If you’ve ever said to someone: “You shouldn’t feel this way”, this article is for (and about) you

In a previous article called “Worried about Giving Challenging Feedback to Your Reportee?”, as part of my suggested approach for feeding back constructive feedback I said:

“1. Start the meeting by asking how things have been since you last spoke.

2. Listen to understand.

3. If necessary, show her empathy and compassion. (I will write another article about how you show empathy and compassion.)”

Why do you need to show someone empathy?

(“When my job is, surely, just to tell them they are not performing or they are difficult to others?”)

People are much more likely to take on constructive (negative) feedback (and not make yourlife harder in the meeting when you deliver this feedback) if it is delivered with dignity and respect.

If you genuinely care and are there for them, to understand their perspective and help them move forward, people feel this and won’t be blaming you or be upset with you for delivering bad news. It is often the loss of dignity in such meetings that makes people upset, feel down or even angry (everyone has a different emotional response to the same situation.)

They might not even realise it themselves that it is the loss of dignity that made them upset, because dignity can be a very subtle thing in a work situation.

Here are some subtle things that you might do, without realising, that combined with giving someone constructive (negative) feedback, can make the situation worse for them (and consequently for you):

· Your (unconscious) body language when you are talking to them might give off signals you don’t value them (for example: resting back on your chair with your legs (and potentially arms) crossed gives an unconscious signal that you don’t care or feel are superior to them vs leaning forward/towards them with your arms (open, not crossed) on the desk shows (unconsciously, without even saying a word) that you want to listen and help) or

· sitting opposite them at the table instead of next to them, to show them you are on the same side

· the tone of your voice (it is perhaps giving the impression you are suspicious of their answers or you are detached and distant, you don’t really care). My mum, who is also an engineer, used to say: “the tone makes the music” or

· the words you use (you words might be direct and appear unforgiving). It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

What does it mean to show empathy and compassion?

It means that: you put side your own thoughts about what you think they did (withhold judgement) and you listen to understand their perspective. It means that you recognise the perspective and emotion of the other person and, if necessary, you communicate this by acknowledging their feelings and perspective.

Let’s bring back the scenario above, how would empathy look like in this meeting:

1. You start the meeting by saying: “how have things have been since we last spoke?”

2. Now listen to understand. Do not pretend you are listening or worry about what you want to say next. Listen to understand her situation. There might be something that comes out which might explain why she has been difficult to her colleagues.

Let’s say she says: “I haven’t had any feedback on X initiative from the rest of the team, I feel like an idiot when they don’t say anything. I feel my contributions don’t matter.”

3. Show empathy and compassion.

In the scenario above, you would not come across as emphatic, compassionate or helpful if you say:

“You shouldn’t feel this way” or

“Well, at least they didn’t say anything bad about it” or

“Actually (or “well-actually”), I think no feedback is a sign it’s good enough”.

This would show that you don’t understand their perspective and you are essentially telling them they are wrong; wrong for feeling this way. Saying how someone should or should not feel only makes her feel undervalued, unsupported and even feel humiliated.

What empathy looks like in a meeting

You could say instead:

I am sorry to hear you feel like an idiot and that your contributions don’t matter. We might not have made this clear to you, but your contributions do matter. It can be very disheartening when you don’t get feedback. I thought the way you made ABC project was excellent because you really listened to the customer requirements and brought a very clear brief to the engineering team, it helped them immensely to know exactly what they wanted. I know XYZ colleagues you mentioned had to help John as he had an emergency on a customer project so they were in a rush with his project. They will probably come back to you once that is finished.”

Let’s take another example:

Let’s assume you spoke to Mary and you promised her she can have that holiday for 3 weeks in July. It’s now 2 weeks to go and she’s really excited. A new department head, Mike, comes in and says that we will need everyone on this urgent customer project and no one should take holiday for longer than 2 weeks in the next 6 months. You are not happy about this either as you were hoping to book 3 weeks around Christmas too.

What would not be helpful to do and say:

It would not be helpful if you don’t tell Mike that Mary has had this 3 weeks holiday approved 3 months ago and you tell Mary she can no longer take 3 weeks, but she can still have 2 weeks: “I’m afraid it’s Mike’s policy for the next 6 months” you say. Mary says she feels betrayed by you.

Your response: “You shouldn’t feel this way. This affects everyone, not just you. I wanted 3 weeks at Christmas and I’m not going to be able to take this either. Get over it.”

What would be helpful (and empathetic) to do and say:

In the first instance, you could tell Mike about the current commitments that have been made to staff which this new policy would impact adversely. You could tell him that Mary has had this 3 weeks holiday approved 3 months ago and you believe she should still be able to take this holiday otherwise she would feel very disappointed if you do not uphold your commitments. Let’s say, worst case scenario, Mike argues with you and insists you have to talk to Mary about cutting her holiday down to 2 weeks, regardless of what has already been approved before his arrival. In this situation the conversation with Mary could be like this:

“Mike, the new department manager said everyone has to work on X important project for the next 6 months and no one is allowed to take longer than 2 weeks until December. From next year we’re back to the usual rules however in the meantime we have this restriction. I know this impacts the holiday you booked in July for 3 weeks. I told Mike about the fact that we had promised this to you already, unfortunately I couldn’t get him to change the rules because this project is really urgent. I have been thinking about what else I could do to make up for this change in policy and I was thinking I could give you the Monday or the Friday off of the week before or at the end of your holiday so you can extend it a bit more, if that helps? I am flexible about which 2 weeks you take off of the 3 weeks you had originally booked. I am open to discussing how we could make this easier for you as I am really sorry we had to change this. I apologise for the impact this has had on you.”

The First Principals of Empathy

(just like the first Principles of Engineering, for our engineer readers)

There are several key principals to ensuring you behave/communicate in an empathic way:

1. Listen to understand, don’t just listen to respond.

How do you know you listened to understand and processed the information? You can repeat 15 min later back to them, using your own words, the core message of what they said, and they will agree this is absolutely accurate.

2. Self-awareness of your own way of seeing things and of your attitude.

What are your core beliefs about what s/he did? Do you care more about finding a solution that works for everyone and building lasting relationships? Or are you more concerned with being right, showing them who’s boss? If you are not flexible and open minded, you will not be able to treat others with empathy.

3. Take the other person’s respective. Put aside your viewpoint of what happened.

It’s hard to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. I find the easiest way to do this is to imagine that what happened to this person happened to me and how I would feel. This is by no means a perfect technique as my background, experience and filters through which I see the world will be different than anyone else’s (as they are not me and have not lived this exact life). However this exercise goes a long way to put me into someone else’s shoes and some problems will be common to all people (e.g. being promised something important and then not that promise fulfilled will make most people feel disappointed, hurt, undervalued, etc.)

4. Acknowledge the other person’s way of seeing things. It doesn’t mean you agree. It just means you understand their perspective.

Saying things like: “I am sorry to hear you feel like an idiot and that your contributions don’t matter. We might not have made this clear to you, but your contributions do matter. It can be very disheartening when you don’t get feedback.



Adelina Chalmers a.k.a The Geek Whisperer

Helps Engineers who are Leaders (CEO/ CTO/ VP) get buy-in from their peers/teams/investors by transforming Communication techniques into Algorithms