As a manager, when we are faced with the task of delivering a difficult message, we often want to sympathize with the person sitting on the other side of the table. We want them to know this is hard for us too and that we feel bad that we even need to deliver this difficult message. We can’t. There are so many times in our lives when expressing our emotions will only prove advantageous: telling your child you love them, expressing your thankfulness for a thoughtful present, or expressing condolences after a loss. However, in this circumstance, there is no positive outcome to expressing how you feel.

I know this may sound callous, but this meeting is about the feelings and emotions of the person sitting across from you. Their emotional state should be your focus. This will require your empathy, but not your sympathy. It will require your understanding, but not the expression of your own personal feelings. To empathize with them is to show that you know this is difficult and you are going to do your best to assist them through this transition. To sympathize is to imply pity and to attempt to match their feelings with your own.

No matter how wonderful of a relationship you have with this employee or how they may interpret the expression of your feelings, there is no positive outcome for the employee. In the best case scenario, the employee will switch focus from themselves to you. They will begin to feel guilt over your emotional reaction to their situation. They may believe it is now their responsibility to comfort you, thus suppressing their own feelings and reaction to the situation. While this may seem like a positive outcome, it is only delaying their eventual reaction and acceptance of the situation. In the worst case scenario, the employee becomes angry that you are even comparing their feelings to your own. They feel disrespected and minimized by your expression of your feelings in the face of their current situation.

How can you keep your employee’s feelings the focus?

  • Before the meeting, talk to a trusted confidant about YOUR feelings and emotional reaction.
    • Your HR Partner is a great confidant.
  • Plan your message and talking points in advance.
    • Role play or practice to ensure you are well versed in your message. The more confident you are in your talking points, the less likely you will be to go off topic.
  • During the meeting, focus your attention on really listening to your employee’s reaction.
  • Be sure to end the meeting once you have delivered your message.
    • Once you have covered all of the information you needed to cover, be sure to end the meeting. Continuing the meeting longer than necessary will only increase your chance of filling in blank space with your feelings and emotions.

Concentrating on the emotions of the employee will help you stay focused on the message and will help your employee stay focused on processing their feelings and moving forward.

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