In January 2010 I was contacted by a major multinational management consulting firm to see if I was interested in helping teach empathy to the firm’s 100–200 top consultants. Senior management was concerned that these consultant-managers were too focused on their clients’ substantive problems and not focused enough on building stronger relationships with the inhabitants of their clients’ C-suites. They suspected a lot of money was being left on the table because their top people sometimes missed cues that might have told them what the client was really worried about.

So management had decided to make empathy a core skill for the company’s top people and a competitive advantage for the company. Research on the Web had led the project team to my article on “Empathy in Risk Communication.” Was I interested in taking on a piece of the training?

I explained that I was a risk communication expert, not an empathy expert. The overlap, I said, consisted mainly in the fact that my risk communication clients were often entangled in high-conflict controversies or high-stress crises. They needed to deal empathically with their stakeholders at moments when they didn’t feel empathic at all. And I needed to deal empathically with my clients in order to stand much chance of persuading them to deal empathically with their stakeholders.

I would happily do a training segment on empathic communication in high-stress situations, I said, but I wasn’t convinced this was a close enough fit to what the company was looking for. The team wasn’t convinced either. But we decided to give it a try.

What follows are my notes for the presentation I ended up giving in Spring 2010 to two groups of the company’s top people, one on the U.S. west coast and one on the east coast. My part of the package also included a video, a handout, and several exercises. Though applied (as best I could) to a management consulting context, these notes are based largely on my 2007 column “Empathy in Risk Communication, supplemented with such risk communication basics as the “donkey” game, the risk communication seesaw, and acknowledging uncertainty.

After 15 minutes or so of introductory thoughts, the nut of what I want to cover in the next 75 minutes is a list of 11 tools or strategies of empathic communication (plus a 12th if I have time). All 11 are listed in the takeaway summary in your packet. You also have a handout that covers them in a little more detail. And if you want my notes – which have more in them than I’m going to have time to cover – you can get them from the project team.

I’ll mostly be explaining principles. I can illustrate those principles from my own experience, and from time to time I will. But I’d much rather you illustrated them from your experience. Don’t wait for the Q&A. There isn’t any. Throughout the next 75 minutes, if you have a comment or a question, a good example or a bad example or a counter-example, please just interject it.

After 15 minutes or so of introductory thoughts, the nut of what I want to cover in the next 75 minutes is a list of 11 tools or strategies of empathic communication (plus a 12th if I have time). All 11 are listed in the takeaway summary in your packet. You also have a handout that covers them in a little more detail. And if you want my notes – which have more in them than I’m going to have time to cover – you can get them from the project team.

I’ll mostly be explaining principles. I can illustrate those principles from my own experience, and from time to time I will. But I’d much rather you illustrated them from your experience. Don’t wait for the Q&A. There isn’t any. Throughout the next 75 minutes, if you have a comment or a question, a good example or a bad example or a counter-example, please just interject it.


I’m not an empathy expert. I’m a consultant like you.

My field is risk communication. One of the main things I do is work with companies and government agencies whose stakeholders are very upset about something my client is doing – sometimes mistakenly upset, and sometimes rightly upset.

  • You’re the operator of a copper smelter whose dioxin emissions over the past several decades made you the biggest emitter in the state – something you didn’t even know until recently … and didn’t announce until a year after you found out. Now activists are claiming you have poisoned everyone in town.
  • You’re a leading manufacturer of packaged deli meats and recently had a huge recall after more than twenty people died of food poisoning because of contamination at one of your plants. Now many consumers think your products are less safe than those of other manufacturers.
  • You’re a public health agency trying to encourage childhood vaccinations in the face of increasing public concern that some vaccines might cause autism, despite overwhelming science to the contrary. Now critics are claiming you hyped swine flu in order to push vaccination.

I come into situations like these and try to help my clients manage the fear, anger, and outrage of their stakeholders. Sometimes that means trying to convince stakeholders that the situation isn’t as dangerous as it seems. Sometimes it means trying to help stakeholders bear a situation that is genuinely dangerous. The common denominator: People are upset about a risk.

I should add that when my client’s stakeholders are upset, my client is bound to be upset too. If you run a refinery and your neighbors are trying to shut you down, for example, you’re not only coping with their outrage; you’re coping with your own as well. The only difference is my clients’ opponents know they’re outraged; they come to meetings and yell at the client. But my client is likely to have suppressed his own outrage; it leaks out as passive-aggressive or defensive behavior: cold, rigid, unhelpful and unempathic courtesy, for example.

The same is true in a genuine crisis – a plant explosion, for example. Neighbors and employees are rightly frightened. Management is frightened too. Just like everyone else, they’re frightened for their safety. They’re also frightened about damage to the business, and they’re frightened that they’ll do a poor job of managing the crisis. Again, they’re likely to disavow their own fears – so they project those fears onto their stakeholders. One of the reasons why crisis managers so often imagine the public is about to panic – even though it isn’t – is because they are projecting their own disavowed panicky feeling.

So I need to help my clients communicate empathically with their stakeholders, who are often overtly upset. And I need to communicate empathically with my clients, who are often just as upset but hiding it, even from themselves. I have therefore become a seat-of-the-pants expert – or at least very opinionated – about empathic communication in high-stress situations.

For most people, empathic communication in high-stress situations is an unnatural act. Even people who are pretty good at communicating empathically with other people are likely to see their skills deteriorate just when they need those skills the most: when everyone in the room it tense.

  • That’s why it’s important to have rules, principles, guidelines – something to follow when your empathic intuition is at its worst.
  • And that’s why it’s important to practice in more ordinary situations … when intuition fails you, as it is likely to do in high-stress situations, what you have to fall back on is guidelines and habit.

Most of you don’t routinely provide advice about risk controversies and health and safety emergencies. But you, too, do a lot of your work in high-stress situations, where people are upset:

  1. Your client may be upset about the situation … certainly upset enough to call you in. And perhaps the client is upset about not knowing how to manage the situation, about having had to call you in (especially if somebody even higher in the organization pushed your client to do so).
  2. Your client may be upset at third parties (the way my clients are) … especially if third parties are upset at your client. There’s a dispute of some sort going on between your client and someone else (another company, a regulator, a union, whatever), and your advice comes in the context of that dispute.
  3. Your client is typically an organization made up of many individuals, and they may be upset at each other. It may be their internal disagreement that led to your being brought in in the first place. You may be the referee. Or you may be one side’s ammunition. Or your advice may provoke internal disagreement. Disagreements within top management are not rare, and are often simmering just beneath the surface … which is why virtually all consulting, whatever else it is, is organizational development consulting and requires empathy.
  4. And of course your client may be upset at you – for charging too much, for accomplishing too little, for giving advice different from the advice the client was hoping to get, etc.
  5. And if the client is upset at you, the odds are good you are also upset at the client. You may be upset at the client anyway – for being unreasonable, ungrateful, unclear, and all the other “uns” clients so often are. (My wife and I have daydreamed for years about wearing underwear with the logo “Clients Are Turkeys” in order to discharge our hostility safely. We could manufacture a whole line of “safe hostility” underwear: “Patients Are Turkeys” for doctors; “Students Are Turkeys” for teachers; etc. And of course you might pick a more expressive word than “turkeys.”)

