Empathy and remaining firm: Two sides of the same coin in management


As a manager, or even a colleague, finding the balance between showing empathy and remaining firm is tricky, but it’s an important skill to learn and develop. James Larter from RoleplayUK explores why

Many of us appreciate that empathy is crucial to any working environment. It’s an unwritten understanding that we are heard and valued, reinforcing an instinct to want to contribute to the best of our ability.

When discussing empathy, it’s easy to think of it as too “touchy-feely” for work, but empathy goes beyond just creating a pleasant or caring atmosphere in the office. It’s an essential skill that managers must have or learn if they are to make the most of their team. The real craft, though, is learning to balance showing empathy while retaining a degree of authority in the workplace.

We have delivered countless training sessions on empathy and simulated the kinds of conversations encountered in the workplace. Time and time again, we have seen the best technique to improve empathy in the workplace, and as a manager, is to practise.

For some this balance comes easily, but the majority of us will naturally lean to one side or the other. How effective your management style is, may well depend on where you work and whom you work with. You could have a team who respond very well to an extremely empathetic manager or, indeed, an autocratic one who shows little empathy at all.

But that’s a risk and the balance can be easily undone especially if a new team member joins who requires a different approach. Suddenly, you could find yourself on the back foot.

Showing empathy helps to:

  • Foster a collaborative approach;
  • Improve employee performance;
  • Motivate staff;
  • Support employees through changes in the workplace and;
  • Make difficult conversations that little bit easier.

Can you learn this balance?

There’s no one solution to balancing empathy and being firm in the workplace, but it is possible to learn how to adopt a more empathetic approach. There are signs you can learn to spot in colleagues and techniques you can develop that will help you to adjust your behaviour to get the best out of the individual personalities you work with – after that, it’s all down to practice.

Think of it this way – it’s like learning the difference between what you say and how you say it. You may say the right thing, but if poorly timed or voiced in the wrong way, it could be misinterpreted. While empathy is a soft skill and based in emotion, there is a thinking side to it that you can learn and practice, which will enable you to begin to understand how your counterpart is feeling or what he or she is thinking. This knowledge will help you learn how best to respond to a situation, but it’s practice that will help you to grow in confidence and be able to adapt your approach appropriately to improve outcomes.

Balancing empathy with authority starts with a few simple steps

Listen and observe:

It’s important to show that you are actively listening. Be sure to face the speaker and maintain natural eye contact wherever possible. Make sure you’re attentive both to what they’re saying and their body language but remember to stay relaxed.

Keep an open mind, and don’t try to pre-empt the conversation with possible solutions. Listening carefully to the words being used will help you to picture what they are saying, a great technique to help you empathise with that person.

Stop and think:

Allow time to consider your contribution to the conversation and your responsibilities for the situation. Remember you are the manager here and you need to keep your own emotional state of mind in check.

Listen some more:

Explore deeper into their perspective and agree on a need for change in behaviour or working practice.

Don’t be distracted:

It’s all too common to see people checking their smartphone despite being in the presence of another human being. Be in the moment and give your full attention to the matter at hand.

Be authentic:

We all appreciate that praising staff is a proven tactic for improving performance and general well-being. But it needs to be genuine and relate to everyday performance and achievements rather than waiting for the completion of something significant.
This also means taking an interest in what your employees or team do – it all adds to understanding a team’s well-being, but crucially helps you understand them.

Be honest:

Showing empathy doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person. In fact, this is often where the true balance between being firm and being empathetic comes in – as long as you can show that you can understand where the other party is coming from and be mindful of their concerns, it’s okay to steer them in a different direction.

But you must embed the learnings with practice

We have delivered countless training sessions on empathy and simulated the kinds of conversations encountered in the workplace. Time and time again, we have seen the best technique to improve empathy in the workplace, and as a manager, is to practise. Preparation is very important, but it’s practice that will help you get the balance right and improve outcomes.

What you actually say and what people hear can be two very different things. By practising real-life conversations (we call it Realplay, utilising the expertise of our skills coach actors) where others won’t be offended, you can experience the impact of your approach and learn how to adjust it from the immediate feedback you receive. The more often you can practise empathy in Realplay or other interactive training sessions, the more confident and experienced you will become.

This allows you to be better prepared to respond and relate to others much more effectively.

James Larter
Managing Director
Tel: +44 (0)333 121 3003


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