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Managing difficult staff with empathy

When managing difficult staff, empathy isn’t enough!

She’s going through tough times. You empathise. You see the problem. You feel her pain. You’re listening. And you need her head in the game. What do you do?

Let’s suppose you have had some difficulties with a staff member or colleague. Let’s call her Anne.

You and Anne mostly get on. There are just certain subjects you don’t like to broach. She talks loudly on the phone and disrupts your thinking. Or she is always late. Perhaps she’s never given you the information you need to make your reports accurate and timely.

You understand that she’s going through some tough times. She’s got a difficult life, her family is changing, she’s going through a concentration drought. You get that. You empathise. You see where her problem is. You feel her pain. You’re listening.

But you still need to get her to do that report, or come to the meeting on time, or be quieter at work. How, then, do you translate empathy to action?

Empathy plus: Translating empathy to action

Essentially, you need to use the same ideas Belinda used to get her husband to put their daughter’s bed together.

Belinda and Vic had just moved in to a newly renovated house. Their daughters had been sleeping on the floor. Day after day, when they got home from work, Belinda would ask him to put the bed together while she bathed and fed the kids.

He didn’t do it.

For more than 2 weeks, she asked. She understood, just as you understand your particular “Anne”, that he’d had a long day. That he worked hard. That he was probably tired. And so was she. Asking and asking day after day clearly wasn’t working.

Belinda came to one of my training programs and learnt about rapport. She was skeptical. But with nothing to lose, she tried it with Vic the next evening. She said:

“You must be tired. It’s been a long day. These noisy kids need to be bathed and fed. What about you put up the bed while I bathe the kids”.

And he did.

You already do this

Getting people to do things relies on rapport – a kind of trust or empathy. You will find if you review the people you work most easily with, that you have ideas, mindsets, personalities or even experiences in common. They get you, you understand them. You may not like them, and you see what they mean. Rapport is based on a conscious or unconscious sameness. An agreement at some level.

You already do this. But in a few moments you’ll be able to do it on purpose, at will, when you need to. So you can get people to do what you ask even if you’re not that chummy with them.

When Belinda said to Vic “You must be tired”. she was telling him that she got what it was like for him. It was a statement which she knew he’d agree with. She did that, 3 times. This is called pacing.

Then, and only then, when she had shown Vic that she “got” him, when he’d said an unconscious “yes” three times, then she asked for what she wanted. This is called leading.

So here it is in slow motion:

  • You must be tired. (pace 1)
  • It’s been a long day. (pace 2)
  • These noisy kids need to be bathed and fed. (pace 3)

After he had said an unconscious “yes” three times, then she went on to lead – to state her request – to something that she wanted him to say yes to.

  • What about you put up the bed, while I bathe the kids? (lead)

Rapport has 2 components therefore, pacing (stating the obvious, saying things they agree with, things that are true for them), and then leading (stating, suggesting, asking, adding new information).

The more difficult the lead (i.e. the more difficult it would be for them to agree with it), the more paces you need to do. The higher your level of rapport, the fewer paces required.

How you already pace and lead

You may be surprised to notice in your own speech patterns that you already pace and lead naturally. For example, have you ever heard or said phrases like these?

  • Good morning, isn’t it a lovely day? (pace 1)
  • It looked like rain this morning, but it cleared up. (pace 2).
  • It’s good to get in early, isn’t it? (pace 3)
  • I’m wondering, can we catch up about those reports? (lead)

Or this one:

  • Hey, that was a long meeting, wasn’t it? (pace 1)
  • We’ve just got time to grab a coffee before the next one. (pace 2)
  • Susan was a little angry, wasn’t she? (pace 3)
  • Hey, I should send you this article I read about time management – I just loved it! (lead)

Or this:

  • Oh my goodness, we’re always the first ones here! (pace 1)
  • Things are so crazy around here at the moment. (pace 2)
  • I wish the others could get their act together on time. (pace 3)
  • By the way, maybe you and I should talk about Angela sometime – I think there are some things we can do to make her happier. (lead)

Or even this:

  • Here we are in the meeting room. (pace 1)
  • We all work for Company X. (pace 2)
  • We’re all very busy. (pace 3)
  • So it’s easy for us to forget what is important. (pace 4)
  • When we are clear on our strategy, it will make things easier. (lead)

In each of these sentences, the paces are what we’d call “small talk”. A technical term for small talk is ‘universals’. Universals are true for “everyone”. As long as they are true for the listener and they would agree with them, they work for pacing. And the leads can be as varied as you like, depending on the circumstances.

Task yourself to notice how you already do this, especially where you feel comfortable with someone. Notice how you can bring it into your behavior on purpose where things are a little more difficult.

If you want more examples of pacing and leading in an organisational environment then try reading my other article: Selling hypnotically

Rapport isn’t just words

Consider also that pacing is about matching someone’s model of the world. Saying things they would agree with is just one way. You can also match at other, less obvious levels.

For example:

  • Match their voice, pitch, tone, speed or rhythm. In a way, speak like them. If you have ever found yourself accidentally using someone else’s accent when you speak to them, you may already be doing this – pay attention to yourself and then use it consciously with anyone you need to.
  • Match their style of dressing. There’s a reason men all dress in suits in business environments, gang members dress the same, choirs and nuns have “uniforms”. It reinforces that they understand each other, are a member of an exclusive “club”.
  • Match their body language. Watch friends in cafes or in meetings – they will match and mirror each other’s posture and gestures – this is pacing at a physical level.
  • Match the gestures they use to describe their ideas. For example, if they draw a tower in the air with their hands whenever they mention a particular strategy, then use that same gesture when you describe the same strategy, using the same place in the air (if that’s practical).

Pacing and Leading with personalities

At an even subtler level, you can pace and lead personality styles. If you’re familiar with the DiSC model, let’s say they are a D in that model. They are very direct when they speak, they often use clipped tones and call a spade a spade. They don’t take offense easily, and if they do it doesn’t last long. You can match that “D” style of speech and personality when with them. You don’t have to be sensitive. In fact, if you are, you will most likely be bulldozed.

When John Gray wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus he did the world a favor by explaining that different people (not just different genders) think differently, and we need to “speak” their language, not ours, to communicate with them. This is pacing at a personality-style level.

When you act more D with the D, are brusque with the brusque, you are speaking their language. When you’re gentle with the gentle, likewise!

If you know the Myers Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI), then behaving like an introvert with an introvert is pacing. Any leading that you do, since they are framed in their own way of thinking, will have more impact. You can choose to pace with introversion, and lead with words, or you can even lead them to be more extroverted, depending on your outcome.

The essential point is this: It’s one thing to understand what Anne is going through, and feel empathy. It’s another to make sure that she knows you know.

When Anne feels understood, that you get her, that you’re on the same side, then she’s more likely to do what you ask her to. They say resistance is a sign of insufficient pacing – when she feels understood she will listen. And not before!

Here are some other articles I have written looking at different personality styles and how to pace and lead them.

You can take the concept of rapport (pacing and leading), and apply it to any personality models you are familiar with.

Go try it out

So go on out now, and try pacing and leading with your Anne, whoever she is. Pace a little. Try one thing at a time. See what happens, listen to how she responds differently (or not), feel out which way is most comfortable for you.

You already have empathy, now it’s just a question of demonstrating it so she knows you have it too!

Be aware that you already “do” rapport with some people. And for others you just need to remember how to do what you already do, and apply it now!

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