Communicate Better and Drive Change Through Empathy

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. June 11, 2023

​Robert and Terri Bogue from Thor Projects LLC in Carmel, Ind., lead a discussion on empathetic conversations June 11 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023 in Las Vegas.

Employees sometimes just want their manager to empathize and provide a safe place to talk, not to try to fix their problems, said Terri Bogue, chief operations officer with Thor Projects LLC in Carmel, Ind., speaking June 11 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023 in Las Vegas.

But it may be scary to have empathetic conversations at work, said her husband, Robert Bogue, president of Thor Projects LLC. "They're hard," he said.

That's partly because empathy can lead to change, and change makes people uncomfortable, Terri Bogue said. That might include teaching a rogue manager to soften their tone without compromising the company's standards. Or it could mean helping an employee work through a difficult patch personally that a manager may not realize the employee is going through unless it gets them to open up.

Putting forth the effort to overcome discomfort and have the difficult conversations is part of the job of leadership. Employers need to engage and care about employees as humans, Robert Bogue said.

It's important to show employees their managers believe that "they are more than the job they need to do," Terri Bogue said.

Common Values

Another reason empathetic conversations can be challenging is that people can come at dialogues emphasizing so many different factors. "Understanding someone else's values helps decrease conflict and improve conversation," Terri Bogue said.

She identified common ones, including:

  • Power.
  • Independence.
  • Curiosity.
  • Acceptance.
  • Order.
  • Saving.
  • Honor.
  • Idealism.
  • Social contact.
  • Family.
  • Status.
  • Vengeance.
  • Romance.
  • Physical Activity.
  • Tranquility.

Change the Environment

Sometimes employees point the finger of blame at their managers when they're about to be disciplined or receive a poor performance review. Or managers witness poor behavior from employees and want to change it. This can give rise to difficult conversations that require empathetic conversations and, possibly, change. But Terri Bogue noted that change can be easier said than done.

Behavior is a function of a person and their environment, Robert Bogue said, so focus on changing the environment. Employees need to feel safe enough to be honest with employers, and employers should foster environments where employees won't get into trouble for doing so, he said.

Employers also need to remember employees will wonder how they will benefit from sharing, he said. An employer can convey that if they share more, the employer can understand the situation better and be better able to support the worker.

But stick with empathy, Terri Bogue cautioned. Don't cross over into altruism, where you're putting yourself at risk.

Robert Bogue suggested employers might ask employees to describe what's going on. Take the "grand tour" and ask what the whole situation is. Or take a "minitour," asking for examples and what the person's experience has been. Then try asking how things fit together, followed by questions to verify the information.

Another option is asking open-ended questions, affirming, reflecting and then summarizing, Terri Bogue said.

But beware of traps along the way as employers analyze employees' answers, like the "expert trap" of a manager asserting they know what happened even when they weren't there.

Written Option

Give employees the option to write out what happened, Terri Bogue recommended. That may make it easier for them to talk about a sensitive situation.

Then allow them to destroy their writing and explain it to you, she said. Or give them the option to share their written account.

Empathetic conversations don't always lead to change, Robert Bogue noted. "How many times have you had a conversation with an employee and felt like they would change, but they didn't?" he asked.

Sometimes, there's simply immunity to change.



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