Communicating With Empathy During Challenging Times

By: Joann Thach (Manager of Diversity, Inclusion, and CSR, Fenwick & West LLP)

 Step 1: Take Care of Yourself: When you’re not in a mentally good place, it is even more difficult to effectively manage your team.

 Ways to deal with negative emotions – emotional agility

 Recognize a pattern: There are certain telltale signs of when you have been hooked by your thoughts or feelings, such as rigid or repetitive thinking. You have to realize that you’re stuck before you can initiate change.

Step back and label your thoughts and emotions: Labeling allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are: transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful.

 Accept Them: The opposite of control is acceptance – not acting on every thought or resigning yourself to negativity but responding to your ideas and emotions with an open attitude. Take 10 deep breaths and notice what is happening in the moment. Show yourself some compassion and examine the reality of the situation.

Act on your values – workability

Are you taking a step toward being the leader you most want to be and living the life you most want to live?

Will it help you steer others in a direction that furthers your collective purpose?

Is your response going to serve you and your organization in the long term as well as the short term?

Step 2: Assess

Ask “How is everyone doing?” or “How are you doing?”

It might be helpful to share your own stories and vulnerabilities. As a leader, you are opening up the dialogue or a “bridge” for you and your team member(s) to talk about sensitive issues.

Step 3: Be Curious in your Conversation

Follow up with “I hear you. Tell me more.” This signals that you care about their well-being and their safety.

Make it safe for them not to answer: If your team member(s) are/is not comfortable with sharing how they are feeling, respect their wishes and let them know that you will be checking in on them at a later time and remind them that you are here to support them.

You can use other phrases to engage, such as

(1) How do you see it differently?

(2) What information do you have that I don’t?

(3) Can you say a little more about how you see things?

(4) How are you feeling about all of this?

(5) Say more about why this is important to you.

Active Listening: What That Looks Like

(1) Ask Questions

(2) Paraphrase what you heard

(3) Acknowledge their view

(4) Give your undivided attention (no emailing, checking your phone, etc.)

Manage Your Internal Voice: Pay attention to your Internal voice aka what you are thinking, but not saying.


Negotiate your way to Curiosity: Get your internal voice into learning mode. There is always more to learn.

Don’t Listen: Talk: If your internal voice is too strong to negotiate with at the moment, express honestly about what you are thinking and feeling in a respectful way. Example:  “I’m glad you trust me enough to tell me this and I really want to listen. At the same time, this is very upsetting for me right now and I am feeling awkward. I am not sure how to respond.”

Table the conversation: Rather than give the person half of your attention, it is better to say, “This is important to me. I want to find a time to talk about it, and right now I’m not able to.


“Empathy Starts with Curiosity.” By Peter Bregman. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

“Emotional Agility: How Effective Leaders Manage Their Negative Thoughts and Feelings” by Susan David and Christina Congleton in Harvard Business Review, November 2013

 Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen

Additional Resources:

What If I Say the Wrong Thing? By Verna Myers