Years ago I attended a course at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where, among other things, I learned that leadership is a constant tug between assertiveness and empathy.

Assertiveness vs. Empathy

First, let's define our terms. Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. Empathy is the ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Assertiveness without empathy leads to conflict with followers and damaged relationships, while empathy without assertiveness is weak and undermines a leader's status.

Empathetic Listening and Calm Assertiveness

We often think of empathy as soft, and assertiveness as hard. Or empathy is listening, while assertiveness is talking.

But empathetic listening is a hard personal asset that can strengthen your relationships, and calm assertiveness has the capacity to settle disputes and cause people to work together.

None of us is perfect, but as a leader, it's ideal to have both. This dual capability is also essential for highly effective communicators, whether or not they happen to be leaders in the traditional sense.

How it Can Help You

In sales, for instance, where you are leading your audience to a conclusion, you need to understand the client's situation, and speak to them in their language about issues that are important to them.

That is empathy in action, and those of us who are good at it have a better chance of being successful--in sales, leadership, and other areas of life.

Put it into Action

I just came back from a meeting with a consulting firm seeking to improve its ability to sell its complex bundle of services. I can assure you that while we all pay lip service to the basic idea of "customer first," it ain't easy, especially when your corporate culture is technical and wants to talk about its unique process for delivering its expertise.

It's been a long time since I've seen such densely packed slides, so many incomprehensible diagrams, and so much unfamiliar technical language. Watching and listening to the talk, I was reluctant to admit my confusion as we began to work on the document. I hoped that in time, after I'd spent a day or two with the team, I would have a eureka moment and grasp the point of their sales pitch.

Demonstrate Empathy Before Being Assertive

I think I finally figured it out on the morning of the second day. They were arguing that they could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their client's operations, and do so in less time, and with less risk of failure than could any of their larger and more renowned competitors.

But man oh man it was hard to extract that message from the tangled web of slides. They were being very assertive about their abilities, and about how they would implement them, But their appeal would have been more effective had they first demonstrated empathy by defining the prospect's business problem before they unveiled their process to solve it.

Moreover, explaining one's business process to a potential client is problematic:

  1. First, processes are usually complex, technical, and hard to follow.
  2. Second, everybody has one and many are similar.
  3. Third, a process could be proprietary.
  4. And fourth, people love sausage but they don't want to know how it's made.

In other words, it's better to talk about delicious results than to dwell on how they're achieved.

Use These Tools to Connect

Empathy in sales and leadership helps you connect with people. Assertiveness helps you encourage people to take action--you literally "put courage" into them.

This dual capability--empathy and assertiveness--the ability to frame any communication around the listeners' needs and interests--and then encourage them to take action, are two of the key competencies of influence, leadership and sales.

Published on: Apr 15, 2015