Empathetic Challenge



“How good are you at communication”, my counterpart asked me with care and interest. “Pretty good”, I answered too quickly and self-confident. I reasoned that I earn my living almost entirely through communication. “And how would you assess it outside of the people that depend on you for part of their income?”, she inquired with the same empathy. I was silent much longer this time and not so sure when I started talking. A valuable conversation unfolded. I dared to explore my ways of communicating: the moments it flows, as well as my daily flaws and misunderstandings. Just because of the loving persistence of my counterpart.

I increasingly see my own work as a series of ‘empathy challenges’. The people I work with are often looked up to and receive few good questions and feedback. It is vulnerable to ask personal questions or to give feedback to your boss or peer in the same executive team. The family members and good friends of executives often prefer to save their insights ‘for another moment in time’. In a recent article in HBR (March April 2017, Gregersen) it is called the ‘CEO Bubble’. All in all, executives may think their communications are going well, but not necessarily because of their own effort.

“How did the townhall meeting go yesterday” I sms-ed to my coachee the other day when he had a big and uncomfortable announcement to make. “It went really well”, he responded within seconds, at social media speed. I could see my next question coming: “How do you know, it went well?”, but I was not going to send that through SMS without seeing him. We spent half an hour in our next coaching conversation, exploring what data points he had picked up, that he based his conclusion on. Many of these data points evaporated as we explored them. They were merely assumptions and hopes of people’s responses. As we explored his self-confidence declined, just like mine did when I started exploring my own communications in my personal environment.

He concluded that he interpreted data points that confirmed what he wanted to hear. We concluded together that it would be worthwhile to collect real input from people who would dare to tell him ‘things the way they are’. We explored which colleagues would be able to be an ‘empathic challenger’: people in the workplace – and at home – who can give immediate and real feedback, on the spot, when it happens, with care and courage: as an empathetic challenger.