Workplace Communication Challenge

Empathy: The Most Under-used Resource in Organizational Communication

Imagine you’re a financial analyst in a large organization. During a routine staff meeting, an auditor with whom you believed you have an amicable relationship accuses you of hanging up on him. Since you’ve never hung up on anyone in your entire life, you’re bewildered and can only protest that you did no such thing. The auditor disagrees but cannot provide any specifics about the phone call, what he said to you, or what you replied, let alone the date and topic of the conversation. The meeting disperses, and you’re left wondering what you should do. How can you resolve this issue? And should you?

If you can, you should always address misunderstandings in the workplace. In this instance, your first reaction might be anger at being wrongly accused of completely uncharacteristic behavior. However, you should stop to reconsider your initial response. If you angrily confront your co-worker, you could escalate hostile feelings, which could impede your ability to work with the auditor in future. Moreover, if you confront him, you could also simply end up in an argument over hearsay evidence, which inevitably ends in a deadlock, as no one overheard the conversation at both ends.

Putting Yourself in Your Colleague’s Place

Instead, try using empathy. Imagine the usual reactions that auditors generate when they request data from financial analysts. Many analysts—and most likely, most employees with whom auditors interact—treat auditors’ requests as problematic, generating extra work, or even checking up on employees to ensure they were compliant with both legal and organizational standards in their transactions. Auditors routinely face hostile reactions, and the auditor who accused you of hanging up mid-conversation was likely recalling one of many hostile phone conversations. Now that you understand your auditor’s assumptions, you can try to repair your relationship.

Choose the Right Channel for Delicate Interactions

Whenever possible, use face-to-face interactions to handle delicate transactions, which include addressing bad feelings generated through a misunderstanding. If you can, visit the auditor’s office and empathize with him over the negative responses he receives from so many other employees. “I realize you must get hostile or irritable responses from other analysts all day,” you might say, “but I would never hang up on anyone. What did you need from me? I’ll be happy to get the data to you as soon as I can.”

You’ll find empathy, even expressed on the phone or via an email, has several immediate advantages. By putting yourself in someone else’s position, you distance yourself from your own immediate reactions. This distance also facilitates moving away from a knee-jerk response like anger and toward an understanding of your co-worker’s position. And, by expressing empathy, you also begin to regain the goodwill necessary to maintaining robust organizational relationships

More Advice

Al Cabrera (BSBA 1980)

Chairman of Heartland Food Corp. and Managing Partner of CIG Investments


Mark Yegge (BSBA 1986)

Former Chairman and CEO of NexTrade and Founder of Destiny Creation

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