want to model and have repeated?

Deciding in advance that you want to be the kind of person who seeks first to understand and then to be understood is what helps you achieve it.  Deciding in advance that we want to be known for wise, considered, kind, clear, and confident responses helps to make it so.

This week, make some decisions in advance about how you will intentionally respond when things don’t go your way.  And when you need to use your voice to bring clarity to a situation, try to remember that you can still show empathy and strength at the same time.

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

~ Stephen Covey


  1. Wonderful discuss of such a vital topic, Katherine. Very well done! Timely for me as well as I needed to to have a “crucial conversation” with an othrwise excellent dental assistant who generally is a great team player and is very easy for all to get along with. Yet she sometimes picks and chooses bits of my instructions to unilaterally modify. After speaking with her and listening to her FIRST, I believe that we are building the foundation for personal growth for her, our entire team and for myself as the practice owner. Kudos to you!

    1. Oh, my goodness, Michael… that’s what all coaches pray for… that our words will help someone at just the right time. Thank you for taking a moment to express your thoughts and share your experience with us. It means the world to me. Great job with your team and being a terrific leader.

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