Kindness, Empathy, and Directness

And why I'm always open to the possibility my assumptions could be wrong

I’m of the firm believer that kind and empathetic conversation requires a high level of emotional intelligence. You might be asking, “What kind of intelligence?” To clarify, I mean that any conversation we partake in, should strive for:

  • Humble Inquiry - Whereby we maximize curiosity and interest in others and minimizes bias and preconceptions.
  • Radical Candor - Meaning we care personally, and are willing to challenge directly.
  • Directness - Our communication gets to the core issue at hand and engenders further productive conversation.
  • Trust - A feeling of psychologically safety, and of a safe space for taking risks.

These types of ideas are exposed all the time. In book after book. In TED talk after TED talk. Speakers and writers define how conversations require kindness, empathy, and directness . However what isn’t touched on enough, and equally important, is to remember what good conversation does not contain. And by that, I mean in our conversations, being kind and empathetic does not mean giving “compliment sandwiches” all the time, or avoiding direct feedback.

Its Gonna Hurt, I Guarantee it

Sometimes the core of an issue really is that someone’s mistake was catastrophic; Or they outright bullied someone; Or didn’t listen to direct order; Or something along those lines. So yes, In some cases people should feel bad. However we don’t have to double up and go out of our way to make them feel even worse. In those cases they already did it to themselves.

Just to be clear, no one should ever feel condemned. Instead they should feel like they have a productive path forward.

“[T]he source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being namely, that his errors are corrigible.” ― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In any case, glossing over important issues to avoid uncomfortable feelings isn’t really kind in the long run. Striving for kindness, directness and empathy is admirable and humanizing, we often are short on it, but sometimes I just don’t think we can always be productive while sparing others feelings.

For example, when a relationship needs to end (a romantic break up, a firing, etc.). There’s a limited amount one can do to make the listener feel good about themselves.

In that kind of a scenario, the challenge is in limiting our empathy for the purposes of doing the right thing. In other words, even if we phrase something reasonably kindly but it’s not taken well, we can’t blame ourselves for the listener’s hurt feelings. At some point, if they are hurt, it’s their fault.

That judgement can seem cold and perhaps counter-intuitive. However, that’s just one example in which empathy will make the right thing more difficult.

Soft Passes

Forgive me with a sports analogy but I think it applies here and I can’t resist referring back to a sport which I love.

So, in playing hockey, I often see inexperienced players mistakenly believe they are being nice by giving out soft passes. Be it due to lack of confidence in their aim or their fear of a misplaced pass sliding out of reach. In anywise, what these slow passes actually do is disrupt the flow of action and are even more likely to fail.

What actually works best, is to make, hard, direct passes. For it gets the puck to a teammate fast. It’s more likely to be caught in stride. And it makes it harder for a defense to read. Basically, passing directly and with conviction is more likely to lead to a goal and more importantly, it is less likely to lead to turnovers near the receiving teammate.

My takeaway: being direct is better and more welcome than being soft worrying about potential faults.

Got any of those actionable changes?

  1. When challenging an idea or opinion not yet solidified proven, always be open to the possibility our assumptions could be wrong.

A practical example looks like this: Imagine a conversation where a colleague’s stated goal doesn’t make sense. You now have to reply back to this colleague’s illogical argument.

An observance of this rule would be a response such as:

I'm confused by this.
Can you take a step back and explain your goal here? 
Why does … (context specific dialog)

Taking a look at this example, in saying, “I’m confused” rather than, “What you did makes no sense.” We are accepting responsibility for the confusion and making an effort to enroll others in an attempt to seek clarity.

It is a question of the colleague in a respectful way that’s likely to engender a productive conversation as opposed to putting them on the defensive.

We are trying to produce a certain reaction in our colleague, and every word and phrase we use will contribute to that reaction. Even if you were a sociopath, and didn’t care about how they feel, there’s value in producing the reaction you want and avoiding the reaction you don’t.

I’ll freely admit to using empathy both because I care about other people and because in practice I find it incredibly effective.

If we hear what people are saying with a sense of goodwill, and read their words charitably, we give less cause for animosity to arise.

Again, whenever giving criticism/feedback, we should provide a response that leaves open the idea our assumptions are wrong (as often assumptions are). Not only does it make it easier for the other person to hear, but it also helps us save face if our feedback ends up being wrong.