So that’s what I want to work on with you today: empathy in high-stress situations. But not just empathy: empathic communication. There are two different tasks here. One task is “getting” your client. The other task is communicating in a way that makes your client feel understood and supported.

How much of what I’m going to say applies also to empathy in less extreme situations – in the situations you confront every day? I hope you’ll tell me the answer to that question as we go along.

Why People Don’t Want Empathy Training

I think it’s unusually hard for my clients to sit still for empathy training, no matter how important to their business success it may be for them to deal more empathically with their stakeholders. I have given a lot of thought to why.

Here’s a list of reasons for their resistance. Some of these probably don’t apply to you. Some of them may. As I go through the list, think about some recent public controversies: Toyota’s sequence of recalls, the revelations about child molesting priests and Catholic Church cover-up, the fight over whether Goldman Sachs misled investors about its Abacus package of subprime debt, etc. And think about your own feelings about being told you ought to get better at being empathic.

1. I’m empathic already – as is proved by my success. Like all of you, my clients are nearly all successful leaders. In many cases, that really means they have developed a pretty high level of skill at empathic communication. Further progress may or may not be a high priority for them – making what is already a strength into a real competitive advantage. (In our preparation conversations, someone referred to today as “ninja training.”) In other cases, of course, my clients’ success has been because of other strengths, and their empathic communication skills could use some work. But they may not think so.

2. I don’t need to be empathic – it’s enough that I’m right. My clients virtually all start out convinced that when you’ve got the data to prove that your stakeholders’ concerns are mistaken, you don’t need to respond empathically to those concerns. You just need to disprove them. At its least hostile, this can take the form of saying, “We need to educate the public.” (This client conviction is itself mistaken, though I try to respond empathically to it nonetheless.) The analogous feeling for some of your firm’s consultants might be: “I don’t need to be empathic – I’m a technical expert.” As a senior management consultant transitions from a “technical expert” niche to a “generalist/sounding board” niche, that feeling becomes less and less appropriate … but I’d imagine sometimes the feeling persists anyway.

3. I don’t want to be empathic; I don’t feel empathic – not with those SOBs. More often than not, this is one of the biggest sources of resistance I encounter. As I mentioned earlier, outrage is usually symmetrical. My clients are often as outraged at their stakeholders as their stakeholders are at them. Sometimes it’s conscious; sometimes it’s not. Either way, hostility obviously impedes empathy. I have the same problem when I’m feeling frustrated with a client. (That’s why I have my recurring fantasy about a “Clients Are Turkeys” tee shirt.)

4. I can’t afford to be empathic – the lawyers won’t let me. A lot of my work takes place in an environment of ongoing or likely future litigation. I’m at managers’ elbow urging them to be responsive to their stakeholders’ concerns. Their attorney is at their other elbow urging them to Admit Nothing. I’m not sure if this has an analogue for management consultants or not….

I might add that there’s almost always a way to compromise the needs of empathic communication with the caution of the company’s attorneys. Consider a 1990 BP oil spill in Huntington Beach, California. This was shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, so there was lots of media interest. Huntington Beach is easier to get to than Valdez, Alaska, so there was lots of media access. And importantly, it was a contract carrier; it wasn’t BP’s tanker. As the CEO flew to the site, BP’s lawyers advised: “Under no circumstances are you to accept liability. We have a defense. We’ll be arguing in court that we’re the victim here; the SOB spilled our oil.” On the same plane, the communicators advised: “It was our oil, on its way from our oil well to our oil refinery. We hired the tanker company and set the tech specs for safety. If we hide behind the fact that it wasn’t our tanker to imply that we’re not responsible, the public outrage will go ballistic.”

So the goal was to acknowledge moral responsibility without accepting legal responsibility. The words were crafted on the plane. A reporter asked the key question: “Do you consider this spill your company’s fault?” The answer, as best I remember it: “Our lawyers tell us it’s not our fault. But we feel like it’s our fault, and we’re going to act like it’s our fault.” He preserved his liability defense. The lawyers went home saying “Thank God he said it’s not our fault.” But millions of people saw that sound bite on television and said to themselves, “I can’t believe an oil company has taken moral responsibility for a spill.” And in the six months after the Huntington Beach spill, BP’s reputation (worldwide, nationwide, and in Huntington Beach) actually improved. [Note: This presentation was written before BP’s massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.]

5. You can’t teach empathy anyway – it’s intuitive. The research about this objection is interesting. It turns out that “analytic empathy” and “intuitive empathy” are different skills, possessed by different sorts of people. Some people are good at reaching an intuitive, global sense of what it must be like to walk in that other person’s shoes. Some people are good at analyzing the situation and the cues the other person is giving, and deducing what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Some people are good at both, or neither – the skills are virtually uncorrelated. Even intuitive empathizers, I believe, can benefit from thinking analytically about empathic communication – slowing down and taking it apart. But it’s the analytic empathizers that gain the most from adding to their empathic communication toolkit.

6. There’s nothing there to teach – it’s obvious. I’m sympathetic to this objection. A lot of what I urge my clients to do seems obvious to me. I’m more than a little envious of consultants (like many of you) who have real substantive, technical knowledge to impart to their clients. My stuff is pretty soft, pretty Kumbaya. On the other hand, obvious though empathic communication techniques may be, my clients routinely neglect to use them … and leave billions of dollars on the table as a result. Being empathic is somehow simultaneously obvious and difficult.

7. I’m too preoccupied with my own ego to be empathic. The sources of resistance I have listed so far are things my clients tell themselves as excuses not to focus on empathic communication. This one is different. Ego is a major underlying source of resistance to empathic communication that my clients are very reluctant to recognize. Because ego is so important a barrier to empathic communication, I want to take a minute before we move on to comment on the paradoxical relationship between ego and profitability.

The very essence of empathy is walking in the other person’s shoes. You can’t do that without setting your own ego aside.

