Clarity and Workplace Empathy

Posted on 21st March 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I would like to refer you to an on-line article that ran recently in Forbes magazine. Entitled ’11 Ways Leaders Can Develop Empathy’, it contains among various helpful tips a reminder of the subtle role that clarity and precise communication can play in building empathy in the workplace.

Making the Effort to Be Clear

In the article, co-author Ascanio Pignatelli explains why clarifying questions and statements can be so important in strengthening workplace relationships: “Leaders can develop empathy by making it a habit to consciously focus on exactly what the people they’re engaging with might be thinking and feeling in any given situation. Clarifying questions and statements are key to making others feel heard. Some companies are doing a great job helping their leaders become more emotionally intelligent. However, most aren’t and are missing a huge opportunity.”

I was delighted to find a quote about clarity in the context of empathy, because I almost never see or hear this approach: for example, I always encourage clients to paraphrase and ask clarifying questions when working to understand client needs, or when working in the ‘discovery’ phase of an innovation effort. But Pignatelli does us a service by reminding us that this salutary habit of seeking greater precision and understanding through questions and statements can make us more empathic as well.
How exactly might this work? Imagine that you and I are having a conversation and you are telling me about a challenge that you are facing. One listening approach that I could take would be to listen attentively, say ‘That’s interesting!’ from time to time, and perhaps ask you a question or two. You would probably feel that I am listening fairly well, particularly if my questions were relevant and well timed. So far, so good.

But imagine the following: after several minutes of your narration I could say, ‘Before you go on, let me make sure that I’ve understood you correctly. You said that you are facing obstacle A, surprise G and then decision K. Is that correct?’ What kind of impression will this make on you? You will probably think, ‘Wow, Mark really is listening.’ Or you may spot a mistake in my understanding and say, ‘Well, not exactly: it is actually surprise D, not G.’ Regardless, I will come away from that exchange with a better understanding of your challenge, and you will probably come away with the sense that I am truly listening and trying to empathize with you. These are generally good things, in terms of empathy and in terms of productivity as well.

Making the effort to listen and speak with greater precision can support our efforts to be more empathic at work. All of us want to be heard, and a simple step in that direction is to make a greater effort to be clear.

Good luck, and until next time…