By Lauren Douglass, Guest Writer

There is a formula to delivering difficult information so it is best received and implemented.

  1. Front Load Empathy
  2. Deliver Topic
  3. Compassionately Listen to The Response
  4. Offer Assistance To Strategize Next Steps
  5. Follow Up

Front Load Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s emotional reaction to a circumstance and NOT feeling the same way as they do at that time. Sympathy is feeling the way same as another person. They are different. This is a critical distinction for entering a difficult conversation.

Generally, people want to be understood. You may not agree with why they acted or felt a certain way, but you can recognize their viewpoint. Recognizing why someone did what they did or how they are feeling is an interpersonal skill. Yes, it can be developed. Lead the conversation, not by agreeing, but by assuming their motivation was coming from a good place.

Empathy is understanding. It is about their feelings.
Sympathy is joining. It is about your feelings.

Empathy: I would imagine this is difficult for you.
Sympathy: I feel bad with you.

Empathy is nurturing another person through a difficult topic. Without it, resentment, fear, humiliation and inaction can be produced. With it, acceptance and action can take place.

Presenting The Difficult Topic

Delivering difficult news is most impactful when coming from the person who directly witnessed it. If you are the third party and left to present it, be careful not to triangulate. Triangulation is putting yourself in the middle when the other two individuals would be better served to talk directly with each other. If the two cannot communicate, difficult topics are best accepted by sticking to the facts.

Compassionately Listen to The Response

Hearing and compassionately responding are active. Actively listening is giving the other person space to process and respond to the topic while you respond with coaching guidance.

The person will most likely want to explain. When a mistake is made or something painful needs to be shared, shame and rejection will show up as behaviors related to sadness, fear and anger. Crying, over-explaining, and yelling are possibilities and so too are self-criticizing, internalizing and withdrawing. To mitigate these unproductive behaviors, give time to listen to why they did what they did.

Give a reminder: shame and rejection can be eased by learning, talking or making amends.

Offering Assistance

Empowering another person is allowing for some mistakes and asking thought-provoking questions to guide the next step decisions. Resist the urge to solve the problem for them as fixing someone else is about you and not them. People most need how to address changes in their own thoughts/behaviors and not how you can save the day.

Offer your assistance for strategizing and developing next steps.


A quick checkin, additional meeting or call will allow for sharing resolution results. Catching someone doing something well and giving encouraging words will show you care about the person and not just the outcome.

By modeling how to approach difficult topics yields high results in company culture and interpersonal relationships.

To learn about navigating career and personal relationships to be at your most effective, follow Orenda Leadership or book here

Lauren Douglass is the founder of Orenda Leadership Development and a CEO Coach for Vistage International.
Contact her at

© 2017