This is one of those tips that you’ve always known to be true. You just hadn’t thought about it so… well… pointedly.
I was thinking about it because recently I found myself having to backtrack to make it work. Fortunately the opportunity to backtrack was available because I was replying to an email. Thank heavens I had not vocally inserted my foot! I had a second chance.
What did I have to do? What required backtracking?
Empathy. Acknowledgement. Always always the first response…
Most of the time, empathy and acknowledgement are a habit with me. I’ve worked on that habit for much of my life… forcing my first reaction to someone’s bad news to be empathetic:
- Oh, Mr. James, I’m so sorry to hear that! or
- Nancy – oh my gosh – I am stunned, and so sorry! or
- That must have been so very difficult for you…
- You know – you’re right. I see why it sounded that way to you.
- Of course – now I understand why you are having trouble.
- I didn’t mean to confuse you!
… and then carrying on the rest of the conversation.
So what about all that required backtracking?
Because I had let my frustration get the better of me.
I had received a complaint email (having nothing to do with advocacy work – so no – it wasn’t yours!) that had frustrated me. I had replied by firing from the hip, then explaining my stand on the subject. Then, when I reread what I wrote before sending it, I realized that the person who received it wasn’t going to give my reply one moment’s consideration – because I had never acknowledged his complaint.
So, to the front of the email – the very first sentence – I acknowledged, “I can see why this is upsetting you…. and I agree.” I then edited my email to sound more empathetic than the original “shoot from the hip” reply even though the conclusions to the email were the same. (When he replied later, he apologized to ME – so the empathy had clearly had a positive effect on the conversation.)
I honestly believe that IF most conversations in this world, especially those that are difficult, or deal with difficult topics, were begun with statements of acknowledgement and empathy, THEN there would be far less negativity in the world.
It’s quite simple to see how this translates to our chosen field of advocacy:
When someone reaches out to you for help – whether or not you can help them – they are already in a negative place. YOU likely had nothing to do with putting them there, but YOU are the person who has the ability to diffuse it.
Once the negative has been diffused, then the conversation will be clearer and progress can be made.
There are two approaches to diffusing the negative: empathy and acknowledgement. You can use one or both. The key isn’t which you use – it’s when you use it.
Important: Always use it right up front before everything else. Always.
Try it. See if it works for you in your conversations – email or voice – with anyone, not just clients or potential clients. See if you conversations aren’t far more satisfactory and far less negative.
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