The three dominant motivations in risk controversies, I think, are greed, outrage, and ego. Those are probably the three dominant motivations in management consulting too. Greedy people want to get rich; outraged people want to get even; ego-driven people want to feel good about themselves. Both outrage and ego make it hard to respond empathically to the other person’s situation (including the other person’s outrage and ego). Of the three motivations, ironically, only greed is conducive to empathy. That’s the conviction that underlies your management’s decision to invest in empathy training: There’s a lot of money to be made by setting ego and outrage aside and responding empathically to clients.

When I was a hippie in the sixties, I thought the main thing wrong with corporate capitalism was excessive preoccupation with profit. Now, 40+ years later, I think the main thing wrong with corporate capitalism is insufficient preoccupation with profit. Faced with a choice between a path forward that nurtures profit at the expense of self-esteem versus a path forward that nurtures self-esteem at the expense of profit, most corporate managers at every level choose self-esteem, and then make up stories to convince themselves they’re focusing on the bottom line.

Me too: When I’m having trouble being empathic with my clients, it’s usually because I’m preoccupied with impressing my clients instead. One of the biggest barriers to risk communication generally, and to empathic communication in particular, is our own self-esteem.

I have a good example – but one that may cut a little too close to home. The team that helped prepare me for today’s meeting told me that initial plans to videotape the entire day were in doubt; there was some concern about taping the two outside experts’ presentations. Why? They told me another expert brought in to work with your company a few years ago submitted his or her work for an award, and got the award. That caused some discomfort inside your organization. Some people felt the resulting publicity might make the company look bad. “Shouldn’t a service company like ours have all the expertise it needs in-house?”

What’s so interesting to me about this story is that the ego barrier to letting people know you need help is one your company is thoroughly familiar with from the other side. Every time you sell your services to a CEO you first have to get past resistance grounded in that CEO’s ego: “What’s wrong with us that we need to hire a management consulting firm to tell us how to run our own business?” It would be empathic to role-model that ability to call on outsiders when they can help improve your game. But for some people inside your company, ego said we shouldn’t let clients know sometimes we seek outside help ourselves. [Note: In the end the presentation was videotaped the first time I gave it, so I didn’t tell this story.]

Empathic Communication 101: Foundational Skills

Having acknowledged that a lot of empathic communication techniques are obvious, let me discuss a few of those obvious techniques. And then I want to get into some that aren’t so obvious….

1. Listen.

Talk about obvious….

  • Okay, raise your hand if you know how to be a good listener when that’s really important, when listening is your top priority.
  • Now, raise your hand if you’re confident that your spouse and coworkers would testify that you’re a good listener in routine conversations, even when you’re not especially trying to be a good listener.
  • And raise your hand if you’re confident that the people you live with and work with would testify that you’re a good listener in very tense situations – when everybody in the room is upset with everybody else in the room.

That’s the problem with listening – and with the other foundational skills I want to cover before I get to the less obvious ones. We know how to do it right. But whether we do it right is a

-curve. When we’re not trying hard, we get sloppy. And when the situation is really tense, we get derailed. In the middle, most of us are pretty good listeners.

Of course it’s not enough to listen; you have to look like you’re listening too. I imagine most of you know the traditional advice for “active listening” – head-nodding, murmured uh-huhs, note-taking, etc. Keep your face responsive (smile or frown; furrow your brow in effort or raise your eyebrows in surprise). Communicating that you are listening is nearly as important as the listening itself.

But what’s really important here is that people (clients included) want to tell you their story. They don’t want you to know it already or tell them you’ve figured it out when they’re halfway through. We all tend to want to shine, to show what we know, to run through the prepared deck. You listen not just because there are things to be learned, but also because other people want to talk.

As a rule, don’t interrupt. If you don’t understand what the speaker is getting at, it’s important to say so and ask a clarifying question – even if it requires interrupting the flow. But every time you’re tempted to do that, ask yourself first if you’re really trying to “get it” or if you’re actually just trying to prove you get it, or showing off, or reasserting control. Sometimes my clarifying questions genuinely help my clients bring me up to speed. Sometimes they just frustrate my clients and delay the process of getting me briefed.

And when the speaker falls silent, don’t be in too much of a hurry to fill the silence. Allow a few seconds to pass. Ponder what your client has just told you, and how you might want to respond. See if he or she finds something to add, or if somebody else decides to jump in.

All this is especially important in high-stress situations. I urge my clients to structure most difficult public meetings around listening to what stakeholders want to say. People come to such meetings largely in order to vent their thoughts and feelings, and until they have done sufficient venting they are in no mood to listen to the company whose actions or plans are upsetting them. The underlying purpose of the meeting, then, is to let them vent, let them listen to each other vent, and let them see that you, too, are listening and trying to understand.

So an empathic meeting doesn’t start with three hours of official PowerPoint presentations, followed by “public input” from 10 to 11 p.m. just before adjournment. In an empathic meeting structure, you start by asking people why they came. As they voice their questions and concerns, you write them all down on a flipchart. (Better yet, ask somebody else to write them down, so you don’t have to turn your back or dilute your attention.) Then you go back over the list: “This one is on the agenda already. This one we can add to Cindy’s presentation at 7:30. This one I’ll answer right now. This one a lot of people want to respond to, so let’s add an open discussion of that to the agenda. This one we can’t deal with tonight, but if the person who raised it will see me during the break, we can schedule a time to talk about it….”

A strange thing happens when my clients go into a meeting determined to listen to their outraged stakeholders. The stakeholders start wanting to listen to my client! That wasn’t their goal on their way in the door, but after an hour or two of venting, they begin to wonder about the company’s reactions to all that. I teach my clients to wait till that happens, however long it takes – to say nothing substantive until stakeholders are shushing each other up and virtually demanding that now it’s your turn. (This is an example of the seesaw of ambivalence, which I hope to talk about toward the end of my presentation.)

I wouldn’t go that far in a meeting with a client – and I wouldn’t urge you to either. Upset stakeholders really don’t want to listen to the company spokesperson; for the first few hours, anyway, they just want to vent. The balance is different for your clients: They’re paying for your time and they want to hear what you have to say. But more than I used to realize, clients want to vent too.

Bottom line: Most meetings will go better if the client has a chance to tell his or her story – to vent, if you will – before you tell the client what you can do to help. That’s true even if you think you already know the client’s story … perhaps especially if you think you already know the client’s story.

2. Echo what you heard.

Echoing is part of active listening. Skillful echoing facilitates the flow, rather than interrupting it.

Echoing serves two purposes:

  1. It shows the other person that you’re really hearing what they’re saying.
  2. And it gives them another shot at what they’re saying. When they hear it echoed, they’ll often tell you that’s not quite right … and then say the really important stuff they left out their first try.

There are three times when it’s useful to echo.

