CareersCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: Empathy in Action

By Susan de la Vergne

A truly horrible thing happened at work some years ago. A colleague went on vacation with his family in Hawaii and, while they were there, his 20-something son was killed in a freak rockslide accident while hiking. Our colleague was such a good guy. He had many friends at work, and truly our hearts went out to him and his family. It was unthinkably sad.

Of course the news spread around the office quickly. Our reactions were, as you might imagine, sympathetic, shocked, even grief-stricken for our colleague, though we didn’t know his son.

But a consultant working with us ” let’s call him Mark ” who knew our colleague friend only slightly did the strangest thing when he heard the news. He began to tell a long, overly detailed story of grief, something that happened to friends of his who’d known similar sorrow. He told this to a roomful of people assembled for a meeting that hadn’t started yet, going on and on in copious detail about everything that had happened to his friends. At first we listened and nodded, a little confused about where this was going, but it quickly became so out-in-left-field. Why was this guy going on and on about people we didn’t know? After five minutes of Mark’s uninterrupted, insensitive narrative (we were all thinking Can you just stop now?) someone finally wrenched the conversation away from him and the meeting began, though no one was in the mood.

Sorry to start with a story that’s such a downer, but those things do happen. At work, we’re part of a community, and sometimes into our midst come joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy. Usually, however, the situations we find ourselves part of are ” fortunately ” far less dramatic.

I relate this story because it’s a screaming example of what happens when communication lacks empathy. There was a collective wave of horror and sadness among all of us who were friends of the young man’s father, and many of us had talked with each other about how badly we felt for him. Then Mark, this guy who hardly knew our colleague, launched into a story about these friends of his, whom none of us knew, as if this were somehow useful.

It’s what some people do when empathy is called for: they redirect the focus to themselves. Yes, I know how you feel. One time I had something like this happen to me/my friends, and The next thing you know, they’re off and running with a tale of woe that they think is like your tale of woe, as if that’s somehow helpful.


It’s not.

We often find ourselves in situations at work that call for empathy, tales of woe that range from extraordinary to mundane ” for example, complaints from clients, accounts of unfairness (“Can you believe this latest reorg?!”), random disasters, even dashed hopes. How to handle these kinds of situations is the question. First, let’s look at common mistakes people make.

What Not to Do

  1. No re-directs (away from the speaker, on to you).
    When someone tells a tale of woe, they want their feelings to be acknowledged and respected. They don’t want the conversation re-directed elsewhere, even if the subject is painful. They’re not asking to be distracted. They want the listener to remain with them and stick to the subject at hand. They want the listener to simply say “I hear you” and perhaps also, “How can I help?”
  2. No empty reassurances.
    When someone tells you about the difficult situation they’re in, they don’t want hasty reassurances like “Everything will be fine” when it’s pretty clear everything will not be fine. Don’t dismiss their concern prematurely. If they think the situation warrants worry, what they want from you is to understand their worry, not to disagree that the situation isn’t worrisome. Once you “get” their distress, then you can try to talk them down if you think they’re over-anxious.
  3. No upstaging.
    A person who tells you about something terrible does not want to be upstaged. “Hey, you think you’ve got it rough, that’s nothing! Let me tell you about… That doesn’t make anyone feel better.
    If someone says to you, “Someone backed into my brand new car in the parking lot and crunched my back fender,” and you say, “That’s nothing! You should have seen the rear-ender I saw on the freeway this morning,” you can be sure that you’ve offered no comradery whatsoever to your friend with the crunched fender, and you’ve instead offered up something entirely unhelpful. It’s not likely the person with the crunched fender will be grateful he avoided a freeway collision, so if that’s where you were going with that, forget it.
  4. No analyzing.
    Let’s say a teammate says to you, “Our project team lead is always telling me what to do, like I have no idea how to do my job. She’s a micromanager of the first order, and she’s making me crazy!” Then you say, “Could it be that your mother was always telling you what to do and she reminds you of your mother?”
    Okay, maybe that’s not the first thing you’d tell a work colleague, but the point is that people want to be heard, not examined. If you took Psych 101 in college, or even if you went to grad school pursuing psychology before you diverted to engineering, avoid analyzing.
  5. No fixing.
    Women are always accusing men of this. Women want to share their problems while men want to fix them.
    She says: “I hate my boss and my commute and my job!” as she comes storming through the front door.
    He says: “Have you started looking for a new job? The market is pretty good right now.”
    Thud. That’s the sound his response makes when it falls flat, while she goes storming to the back of the house kicking off shoes and slamming her purse into the wall. So what if the market is good right now?
    This disconnect is because he’s aiming at the tactical problem while she’s on an emotional tear, and a tactical solution is the furthest thing from her mind. His best bet is to be kind and patient. There’s nothing he can do to bring her around quickly, and she’s probably not mad at him anyway.

What to Do

When you tell someone that you’re angry about the underqualified, unrelenting, hardass manager you’re suddenly reporting to, you want to hear something like, “Yes, I hear he can be pretty brutal. Sorry, man.” Or you might want informed reassurance. “I worked for him on a project and he wasn’t as bad as everyone says.”

Both of these responses take into account your concern ” that your future looks bleaker to you now than it did under the old manager. One response says, yep the new manager sure is terrible, good luck with that, and the other says give it a chance, you may be surprised in a way that’s not an empty promise. These responses address the speaker’s distress, not the situation that gave rise to the distress.


That’s always step one when someone is complaining or distraught. Connect to the distress. Respect it. Listen to it, and acknowledge it. After that you can work your way toward what might be practical to do now. But first, recognize where the other person is coming from. Don’t gloss over it as if it doesn’t matter ” because if you’ve ever complained about anything yourself, you know it does matter.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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