Empathize and Engage:
6 Tips for Approaching Sensitive Conversations
Despite our differences, we are all human, and it’s our humanity that holds the greatest power to bind us together. Regardless of where we come from, where we are, or what we look like, our humanity, as expressed and felt through our emotions, helps us navigate the world around us. More than ever in our lifetime, we are faced with challenging events that spark an array of emotions, some at the same time. Whether now or in the past, we can identify with sorrow, sadness, happiness, joy, anxiety, grief, fear, love, compassion, stress, and countless other feelings. These shared human emotions connect us, especially when we are self-aware of our emotions as they occur, and can pin-point others’ emotions in the moment.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to recognize and acknowledge the emotion another human is feeling. It’s the basis of relationship building and conflict resolution. Being empathetic is like having a human-connection superpower… and it’s a skill that can be learned. Which is great, because at work or at home, employing empathy is the key to navigating nearly every kind of situation involving humans.
In most cases, to understand how someone is feeling, we have to stretch ourselves and adapt to do either one of two things: we can try to imagine how we would feel if we were in the same situation, or we can tune ourselves into the situation and closely observe the person’s behavior to decipher the emotion they’re likely feeling. See? It’s a superpower.
The other part of being empathetic is the willingness to engage in real and honest conversations, even about difficult topics. We know emotions can be volatile, which can make us apprehensive and enticed to disengage. This is where it often gets uncomfortable. However, this is also the space where empathy can become a superpower for those who feel hesitation. Empathy can help us overcome many common fears, as seen in the chart below:
A fear of…
- Rejection turns into acceptance
- Not knowing exactly what to say turns into speaking confidently in any situation
- Further exacerbating a situation turns into an ability to calm and diffuse a situation
- Not truly understanding what someone is feeling turns into being socially aware and discerning
- Being perceived as too emotional turns into maintaining self-control
- Being perceived as not in control of a situation turns into leading with confidence
6 Ways to Approach Sensitive Conversations
The wonderful part about our humanity is resilience, and our ability to act despite discomfort. I believe we are all born with instincts that help us respond appropriately in all situations. However, due to external factors, our humanity may become clouded, which lessens our confidence in our ability to trust our instincts. I would like to encourage us all to step past fear with these six tips for opening up a dialogue or engaging with others.
1. Validate what you perceived or heard. Simply ask questions to confirm or acknowledge the emotion. It is not about agreeing with the feeling or judging why it exists. You are simply confirming the information you received. You may say, “My perception is that you may be feeling uncomfortable, am I correct?” or “I imagine that you may be sad – how are you really feeling?” Or “I heard you say that you are angry, would you like to talk about it?”
2. Explain how you feel. One way to start a conversation is to explain how you are feeling in the present situation. Making the first move to be transparent may be a great way to model the openness and candor you are seeking. Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Care is the precursor for real conversation. Be willing to share first .
3. Ask before touching. There are some personality types who express emotions and connect with others through touching and hugging. If this is you, simply pause and ask for permission to reach in for a hug. Ask, “Is it okay for me to give you a hug right now?” Or, “I tend to touch and give hugs to connect with family and friends, feel free to tell me if you’re uncomfortable with that.”
4. Offer space to process. People may need additional time to process what they are feeling. Despite your desire to engage in conversation, you should allow others to connect with their own emotions about a situation. You may say, “If you need time to process what’s happening, I’m here for you whenever you’re ready to talk,” or, “If you need a sounding board as you think aloud, I am here.”
5. Be willing to listen. We have heard the “Golden Rule” before, which is to treat others the way you want to be treated. But the way you want to be treated may differ from others. Be willing to really listen to others and comply with their preferences. This creates an atmosphere for real dialogue and rapport.
6. Be flexible to the next move. We should not try to force our way into someone else’s world. Attempts to do so are likely to be viewed as insincere, pushy, and disingenuous. Instead, it’s better that we are patient and move at the pace others are comfortable. You might say, “Is it alright with you if I check in on you tomorrow or next week?” When we see others who are struggling, the desire to help is natural. However, we should not assume to know the reason or the solutions. When engaging in a conversation, you might say, “What may I do to help you through this tough time?”
Humans are complicated beings and our lives are dynamic (and dramatic!). So many factors influence our emotions. An important aspect of leading with empathy is to create an environment where each person feels safe to talk and engage at the pace most comfortable for them. However , when we do this, we fuel ourselves and others, and tap into the best of our humanity.
Want to connect with Keera and learn more about engaging employees with empathy? Reach out at 859-415-1000, or send us a message using the Let’s Talk! form below.