Empathy towards your employee is the best starting point for any conversation, especially the most challenging ones. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for the other person. Some people do not like others to feel sorry for them because they do not see themselves as a victim, therefore offering them sympathy would probably add insult to injury to them. With other people, sympathy may increase the distance between the two of you, the one who has the power over the other’s future and the one that is on a lower footing: you are not in this together.
Empathy, on the other hand, has a unifying and bonding effect. Empathy means understanding and feeling what your employee is going through from your employee’s own perspective. In other words, persons who exercise empathy put themselves in the other person’s shoes. People tend to like it when others take the time and make the effort to see things from their own perspective because it allows them to express any feelings openly and without resentment. Also it allows the both of you to work towards a resolution that is acceptable for all concerned because it does not feel like a top-down order.
When communicating bad news, it is likely that you would feel discomfort or embarrassment, but the person receiving the bad news is not only likely to feel discomfort and embarrassment, but they may also feel anger, frustration, shame and feelings of insecurity and even fear: their financial security and their career may be threatened. So however difficult the conversation is for you, this experience is going to be a lot harder for your employee: empathy is all about the other person.
To look after yourself and to take the edge off your discomfort, it can be useful to spend some time preparing for the conversation and identifying all the difficult and unpleasant feelings you will be feeling and your employee is likely to feel. By anticipating these difficulties and by accepting them in advance, you are less likely to be taken by surprise by your own discomfort while having a difficult conversation. Your voice and body language can help you show empathy towards others, especially in difficult conversations.
Empathetic body language
Because you are putting the other person first, you want to show acknowledgement and validation towards them. If at the start of the meeting you are sitting down, make sure you get up as they came into the room to show that you acknowledge their presence. Whether you are sitting down or standing up, lean slightly forward towards them with your torso; this shows that you are interested in them and how they are feeling. Leaning backwards shows that you are not committed to the conversation and to the other person, so it should be avoided.
Your posture should be open. Having your arms crossed or your hands closed in on each other gives them the impression that you are not going to listen to their side and their perspective. Similarly, having your hands in your pockets signifies lack of interest in the conversation and in the other person, even though you may have your hands in your pockets because of your own discomfort. You want to show them that you are open to a dialogue with them and that you are interested in what they have to say.
If you are gesticulating, having your palms up shows empathy and openness to the other’s point of view. Pointing with your fingers or having your palms down is going to make you look as though you are ordering them around and are not open for discussion. Nodding while they are speaking shows them that you are listening to them and taking on board their message and their perspective.
Try to keep a soothing, calm tone of voice throughout. Using a soft and calm tone of voice throughout will also help reassure them and prevent defensiveness or aggression. Even if your employee responds with anger or defensiveness, it is important that your voice and your body language remain calm and collected. If you respond with anger, defensiveness or if your lean back and retreat, it will send the message to your employee that you are unwilling to cooperate with them and are instead turning against them.
If you are able to show them that you are listening to them sincerely and carefully and that you are interested in them as people, this will go a long way to making this difficult conversation less unpleasant for your employee and, ultimately, for you.
Alexis Faber is an expert in body language, reading people and psychology. Thanks to one-to-one sessions and group workshops tailored to each individual’s needs, she helps people present the best version of themselves to achieve their career goals and realize their potential. She offers unique programmes to help executives, salespeople and professional women. Find out more at https://www.in-sight-edge.com/ or feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org