This article explores the relationship between empathy and assertiveness, showing how they can combine effectively to offer a route to more consistent success in project and change management.
People are at the centre of the quest to ‘get things done’, and this has led to an increased focus on people skills; but take this a step further and it becomes obvious that people cannot be separated from their emotions, so the ability to be aware of and understand emotions is firmly at the heart of successful project and change management.
Successful project managers need to develop people skills to understand both their own emotions and those of others. Empathy, or ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’, is needed to achieve all of these things, but to what degree is assertiveness needed? Is it possible to drive through organisational objectives while focusing on the feelings of individuals?
Considering what those involved may be feeling is critical at each and every stage of the project lifecycle. Whether we consider stakeholder and sponsor relations, risk and opportunity management, or the selection of success measures – all are affected by the emotional state of those involved. Establishing the right relationships to enable people to communicate their views is particularly important during the project initiation phase. During this critical time, any misunderstandings could sow the seeds of project failure, rather than preparing the ground for project success.
We tend to quickly make assumptions about what people are thinking about us and our project, our brains are continually trying to interpret things, but we don’t always get it right. Much of the conflict that particularly threatens projects in the fragile early stages could be reduced if project managers were able to empathise with the different stakeholders’ positions and understand their perspectives before presenting another option. This really is where the relationship between empathy and assertiveness is so important, in that the key difference between assertiveness and aggressive communication is that assertiveness takes into account the perspective of the other person.
Communicating for results needs a careful balance of both empathy and assertiveness.