August 26, 2022

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #132 – Four Ways to Communicate with Clarity and Empathy

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from Joel Schwartzberg’s article in the Harvard Business Review August 10th, 2022

Most business consultants — and certainly most workers — agree that empathy is a critical leadership skill. Joel Schwartzberg often reimagines “CEO” as “Chief Empathy Officer.” There’s no question that the ability to step into another’s shoes and understand their situation and challenges is a powerful trait that builds trust and faith.

The pandemic and other stressful events over the past few years have only made empathic communications even more desirable and necessary, especially as those expressions have become more virtual — including videos, social media posts, and emails.

As Paul Tufano, CEO of AmeriHealth Caritas, explains in a July 2020 McKinsey & Company article, “This has been a sustained period of uncertainty and fear, but also a great opportunity to forge a stronger, more cohesive, and more motivated workforce. If CEOs can step into a ministerial role — extending hands virtually, truly listening, relating to, and connecting with people where they are — there is enormous potential to inspire people and strengthen bonds and loyalties within the company.”

But just as each of us has varying levels of empathy, not every leader is equally empathic. So, is a lack of natural empathy a showstopper when it comes to expressing and benefiting from empathic communications? No. The good news is that all leaders (even those who are not naturally empathic) can communicate messages of empathy as powerfully as they convey messages of unity and accountability.

During challenging times, the most effective leadership communications are ones that deliver attention, acknowledge distress, demonstrate care, and — not necessarily at first, but eventually — take appropriate action to mitigate the situation or at least provide comfort, so, regardless of how empathic you are or think you are, focus on those four touchpoints in your communications:

As a communication tool, listening is as essential as speaking, especially when it comes to empathy. Sometimes just exhibiting an attentive presence can signal deep understanding and empathy. Listening indicates that “I want to hear about the situation.”

Just remember that listening only works — as your kindergarten teacher may have told you — when the mouth is closed, and the ears are open.

Even if leaders are not in the mode of solving a challenge directly, they express empathy when they simply acknowledge the challenge and its impact on staff. Expressions of acknowledgment indicate “I am now aware of the situation.”

“I know and understand the widespread anxiety about the pandemic.”
“I recognize how this reorganization process can be stressful.”
“This has been a very challenging quarter for all of us.”

Leaders express empathy when they go beyond mere acknowledgment to express authentic feelings of care about how a challenge affects the team. A leader certainly wants their teams to pay attention and care when they communicate — that expectation goes both ways. Expressions of care indicate that “I am moved by the situation.”

“I care deeply about your ability to balance your work life and personal life.”
“Your safety in the field is our top priority.”
“I’m very concerned about staff burnout.”

Action is typically not considered part of a classic empathic response, but leaders can convey empathy in their proposals for a solution. Going beyond acknowledgment and care, expressions of action indicate that “I want to address the situation.”

“The Human Resources Team has partnered with the Live Learn Foundation to provide a range of coping resources for staff.”
“We created a committee to examine these issues and recommend solutions.”
“We have extended summer half-day Fridays for all employees.”

As Schwartzberg says, empathy doesn’t come easily to all leaders, but that shouldn’t stop them from communicating empathy. Here are some specific dos and don’ts to elevate your empathy in your words and voice.


  • Do focus on how a crisis or challenge might be affecting people.
  • Do acknowledge actual feelings of sadness, frustration, and anxiety.
  • Do use phrases like “Rest assured” and “We will get through this” to encourage resilience and demonstrate your commitment to responsible corporate stewardship.
  • Do be forthcoming, transparent, and truthful about bad news, making clear the difference between what is known and unknown.
  • Do use simple language and sentences, making it easier for your team to hear and process your message.
  • Do show ample appreciation for your team, including details that describe their admirable and impactful qualities.


  • Don’t focus on how a crisis might be affecting company profits or other financial measures.
  • Don’t presume to know your team’s reactions to a challenge or jump in too quickly to “solve the problem.”
  • Don’t use scripts (though you can rely on notes). Your remarks should sound completely authentic, and the act of reading — regardless of the words — makes a message sound more staged.
  • Don’t be the predominant speaker during communication exchanges.
  • Don’t try to put a happy spin on crises or oversell “silver linings” to tragic events. They will ring false and damage credibility and trust.
  • Don’t talk at length about difficult decisions you had to make. Referencing yourself this way may feel soothing to you, but it transforms a moment of empathy for the staff into sympathy for the leader. Your job is to support your team, not to have your team support you.

Remember that empathy only has meaningful impact on your team when they hear it, read it, and see it, so don’t be too concerned about how empathic you are on the inside. Take smart and effective steps to express empathy out loud. Our study of peak performance leaders is in perfect harmony with Schwartzberg’s work. Leaders with effective influence, those who can get people of the stands and into the game are relatable, direct, persuasive, and empathetic. Give us a call and let’s talk about how a dose of empathy can accelerate your organization’s momentum.