  1. When the client is talking, echoes have to be very brief, so you don’t end up upstaging the client.
  2. When you’re talking, consciously try to echo things the client has said. Sometimes that’s just picking up on the client’s terminology. Sometimes it’s explicitly repeating one of the client’s points and linking it to a point you want to make: “As you said earlier….” This may be the most valuable kind of echoing; it is certainly the most flattering.
  3. When the client (or stakeholder) has held the floor for some time, a longer echo is useful as a transition. Before going into your stuff, try to summarize what the client has told you.

This third sort of echo is super-important in high-conflict situations. A company’s angry stakeholders start out assuming the company doesn’t understand – so an echo to show otherwise is essential.

The summary echo should be tentative, provisional. You might have heard it wrong. And even if you heard it right, the client might have more to say, and you want your echo to encourage corrections and additions, not to preempt them.

So after listening to a lot of venting at a contentious meeting, I teach my clients to say something like this: “Let me see if I’ve heard you right. I’ve been listening hard this evening, and it seems to me that most of the people who have talked are focusing on three main issues. A lot of people really want us to do X, they’re very worried about Y, and they think we were wrong to do Z. Are there some aspects of this that I haven’t heard right yet?” Echoes should almost always have some kind of conditional language:

  • “Let me see if I’ve heard you right….”
  • “It sounds like some of the people here probably feel that….”
  • “I wonder if some of what I’ve heard tonight means that….”

Note that you don’t have to agree with somebody in order to echo what that person said. It’s very useful to find things you can agree with, and I’m going to turn to that topic soon. But it’s crucial to echo even the things you disagree with. Save your disagreement for later, but don’t imply you agree either. I tell my clients that the structure of a tense confrontation has three stages:

  • First they get to tell you what a jerk they think you are (the listening stage).
  • Second, you get to tell them what a jerk they think you are (the echoing stage).
  • Third – eventually, when the tension starts to subside – you may get to tell them some of what you have to say (but not what a jerk you think they are).

Echoing is very empathic, but it’s not as empathic as listening. Don’t interrupt with a long echo. (I make that mistake a lot.)

3. Ask questions.

Questioning is more assertive than echoing. It enables you to probe more. “Let me see if I’m hearing you right. Do you mean….?” “I wonder if you might also be worried about….” So questioning is a good tool of hypothesis-testing, to see if your empathic judgments are on target.

The trick is to ask questions that open up the conversation, rather than shutting it down. Questions aren’t always empathic. Sometimes they can feel too intrusive, more like an interrogation than a conversation among equals. The most intrusive questions don’t even feel like questions, but rather like patronizing or disdainful accusations. Any question that starts “Aren’t you really…”, for example, is a hostile question – and not really a question at all.

For example: A client tells you she’s worried about X. “Aren’t you really worried about Y” sounds accusatory, and the client may well get defensive. “Are you worried about Y too” is much more neutral. Better still, make your question less direct and link it to an echo: “I hear you loud and clear that you’re worried about X. I wonder whether Y might also be a concern.”

The toughest questions to ask – and often the most important ones to make yourself ask – are questions that seek criticism of you. “I’m sensing that you may not be happy with the point I just made. Can you tell me what was going through your mind just then?”

Here are some guidelines for empathic questioning:

1. Make sure the question doesn’t presuppose a particular answer. “Aren’t you worried about Y?” presupposes that you are. “Are you worried about Y?” leaves the question open.

2. Try deflecting the question. (I’ll talk more about deflection later.) “Do you think some people in the company are worried about Y?” is a less intrusive question than “Are you worried about Y?” By asking clients what they think others might be feeling, rather than what they themselves are feeling, you’re making it safer to give an honest answer. You’re inviting them to project their feelings onto others so they can express them without acknowledging them.

3. Try putting the question in the form of a statement ( “I wonder if you’re worried about Y”) or even a deflected statement ( “Some people in this situation might be worried about Y”). Asking the question indirectly rather than directly has four advantages:

  • It’s easier to answer (your client feel less on-the-spot).
  • It’s easier not to answer (your client can let it slide without giving a false answer or explicitly refusing to answer).
  • Clients can use your statement as a jumping-off point for what is really on their minds, if they want to. If you are close to correct, they might start out, “Well, it’s not Y, exactly, but let me tell you about….”
  • A series of indirect questions feels more like a conversation and less like an inquisition than a series of direct questions; through successive approximations it takes you closer and closer to your client’s actual concerns.

4. Try to ask open-ended questions, which usually feel less intrusive than specific questions, and therefore tend to elicit more (and more honest) information. “How does that make you feel?” is almost a burlesque of a typical psychotherapist’s question – but it’s actually a pretty good question in some situations, a lot less intrusive than “Are you angry about that?” If your open-ended question might be too vague, you can combine it with deflection: “A lot of people might be angry about that. I wonder how it makes you feel.” Or use a less loaded, less shrinky word than feel: “How does that strike you?” or “What’s your reaction to that?” For people who are likely to respond negatively to questions about feelings (even open-ended, indirect ones), stick to open-ended questions about events instead: “And then what happened?”

5. Don’t start with the hardest questions. Although telling you how they feel is usually what makes other people feel most understood, most empathized with, questions about feelings are also the most intrusive questions. Early in a conversation or early in a relationship, fact questions are much safer (unless the facts themselves are embarrassing or controversial). But fact questions that call for a one-word or two-word answer don’t launch much of a conversation. The best open-ended questions ask the other person to narrate a story.

6. Give clients permission to be reticent. “If you want to tell me, I’d be grateful to learn more about why you decided that way. But I can understand that you might not want to talk about it right now.” Paradoxically, most people are likelier to talk about loaded topics after you’ve said they might not want to. (This is an example of the seesaw of risk communication. I’ll get to that soon too.)

7. Sound like you want to learn. Questioning feels empathic when the questioner gives the impression of honest curiosity – of wanting to know the answer. Of course the best way to sound like you want to learn from your client is by actually wanting to learn from your client. Questioning isn’t something you do to check it off on a list. You do it because you want to understand the situation better.

4. Find things to agree with and points to add.

I call this the “yes, and” strategy.

Everything I have talked about so far focuses on the other person’s feelings and thoughts. But ultimately it’s very hard to be empathic if you’re a blank screen. And you can’t do your job if you’re a blank screen. The client wants to hear something of your feelings and thoughts – especially when the client is paying for them!

Especially early in a relationship, it’s useful to voice agreement – not with everything, but with specific things the other person is saying … and then to take his or her point another step in a new direction. “I really resonated strongly when you said…. Another aspect of that, almost a corollary, I think, is….”

