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Talent Management

Trump’s Empathy Inadvertently Offers a Lesson in Employee Communication

Don’t go in blindly into an awkward conversation with your employees.

Conversations on certain sensitive subjects can be awkward even if you’re having them with a close friend.

So how are employers supposed to have those conversations with their employees, with whom they have a much more formal relationship?

My editor recently shared a rather interesting article with our editorial team, “Leaders Should Use ‘Empathy’ Cheat-Sheets, as Long as They Mean it.” Dawn Burke’s post on the HR blog Fistful of Talent focuses on how President Trump used an “empathy cheat sheet” to communicate with the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, and argues that despite the negative response the president received, the idea of using a sheet like this is actually a smart strategy for leaders. Since many leaders feel unprepared to have serious conversations with employees, preparing themselves for difficult conversations is a great strategic move.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Here is the caveat to all the leaders who struggle with showing empathy or vulnerability.  If you use a cheat sheet, you must mean what you say. You must have the verbiage sound somewhat like you. Also, you must fall into the category of, “I actually have empathy, I just don’t know how to verbalize it”.  If you say a bunch of gobbledygook that is not true, you may as well use the ‘CEO shock-and-awe’ technique. Here is where Trump may run into trouble.”

This reminded me of some valuable communication lessons learned in a behavioral health webinar last December. Chicago-based law firm Franczek Radelet presented a webinar on how to comply with the FMLA and ADA when an employee is dealing with a mental health condition. Part of the presentation focused on how to speak with employees about their mental health issues, whether that’s anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, depression or something else.

The law firm included a helpful slide on what phrasing to avoid and what to use instead when communicating with an employee who has a mental health problem. For example, instead of saying, “I know exactly what you’re going through,” say, “It’s hard for me to know what you are going through, but I can see it’s distressing you.” Instead of saying, “You seem depressed,” say, “You’re not your usual self lately.” And instead of saying, “How’s your health?” say, “How can we help you?”

I loved these examples, because they show how a person’s attempt to offer sympathy can come across negatively. I know from experience talking to friends about upsetting, traumatic or sensitive situations, my first reaction has often been to say, “I know what you’re going through”— even if I haven’t actually been in that situation. Taking a step back to consider how your words come across to the other person is good manners for business and for life.

There are some great lessons from these sources. Whether you’re a manager who’s trying to have a conversation with employees about how to accommodate their mental illness or how to speak with them after a tragedy you could never begin to imagine experiencing yourself, going in blindly doesn’t have to be your go-to move.

Preparation — like by role-playing with another party to practice saying the right thing — doesn’t make your response robotic or disingenuous. It could easily make your response more thoughtful.

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.