There's a fine line between ego and empathy. It's easy to weave back and forth without realizing.

Sometimes, who cares? None of us is perfect; none of us is always in control of our emotions.

We're all geared to preserve ourselves at some root level, and it would be both unnatural and exhausting to "always" be on, always putting others' needs before our own.

But sometimes, it does matter.

  • Perhaps you're trying to hire the best employees.
  • Or close an important sale.
  • Or get along well with colleagues and partners.
  • Or maintain positive relationships in your personal life.

Emotional intelligence

There are entire books on the subject of emotional intelligence. My colleague here at Inc.com, Justin Bariso wrote one that got me thinking deeply about this a while back.

If you take just one thing away from this article, it's to recognize that in many conversations, there's a focus on either one of two people: you, or else the person (or people) you're taking with.

A key part of empathy (and with it, emotional intelligence) is being aware and intentional about where the focus lies.

It comes down to something called "shift vs. support."

I can't take credit for coming up with it; if you find this interesting I'd suggest taking a deeper look at the work of sociologist Charles Derber and writer Celeste Headlee:

  • A shift response shifts the focus of a conversation toward you (and away from whomever you're speaking with). 
  • A support response moves the focus away from yourself, and towards the other person.

I think there are some shortcuts you can use to coach yourself into recognizing support and shift responses, and thus becoming more intentionally empathetic, which is a big part of emotional intelligence.

Among them: the words and phrases that you catch yourself using.

First, a quick recap of some of the ones we've covered before:

  • "Can't you just..." My former colleague Leigh Anderson wrote a persuasive essay about this phrase, used in the context of a mom venting about her morning, and friends suggesting "Can't you just..." do a variety of (actually impractical) things to make it easier. 
  • "I know how you feel..." In short, when somebody explains a difficult situation to you, they're likely looking for empathy. They're less likely to be looking for you to shift the focus to yourself, by suggesting that their feelings can be quickly and easily encapsulated.
  • Any version of "How's everything, good?" in which you ask a seemingly empathetic question, but also offer the "right" answer -- suggesting you're more interested in getting the credit for asking than in actually listening.

Since then, I've thought a lot about this, tried to catch my own language, and looked through some of the comment threads on previous articles. Here are five more such phrases.

"You always..." (or "you never...")

If we're talking about someone else's behavior, a "you always" or a "you never" phrase is as likely to suggest something about yourself than the other person:

  • "You always ignore me."
  • "You never turn things in on time."
  • "You always make everything about you."

This doesn't mean you should never use these kinds of phrases. But be aware and intentional: the core of what you're saying is very likely about the other person's effect on you.

Focus, focus, focus.

"That reminds me..."

Sometimes this phrase is harmless. It's basically an oral reminder to yourself. Somebody starts out by saying: 

  • "I went to the doctor last week..." 
  • And you reply: "Oh! That reminds me I have to put my doctor's appointment in my calendar. Please continue..."

Not a big deal. But other examples are toxic:

  • "I got a scary diagnosis last week, but it turned out to be a false alarm..."
  • "That reminds me of a coworker I used to have who got a positive test, but it turned out to be a mixup."

Or else:

  • "I applied for this job I really want, and I haven't heard anything back."
  • "That reminds me: I once really wanted to work for this company..."

"Someone has to tell you..."

This is another tricky one, and it highlights the fact that there are times when you might use these phrases intentionally. If so, just that: be intentional.

Because often, if you're using a phrase like this, the underlying message isn't that you're trying to impart useful information or advice, but that you want the personal satisfaction (or relief) of being the "someone."

  • "Someone has to tell you... your team is all afraid of you."
  • "Someone has to tell you... people are taking about how you dress at work."
  • "Someone has to tell you... half of your best employees are ready to quit because you're a poor leader."

"I don't want to fight, but..." 

No matter what you say in the second half of this sentence, it could be replaced with "...but I'm going to say something that could start a fight."

It's right up there with "I'm not a racist but... I'm about to say something that could be seen as racist."

Or, "I'm not perfect but... I'm about to say something that suggests I'm a little bit better than somebody else."

It's rare, but maybe sometimes you do need to start a fight. 

Maybe there's a a situation that's so thorny, and so critical, that the only way to address it is head-on, knowing full well it could get ugly, and that there could be harsh words involved.

"I don't want to start a fight, but your company is now 120 days behind on payments, and we need to address this."

Even there, I don't love it. The "I don't want to" phrase is really just about making you feel better for bringing it up. But that's up to you.

The key: Be intentional. Understand the effect that your language is likely to have on the other people in your conversation, and be in control of your emotions.

Let them work for you, not against you.

Published on: Jan 12, 2020
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