In preparing my clients to respond empathically to hostile stakeholders, I often advise them against what I call “crap rebuttal.” Whenever hostile stakeholders are letting loose, some of what they have to say is valid grievances. Some of it is exaggerated complaints that have a germ of truth. And some of it is crap. When my clients finally get the floor, they’re tempted to ignore the valid grievances, ignore the germ of truth in the exaggerated complaints, and rebut the crap.

Here’s what I tell my clients:

Don’t do that. Crap rebuttal may help you manage your own outrage, but it will only exacerbate the outrage of your hostile stakeholders. Of course you shouldn’t validate their crap either. Implying that your critics are right about things you believe they’re wrong about isn’t honest and isn’t sustainable. Eventually you’re going to have to discuss the most contentious issues, the ones you think they’re wrong about. But don’t start there.

Look for valid grievances you can honestly validate. They’re always there. Always. If you don’t find any, you’re not looking hard enough. The lowest-hanging fruit, more often than not, is process. Your stakeholders’ technical concerns may all be crap – though I doubt it – but some of their process concerns are bound to be valid.

You’re probably not often tempted to perform excessive crap rebuttal on your clients. But you may not spend enough time specifically agreeing with your clients either.

Here are the three key questions to keep asking yourself:

  • What has my client said that I genuinely think is new and wise, that helped me see the situation differently and better? Echo those points enthusiastically, in ways that show your appreciation and agreement.
  • What has my client said that provoked me to come up with a new thought of my own? Link your new thought to the client comment that provoked it. That’s the very essence of “yes and.”
  • What was I planning to say anyway that follows logically from something my client said? Draw the link.

The key in all three of these recommendations is to look actively for things you can agree with. That’s crucial in high-conflict situations. It’s useful in more ordinary situations too.

The third recommendation is the toughest. I wouldn’t pretend that the client’s comment provoked a new thought when that thought is actually on page 35 of your deck already. But when you get to page 35, emphasize that “this is very closely connected to a point you made earlier….”

And consider going out of order, so you can make your point right after your client has made his or hers. When I give a seminar, I often get a question the answer to which is coming up in a few hours. I try not to say, “We’ll get to that.” It’s more empathic to address the issue when it comes up … and then either skip it or echo it when I get to where it belonged.

The ideal is to come into a meeting with a mental list of points you want to be sure to cover. Cover as many of them as possible in “yes and” format, in response to things the client says … and cross them off your mental list. Then “mop up” with the points on your list that haven’t come up on their own. And of course stay flexible enough to add some points and eliminate others based on what the client is saying.

I should add that agreeing with your client isn’t the same thing as stealing credit for your client’s best ideas. In risk controversies, it’s very tempting for a company to steal credit from its critics. This is largely to salve management egos. The company’s critics are making it do something it doesn’t want to do, and senior managers figure the consolation prize is that they get to pretend it was their idea all along.

A client in Wales, for example, was under pressure to do noise abatement from an organization run by a woman named Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones beat them in court, she beat them in the media, and eventually the company decided to spend nine million pounds on noise abatement. Mrs. Jones was delighted, and retired to her garden. Then the company issued its announcement: “This is an example of how deeply we care about the welfare of our neighbors. It has nothing to do with that pest Mrs. Jones.” So Mrs. Jones came out of retirement – she was retired for about 18 hours – and announced it was too little too late and she would continue the fight. In essence, the company forced her out of retirement. All future expenditures on noise abatement are attributable to the company putting a higher premium on its own self-esteem than on Mrs. Jones’s self-esteem. It should have been the Mrs. Jones Memorial Noise Abatement Program. She should have been asked to cut the ribbon.

Someone once defined a consultant as “a person who borrows your watch, tells you what time it is, and then sends you a bill.” Pretty often we do rely heavily on our clients’ good ideas – and then we work with them, add to them. That’s what we should do. But the paradox is that if we claim too much originality, the client tends to resent not getting credit for his or her contribution … and as a result the client may decide he or she doesn’t like the idea so much. It’s better if we say to the client, “This is really pretty much what you told me. I just embroidered it a little.” Then the client is likelier (a) to think it’s a good idea; and (b) to think we added a lot of value.

This is another empathy seesaw: When you give away more credit, you get more credit. People are likeliest to think you’re smart if they feel smart when you’re around.

5. Find things to voice reservations about.

If agreement is “yes and,” disagreement is “yes but.” Not everyone agrees that “yes butting” is empathic. Some experts advise converting everything you have to say into “yes and” instead.

But I think establishing yourself as an authentic person whose views add value means showing that you don’t always agree. You have your own feelings and opinions, and sometimes they are discrepant from the other person’s. “Yes buts” should be rationed, but not down to zero.

The “yes” in “yes but” is important. You’re not rebutting so much as redirecting. It is virtually impossible to convince people that a strongly held but mistaken belief is mistaken unless you first acknowledge that it is reasonable – that it isn’t stupid. In other words, you can validate the reasonableness of an opinion with which you disagree, even when you can’t validate its accuracy.

Moving somebody from X opinion to Y opinion requires two steps. (I call this the “donkey” game.) In step one, you validate that thinking X isn’t foolish. You validate the other person’s belief in X without validating X. How could you do that?

  • X is common sense.
  • A lot of people believe X. In fact, it’s the mainstream view.
  • The burden of proof is on those of us who believe Y.
  • X used to be true until very recently.
  • We all learned X at our mother’s knee.
  • I used to believe X before I came to work for this management consulting firm and they sent me to reeducation camp.

Okay, you’ve paid your tribute to the sensibleness of X, earning you the right to my attention. Now comes step two. Start dropping breadcrumbs – that is, construct an illuminated path from X to Y. “I didn’t actually start to wonder about X until quite recently, when I got sent for training. And I learned some surprising facts – this fact and this fact and this fact. Little by little, I came to see that maybe I had been mistaken, maybe Y was right after all….” Your path from X to Y can be crafted of logic, evidence, emotion, or imagery; ideally you’ll use all four.

However you build your path, the essence of disagreement is the two-step process: First you ally with your audience’s prior beliefs, and then you start dropping breadcrumbs.

In the early weeks of the swine flu pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised local school systems to shut down if they had even a handful of cases. It soon became clear that this wasn’t a good idea. Children were losing too much of their educations; they were spending their days off at the mall and infecting each other anyway; their parents were torn between staying home with the kids and going to work. And it became clear that the pandemic was unusually mild; nearly all the children who got sick got better. But having taught parents that it was dangerous for their kids to go to school during a pandemic, it wasn’t easy to change course. It wasn’t possible to change course without acknowledging that it was a change, that it wasn’t stupid for parents to feel worried when the schools reopened even as the pandemic was still spreading.

