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Is there such a thing as efficient empathy?

(April 1, 2024 Newsletter)

I’ve been working with a set of managers on developing listening as a leadership skill. During a recent Q&A, a few wanted to know – “How can I demonstrate that I’m really listening and truly care while also moving the conversation along?”

Why it matters: I love this question. It’s a fantastic example of what happens when theory meets reality. OF COURSE we all want to be better listeners to our teams and coworkers, but it can take so much time!

  • When your to-do list and calendar are full before 9am, it’s understandable to feel anxious and impatient when someone interrupts and asks to speak. You might not know how long the conversation is going to take, what will be asked of you, or how drained you might feel by the end.  

That being said, there must be a way to connect and set time boundaries at work, right?

Start with yourself:

  • Check your assumptions about the situation: What are you telling yourself about the person before they begin speaking? Observe what feelings have already bubbled up for you, just by them asking to talk.  What predictions are you making about how the conversation will go?

  • Plus your assumptions about your role: When you think of “supportive manager,” what comes to mind? Are you worried about time or the emotional toll this conversation could have on you? What expectations do you have about who sets the pace in a conversation?

  • Eyes on the prize: While empathic listening may feel like a total distraction from your own priorities, in what way does supporting this person serve your organizational goals?

  • Reframe the either/or: Part of the anxiety may stem from feeling conflicted between showing care and respect by letting the other person have as much of your time as possible and focusing on your own needs by keeping the conversation as short as possible. What if you didn’t have to choose? What could that look like?

And here are 5 few techniques for efficient empathy:

  1. Set expectations. If you’re crunched for time, make that clear up front. (“I’d love to speak but I only have 10 minutes until my next meeting.”) If the moment they want to speak isn’t one when you’ll be as available as you’d like, schedule the nearest time that will work for you both. (“I want to be able to give you my full attention but right now my head’s in this document. What does your afternoon look like? I should be done by then.”)

  2. Reframe and summarize what you’re hearing. When a person goes on a long rant, vent, or ramble, summarize back to them in one sentence what you heard. (“It sounds like you’re annoyed about how much paperwork you need to fill out. Did I get that?” or “It sounds like there are two issues here: the amount of paperwork and how slow the system is. Is that right?”) You can also ask them to summarize it for you. (“It sounds like there are a lot of moving parts. If you were to give it to me in one sentence, what would it be?”)

  3. Ask targeted questions. When you want to get to the core of the matter as fast as possible, use phrases that will focus the person: “What’s the #1 challenge you’re facing in this case?” “What’s your biggest concern?” “What do you think the real problem is?” And if they give you a bunch of answers, try it again with another phrasing to force them to narrow it down. “Which of those is most in your control?” “Which is going to make the biggest difference, once you solve it?”

  4. Offer encouragement. Oftentimes, the big connection game-changer is in your lead-up to the questions. Expressing your confidence in the person can take a lot of the pressure off: “You’re a thoughtful guy. What do you think the real problem is?” or “You know the situation better than I do. What’s the #1 challenge you’re facing?” or “I trust your judgment. What’s the best solution that comes to mind for you?”

  5. End the conversation kindly. Oftentimes clients express that these conversations drag on because they don’t know how to end them. Here are a few ways to start wrapping up: “I hope this conversation’s been helpful. What are you taking from it?” “It seems like you’ve/we’ve come up with a few good solutions. What’s sticking with you?” “It looks like we both have some homework to do from the conversation. I’m going to take care of X by Y [date] and you’ll X by Y [date]. Anything else?”

In short, you don’t have to choose between expressing care and timeboxing conversations. By following these guidelines, you’ll be amazed at how much time you can save without compromising (and even increasing) trust. You can cut straight to what matters, help the person feel heard, and steer the conversation toward solutions – without ceding control.


The Coaching Corner

Respectful challenges

Let’s say you’re in a conversation like the kind described above and you suspect that the person is BS-ing you, deflecting responsibility, or isn’t being very thoughtful. How can you call them out about it while avoiding defensiveness?

  1. Testing your BS radar: “That’s a possibility but I have a feeling there’s more to it / that’s not the only reason. What else could be going on?”

  2. Deflecting responsibility: “Let’s put aside X’s role for one second since they’re not here to respond. What part of this situation is in your control?”

  3. Unthoughtful response: It’s a complicated question and I’m sure you have a better answer. Do you want to think about it and get back to me?”



It’s not you. Your job is responsible for making you feel burnt out": This article offers an important counterpoint to the vast amount of suggestions out there about how to lower burnout at the individual level. Instead, it’s aimed at organizational leaders (many of you!) and what you can do to help reverse the causes of burnout.

The highest trust teams don't agree on everything; instead, they know how to disagree. If you shy away from disagreement, listen to this fantastic podcast episode on “How to have good arguments with world debate champion Bo Seo”.


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