Telling the tough decisions – how empathy is different from sympathy and why this is important for your leadership

As a boss, project leader or client responsible, you sometimes have to make tough decisions that disappoint the people you work with. Let´s look at some everyday examples: You might need more resources for a project on short notice and one of your project team members needs to cancel her weekend trip to London. Or you have decided that the young colleague who has prepared a great presentation for your pitch meeting cannot attend the client meeting himself.

How do you feel when you have to give such messages? If you are like most people, you will probably feel quite uncomfortable. You anticipate their disappointment even before you open your mouth and then, right, there comes the frowny face . What you would like to do is to just drop the message bomb and run. Even if you know that there is no other way and you have checked all alternatives, you perfectly understand their disappointment – after all, who wouldn´t? In other words: you sympathise with them and it does not feel good for either of you.

So, what to do? You might give an empathic approach a try in order to save both your energy and that of your team members. Sympathy and empathy are often confused, but they are quite different:

Sympathy is acknowledging another person’s emotional hardship and providing comfort and assurance. Sympathy is ”feeling with”.
Empathy is understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes. Empathy is ”feeling into”.
This explains why sympathy in situations as in the examples above does not work for you – how are you supposed to provide ”comfort and assurance” when you have to make tough decisions as a leader? What is more, comfort and assurance are most probably not part of your job description. Empathy, on the other hand, works: You don´t let yourself get infected by the disappointment, but you show that you understand the feelings that your decision causes in the other person.

How do we show empathy in tough situations in practice? We state that we understand the feeling, thus validating the other person and their feelings. We stay firm with our decision, if we believe that it is the right one and there are no alternatives. And we tell our team members how much we appreciate that they walk the extra mile or make the personal sacrifice that we are asking for. Regarding the examples above, you might want to say saying something like:

– ”Malin, I really need you to work with me on this over the weekend. I understand that you are disappointed now, because I know how much you have been looking forward to your trip to London. I have checked who else would be available on short notice, unfortunately without success. Let me tell you how much I appreciate your help in this and that I will not forget your putting in an extra effort over the weekend.”
– ”Thomas, I have decided that you can´t come to the pitch meeting. There will be only two people on the client side and we need to show our banking expertise, so Alfred will come with me. I understand that you are disappointed now because you have done a great job with the presentation and wanted to do it yourself. I greatly appreciate your good work and promise to get back to you after the meeting with feedback on how it went.”
One more thing: Some people think that showing empathy will be seen as if they are agreeing to what the other is saying, but that is not the case. Showing empathy is not agreeing! Just imaging one of the countless parent-child-dialogues that you have had or listened to, which goes along the lines of ”Yes, I understand that you are angry with me for sending you to bed/not letting you stay out late/making you do your homework etc., but you are still going to bed/will be home by 23:00/have your homework done by Tuesday evening at the latest etc.” This is showing empathy while holding fast to your decision.

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Marion Ehmann is a lawyer as well as the founder and owner of kiMEru Coaching & Consulting AB. She uses up-to-date research and best practice plus her almost 20 years of experience in the legal profession to support lawyers in their professional development.