The CDC handled that donkey game pretty well, I think. But it has had enormous trouble with another donkey game. Millions of American parents are nervous about giving their children all the recommended pediatric vaccines, mostly because they have heard that some vaccines (or too many vaccines) might have something to do with autism. The scientific evidence shows that the vaccination/autism connection is either non-existent or extremely weak. But it is almost impossible to convince worried parents that their kids are safer vaccinated than unvaccinated without first acknowledging that their autism worries aren’t stupid.

Some More Advanced Techniques of Empathic Communication

Listening, echoing, questioning, yes-and, and yes-but are fundamental ways of expressing empathy. Now I want to move to some more advanced techniques of empathic communication.

6. Cultivate an empathic attitude.

Empathy is an attitude. It’s not a strategy – it’s very tough to fake. It’s also not just a feeling. It can be cultivated: Trying to understand how the situation looks from the other person’s perspective.

It’s the trying that’s important. Being right matters less than being interested. The essence of the empathic attitude is wanting to know how the situation looks to the other person.

Empathic communication aims to make sure the empathy shows … if it’s there. You can’t communicate empathy when all you’re feeling is hostility.

Not that empathic communication is reserved for use with people toward whom you have only the kindest of feelings. You’re usually going to be ambivalent. My clients often say of their stakeholders, “I know just how they feel. I’d feel the same way in their shoes.” That’s real empathy. Even though they mean it, they still have a tough time hanging onto their empathy when the stakeholders start berating them at a public meeting. They say empathic things about their stakeholders to me – and then they go to a public meeting, get yelled at, and lose their empathic attitude.

The same may be true when a client is giving you a hard time. Use all the techniques you know to hold onto your empathic attitude.

  • Keep reminding yourself that you’d feel the same way in their shoes.
  • Count to ten.
  • Take a bathroom break.
  • Cross your fingers.
  • Let somebody else do the talking for a while.
  • Write angry emails you never send.
  • Find a confidant you can rant and rave to about what jerks they are.
  • Wear a “Clients Are Turkeys” tee shirt underneath your suit.

And then try to feel your way back into their shoes.

It’s particularly important to have a venue where it’s safe to vent your own negative feelings about your clients … so those feelings are less likely to leak out in client meetings. Team members can do that for each other. Or it can be institutionalized. When I work with a company that is under intense public pressure, I often urge the HR Department to arrange routine debriefing sessions for managers who have been up half the night at contentious public meetings.

Years ago I trained a big utility’s call center employees – the people who answer phone calls from angry customers all day. Turnover was incredibly high, and sustaining an empathic attitude was incredibly difficult. One of the most useful things we did was to establish an “asshole of the week” contest. Every week the company gave a prize to the call center operator with the most offensive caller. This had two major benefits. First of all, the contest allowed employees to vent their collective hostility at callers in a way that was actually fun. Second, it helped employees stay empathic even on the worst calls. When a bad call came in, the operator would immediately start thinking, “Maybe this one will be a winner!” In order to feel free to submit the recorded call to the contest, of course, the operator had to stay calm, helpful, and empathic.

On a bad day when all you’re feeling is hostility, don’t imagine that these recommendations are going to help. When you’re feeling partly hostile and partly sympathetic, then some of them ought to help.

7. Find a middle ground between obliviousness and intrusiveness.

Conventional advice on empathy stresses not being oblivious. A lot of empathy handbooks and seminars teach people to tell other people what they are feeling. Here’s a direct quote from one such handbook:

That is what every good Empathy Statement does. It lets an angry, or nervous, or otherwise upset speaker know that, as far as his feelings go, he is not alone: somebody else understands….

The “standard” Empathy Statement that we suggest has two parts: one part that labels the feeling, and a second part that lets the person know that you understand why he’s feeling that way. Here’s the form:

I can understand (or I realize, I guess, I see) that you feel ________ because_______….

Telling other people how they feel is intrusive even if you’re right … and provokes denial (again, even if you’re right). The essence of empathic communication is finding the middle ground between obliviousness and intrusiveness.

What’s the nearly universal response to “I know how you feel”? “No you don’t!” Paradoxically, it sounds a lot more empathic to say “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to….” Similarly, “I can see how angry you are” intrudes too directly. Consider instead: “a lot of people would probably be angry about…” or “a woman I was talking with last week said she was angry about…” or “I once lived near a controversial site like this one and what really made me angry was….” Telling other people how they feel is presumptuous and intrusive, even if you’re dead right about how they feel.

I also advise my clients not to be in a hurry to tell hostile stakeholders what their issues are. Usually you should wait for the other person to raise a hot-button issue, and then echo it: “I think I’m hearing a lot of concern in the room tonight about….” If a crucial issue isn’t being raised and you need to introduce it yourself, do so indirectly: “A lot of people at other meetings have told me…. I wonder if some people here tonight might be feeling that way too.” Getting the issue into the room is empathic; putting it onto the table is intrusive.

8. Practice deflection.

Deflection is a specific, easy-to-learn, extremely useful technique for not being too intrusive. I have used it several times already in talking about other empathic communication tools, but now I want to focus on it.

Instead of telling the other person how “you” must feel, the speaker deflects the message as much as necessary to make it acceptable. (The more tender the content, the more deflection is needed.) This lets you get tender topics into the room but not quite onto the table.

There are five levels of deflection: You → I → They → Some People → It.

Suppose for example you’re in the middle of a controversy over groundwater contamination from your factory. Although the evidence shows a very low probability of any health effects, some of your neighbors insist the contamination is deadly. You suspect that part of what’s going on is an unacknowledged worry about property values, which may be fueling people’s resistance to the reassuring health data. (Of course other things are fueling it too: mistrust of your company, scientific uncertainty, etc.) You want to raise the property values issue without being too intrusive. Here are some of your options:

  • Undeflected – you: “You’re not really worried about health! You’re afraid your property values might be affected.”
  • Deflected – I: “I was in a situation like this when I lived near an industrial park. What worried me even more than the health effects was the possibility that my property values might be affected.”
  • More deflected – they: “One of your neighbors was talking with me last week about this situation, and the thing that worried him the most was the possibility of an effect on his property values.”
  • Still more deflected – some people: “ “Some people in a situation like this would probably be worried about their property values.”
  • Most deflected – it: “It’s possible there could be some concern about property values here.”

Deflection serves two empathic purposes.

First, the more you deflect what you say, the less likely it is to provoke denial. People can more easily accept that it’s possible there could be some concern about property values than that they themselves are actually more worried about property values than health.

