The danger of “how to” scripts

There’s growing awareness that excellent communication is a make-or-break factor for success, whether for an individual leader developing their career, or an executive team running a large organization.

But just how can a leader become more empathetic and more prepared to have these challenging, often difficult, yet essential conversations-that-matter?

One could start with books; there are plenty out there, many of them well worth reading. But they tend to teach tactics, not strategy. In other words, they generally teach step-by-step “if this happens, say that” processes. And even if that’s not the intent of the author, it’s still all too easy to take their guidance and, in our inexperience, use it as a script instead of as a practice to be adjusted according to the situation.

And that leads to inauthenticity. The person on the receiving end can always tell, especially if there’s been a recent communication workshop – “Oh, they’re just saying that because it’s what they were taught to say.” Or, as we’ve seen in recent HR-related news, some otherwise-excellent concepts can be taken to extremes, creating the exact opposite of an emotionally intelligent, empathetic conversation.

And then there’s always the challenge of what to do when your conversation partner goes off-script, tossing in a response or reaction that wasn’t described in the books – which, of course, is inevitable!

Neuroscience tells us that we all have the capacity to be empathetic.

Real-world experience shows us that people have a lot of conflicting beliefs and assumptions about what “empathy” really means, including things like “it’s weak” or “if I truly understand and empathize, I lose my point of view / lose my power / will become a doormat,” and so on.

Meanwhile, as Gallup surveys tell us over and over again, employee engagement is directly tied to management skill. Good managers have engaged employees, bad managers have disengaged employees, and most people quit their manager, not their job.

Of course, employee engagement (or lack of it) is directly tied to bottom-line results – i.e., money in the bank (or not).

This makes a compelling case for any organization that wants to create a better, more productive, more profitable work environment; a work environment in which leaders demonstrate through their own words and actions what it means to “walk the talk” of emotional intelligence and empathetic communication.

How, then, can leaders learn to communicate better from a place of authenticity rather than according to a script? How can leaders become empathetically agile and flexible, internalizing the practices of empathetic communication so they don’t have to rely on any sort of “if this, then say that” script?

All those books, all the articles on the web, while obviously intending to be helpful, can’t go into enough depth to really help someone learn. They may contain valid information, but it’s virtually impossible to learn a nuanced skill such as empathy through articles or even books. (And yes, I say this whilst writing my own book on the subject!)

Meanwhile, many of the best-known workshops on communication are built on the same platforms as the books, because the books’ authors have developed businesses around speaking and teaching according to their model.

I’m not saying those articles, books, and workshops have no value; they absolutely have value.

But real empathy and emotional intelligence come when we understand a variety of perspectives and, yes, tactics – and then integrate them with our own personality and preferences.

And then the most important factor: how we practice, on a day-to-day basis and within our own specific circumstances, the skills we’ve learned, discovering through that practice how to choose the best approach for each individual situation – and what to do when things don’t go as we anticipated.

Practice, observe, learn, tweak, practice some more. Rinse and repeat.

(And in-the-moment help, whether from a professional communication expert or from a trusted family member or friend, is a key element for effective practice.)