Empathy in Communication

As many change management professionals will tell you, we are often the “person behind the curtain” pulling the strings and making project leaders and sponsors look good with their impacted employees. This often means that we ghost write communications that are shared throughout the organization, and we have the ability to influence the message that is delivered. While we drive the key messages, our leaders have a strong opinion of what they want to communicate. This is where we need to stand our ground and keep the focus on what is most important to the audience. Unfortunately, I recently lost this battle, but thanks to some hindsight and feedback, I am now able to articulate why focusing on what the audience cares about most is where the emphasis should be placed. 

Life on a project is like being dropped into a foreign country and not knowing the language. The list of project jargon is extensive, but more importantly, the meaning of those project terms carries different weight to people inside and outside of the project team. The project leaders may pour over items like testing execution metrics, risk mitigation plans, resource allocation, project plans and milestones, and the timing and cycles of work that are different from the rest of the business.

When the opportunity comes to share about the project, the project leaders often are so ingrained in the execution of the project, they forget that the business doesn’t understand these things, but more importantly, doesn’t care about this level of detail.

I recently facilitated a 2-hour session to review an upcoming change with business directors and managers. In that session, the project leaders insisted on walking through a detailed review of the testing plan for the project, against my recommendation. Charts of test execution cycles, defect severity and resolution times were shared with the business team. As I looked across the room I saw the eyes glaze over as the details continued to flow from the presenter. In the post-session feedback survey, attendees consistently shared that this level of detail was not necessary; they would assume that the system and processes were being tested, and even though it was explained, couldn’t tell you the difference between a FIT, FUT or UAT. I had to contain the “I told you so” when I shared this feedback with the project leaders.

Here is what the business wanted to hear: When asked to rank the agenda items by importance, the sections that focused on the WHY, WHEN and WHO of the project scored highest. They wanted to hear about how their employees would be trained and prepared for the go-live, and what our plan to support them at the onset of the change would be. For my project team this information is second nature, they have been thinking about it for months; but these questions are what end up keeping the business leaders up at night.

The lesson learned here is that to effectively communicate, one must have empathy for the audience, and think about their needs and perspective first and foremost. A simple reminder of where the audience is in their change journey versus the project team will serve as a needed reminder of what is most important, and make the message more meaningful.

Bryan Brush