Second, deflection makes it easier to keep the issue on the table (or at least in the room) even in the face of denial. If you tell me I’m worried about property values and I tell you I’m not, we’re at loggerheads. It’s hard to go on to talk about property values. But if you say only that there could be some concern about property values, I can say “not for me there isn’t” (or perhaps just say it to myself) and the property values topic is still open for further discussion.

It’s best to avoid provoking people to express their denial. So if you decide to say that some people in a situation like mine would probably be worried about their property values, you should just let the statement hang there. Don’t add “What about you?” – which might easily force me to say, “No, not me.”

Why not just deflect everything you say to the max? Because deflected statements are less clear and less powerful than direct statements. You deflect when you have to, as much as you have to, to avoid intrusiveness. But if a person is already “owning” a viewpoint or a feeling, then intrusiveness is much less of an issue and you can respond or ask questions more directly without much risk of provoking denial. Thus if I have already told you I’m worried about property values, it’s not necessary and not especially empathic to deflect my worry onto “some people.” Better to echo my worry back at me ( “I can hear how worried you are about property values”) or ask me to amplify ( “Has anything happened yet that made you think property values might be going down?”).

9. Express hopes, fears, regrets, wishes, and worries.

Expressions of hopes, fears, etc. are called “performatives” because they are both “claims” and “actions.” “I now pronounce you man and wife” is the classic example of a performative; it actually accomplishes what it describes. Similarly, “I hope the situation will improve soon” doesn’t just claim as a matter of fact that if you looked inside my mind you would find hope. It expresses the hope. It performs hopefulness. The statement itself hopes.

If you’re expressing your own hope, you’re powerfully establishing your authenticity, your humanness. If you’re expressing a hope that the other person shares – and maybe is reluctant to express – you’re showing empathy as well.

When faced with a crisis, my clients are always tempted to announce that “the situation is under control” – even though it’s Day One and the situation is far from under control. They think they’re reassuring people. But when we’re on the receiving end of false reassurance, we usually smell a rat … and become more anxious, not less. (This is yet another risk communication seesaw.) Performatives are much more reassuring: “Like everyone else, we in management are very worried about what happened yesterday. Things look somewhat better today, but we don’t feel confident yet that everything is under control. We hope the situation will keep improving.”

Of course performatives don’t automatically accomplish their goals. Consider the performative “I apologize.” The apology may be insincere, or sincere but not believed, or believed but not accepted. Apologizing doesn’t necessarily resolve the other person’s grievance. Nonetheless, apologizing isn’t just claiming to apologize. It’s apologizing. It does what it says.

Some performatives are more complicated, because they both state a claim and perform an action. When a baseball umpire calls a runner “Out!” he is simultaneously judging that the ball reached the base ahead of the runner and causing the runner to go back to the dugout. And when a beloved spouse murmurs “I love you” she is simultaneously claiming to have a particular feeling and arousing that feeling (in herself and her husband both). Similarly, “I admire you” is on one level a claim that may be true or false; but on another level it’s a performative, because it tends to make you feel admired.

Probably the most powerful empathic use of performatives is to express hopes, wishes, regrets, fears, and worries.

Achievable hopes are well worth expressing. In fact, I tell my clients that every time they are tempted to make a promise, they should consider whether it would be wiser to downgrade it to a hope. And every time you are tempted to say you’re “confident” about some good outcome, consider whether it would be more accurate, more credible, more sustainable, and more empathic to change “confident” to “hopeful.”

If someone I know has been diagnosed with cancer, one of the least empathic things I could say is “I’m sure everything will be fine.” It’s much more empathic to say something like this: “I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I hope it turns out okay.” Parents raising troubled kids hear from their friends, over and over, “I’m sure he’s just going through a phase.” That is not empathic; it’s a brush-off. Hoping it’s just a phase is empathic.

But expressing unachievable wishes is even more valuable than expressing achievable hopes.

  • “I wish I could give you a definite answer” is more empathic than “I simply cannot give you a definite answer.”
  • “I wish that damn accident had never happened” is more empathic than “I know you wish the accident had never happened” or “it’s too late to wish the accident had never happened.”
  • “I wish we could take every conceivable precaution” is more empathic than “it’s foolish to imagine we could take every conceivable precaution” (and more honest than “we’re taking every conceivable precaution”).

Regrets are unachievable wishes about the past. And so expressing shared regrets is also extremely empathic. The actual word “regret” has lost its empathic power from overuse in legal contexts; “management regrets to inform you…” doesn’t sound regretful or empathic anymore. “I wish we had realized…” does. So does “If only we had realized….”

Finally, fears and worries are the flip side of hopes; they are what we hope won’t happen. Not surprisingly, then, expressing shared fears and worries is a powerful way to show empathy, especially if they are feelings that the other person has trouble expressing for himself or herself.

Which is more empathic: “There is no reason to worry about X” or “I’m worried about X too.” Obviously the latter. Or if the other person hasn’t admitted to the worry, skip the “too” and take it on yourself: “I’m worried about X.” That will help the client feel safer acknowledging the worry. Or maybe the client will get on the other side of the seesaw and reassure you not to worry so much. What if X is really, really unlikely? Then say so, and still share the worry: “Even though our data say that X is highly unlikely, I can’t help worrying about it.”

Performatives can be deflected and qualified as much or as little as you think best, depending on how “deniable” they need to be to avoid over-intrusiveness. Thus “I wish I could give you a more definite answer” can become “Many people wish there were a more definite answer” or “We all wish there were a more definite answer” or “I think we all probably wish there were a more definite answer.”

10. Ride the ambivalence seesaw.

Whenever people are ambivalent, they gravitate to the side of their ambivalence that you are neglecting. (That’s why teenagers seem so oppositional; they’re ambivalent about most things.) If I’m torn between X and Y, then if you say X I’ll insist on Y; if you say Y I’ll retort with X.

I’ve already mentioned a few seesaws in this presentation. Among them:

  • At a hostile meeting, people want to vent; they don’t want to listen to you. Unless you listen to them for a while – and then they start wondering what your reaction is.
  • If you give a client a lot of the credit for the proposal you have linked to things the client said to you, the client is likelier to see your proposal as adding value.
  • If you tell a client you’d understand if they don’t want to talk about something, that makes the client more inclined to talk about it.
  • The performative example I just gave: As soon as you express worry that X might happen, the client gets less worried about X.

Of course there’s no seesaw if people aren’t ambivalent. If the client has never been worried about X, your expressing worry may get the client to start worrying – which could be a desirable or an undesirable effect depending on the situation. If the client is terribly worried about X, your expressing worry will feel empathic to the client; the client won’t feel alone and abandoned in his or her worry. But an unambivalently worried client won’t become less worried just because you’re worried too.

An ambivalently worried client – a client who’s torn between thinking X would be horrific and thinking X is probably unlikely – should become less worried when you voice the worried side of the client’s ambivalence.

Blame is a good example of the ambivalence seesaw. When people blame themselves, we tend to forgive them; when they forgive themselves or scapegoat someone else, we tend to blame them far more.

Consider the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box food poisoning case. Two things went wrong: The supplier delivered to the company hamburger meat contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7; and the company failed to cook the meat enough to kill the E. coli. It took both errors to produce a tragedy. On Day Two of the crisis, the CEO of Foodmaker, the corporate owner of the Jack-in-the-Box chain, held a news conference, at which he said something like this: “We’re as much the victims here as those poor children. Our supplier delivered to us meat that was unfit for human consumption. It says right here in our contract that they must deliver meat that’s fit for human consumption, and this morning we filed suit against them for violating the contract.”

The CEO of the supplier company didn’t hold a news conference, but he did issue a statement that began: “This is the worst thing our company has ever done….” The statement went on something like this: “We knew about E. coli and we had what we considered a pretty good program to screen our meat for E. coli. We even knew about this new, more virulent strain, and we realized we would have to improve our screening program. But we were slow to develop the new program. And because we were asleep at the switch, four kids are dead….”

Bottom line: Jack-in-the-Box blamed the supplier. The supplier blamed the supplier. The public blamed Jack-in-the-Box.

11. Acknowledge uncertainty.

Another common seesaw is uncertainty. Whatever the situation, as a rule much is known and fairly predictable; and much is unknown and unpredictable. If you focus on how confident you are, your listeners are likely get on the other side of the seesaw and feel that much less confident.

The trick, then, is to acknowledge uncertainty candidly (but with a confident tone) – which paradoxically makes everyone else (if they’re feeling ambivalent) far more confident.

I experience this particular seesaw frequently in my own consulting. It doesn’t work to say to a client, “I’m one of the world’s leading experts in risk communication. I know what I’m doing. Trust me.” That pushes the client to the other seat on the seesaw, the unconfident seat. I’m far better off when I say: “Look, risk communication isn’t exactly hard science. It has a lot of art in it, and a lot of luck. You have to make your own best judgment whether my advice seems likely to work in the situation you’re facing. Sometimes I get it wrong, and the client is left to pay the price.” That’s hard to say, but when I say it clients take a lot more of my advice.

Is it possible to carry my tentativeness recommendation too far, to come across as bumbling, timid, out of your depth, indecisive, or terminally self-deprecating? Sure. But my clients – and I – and most of us – are much likelier not to go far enough, to end up giving the impression that we are arrogant and overconfident.

A few specific strategies for acknowledging uncertainty:

  • Reserve the word “confident” for things you would bet your mortgage on. Nine times in ten, changing “confident” to “hopeful” will improve your risk communication, help insulate you from attack (and lawsuits), and (the paradox of the seesaw) inspire confidence in the rest of us.
  • Make your content more tentative than your tone. Calmly tell us you’re not sure; there’s a lot you don't know; much of today’s “truth” may be proved wrong by tomorrow. The more explicitly you say these things, the more confident a tone you can afford to use as you say them. Confidently claiming you could easily be wrong inspires trust while alerting us to the genuine uncertainties of the situation. The reverse combination, claiming to be sure in a tone that sounds very unsure, is disastrous.
  • Don't just acknowledge uncertainty in the abstract ( “we are on a fast learning curve”) or in the past ( “we had to learn a lot over the preceding weeks”). The most important tentativeness is tentativeness about what you're telling us now.
  • Show your distress at having to be tentative: “How I wish I could give you a definite answer on that….” And show that you can bear the distress. In other words, model the reaction you want us to have as well: You wish you could be sure; you know you can’t; you are determined to make necessary decisions and take necessary actions even though you must do so without being sure.

Two good examples:

  • David Heymann of the World Health Organization, in the early days of the SARS outbreak: “We are building our boat and sailing it at the same time” – an elegant way of saying we’re going to make some mistakes.
  • Jeff Koplan of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the early days of the anthrax attacks: “We will learn things in the coming weeks that we will then wish we had known when we started.”

12. Don’t arouse other people’s feelings of fraudulence.

This one isn’t in the handout. But I think it’s worth adding.

According to some theorists, most people spend a lot of time feeling fraudulent (like imposters) about whatever traits they value most highly in themselves. People who are proud of their intelligence, for example, secretly feel a bit stupid; people who are proud of their empathy suspect they’re really insensitive. The theory doesn’t say that we are all imposters, only that we all sometimes feel like imposters.

This theory has three key communication implications:

  • To make an enemy, you simply signal to the other person that you’re on to them; you know they’re a fraud.
  • To make a friend, signal that their secret is safe from you; you think they’re intelligent or empathic.
  • And to make a lover, signal that you know their secret but you’ll never tell and you admire them anyway.

This is a good concept to end with in a discussion of empathic communication. In the world of business, we’re a lot likelier to be trying to make a friend than a lover. We certainly don’t want to make an enemy.

The bottom line here: Empathy does not mean making people feel that you know them better than they want to be known.


Let me close by pointing out that some people feel like the concept of “rules of empathy” is an oxymoron. We tend to assume that empathy and empathic communication should be intuitive, natural – not a set of guidelines you learn and practice.True, empathic communication may be intuitive and natural for a lot of people at an important meeting that’s going well. But suppose it’s a routine conversation with a colleague instead of an important meeting with a client. Or suppose the important meeting has blown up into a tense confrontation. At the two ends of the

-curve, empathic communication is not intuitive and not natural. That’s when you fall back on rules you have practiced and turned into habits.

It may feel inauthentic at the beginning. “Okay, now I should echo….” “Here’s a chance to use the seesaw….” In fact, it probably will feel inauthentic at the beginning.

I make you two promises. (Or, rather, let me express two hopes.)

  1. I hope it won’t sound inauthentic. Even if you feel like what you’re saying is stilted and formulaic, notice how the other person is receiving it. Odds are you’re not sounding nearly as weird to the client as you are to yourself. You’re just sounding like a good person to talk with, someone who’s very much there, in touch.
  2. In a little while, I hope, it won’t feel inauthentic either. The more you employ these empathic communication recommendations, the more habitual and automatic they will become. The goal is to integrate them into your intuitive toolkit. They become part of a new, more empathic you.

But nobody starts there. The only place to start is with self-conscious experimentation: awkwardly trying these guidelines for empathic communication … and watching to see how they’re working for you.

Copyright © 2010 by Peter M. Sandman