I thought I was being kind. I thought I was empathetic. I thought I was helping my students, teachers, and parents by sandwiching my real message inside positive feedback. When giving feedback that was going to be hard to hear, I would dance around the message, hoping that would make the information easier to take. Hoping that the message would still be heard.

I think deep inside somewhere I knew that I was being a wimp. I didn’t accept that fact until I was faced with it during a conversation with my boss where I was given some feedback that was difficult to take.

She told me that I needed to work on being clear and timely with feedback, whether positive or negative. She told me that I was actually being selfish by skirting around the truth, hoping the real message came through. She told me that I cared more about my feelings, about not making myself uncomfortable during a conversation, than being truthful. She told me that I was not being helpful, I was leaving them with mixed messages and robbing them of an opportunity for growth. She told me that our students deserved better than that.

It hurt so bad to hear that. And it hurt because she was right.

Since that difficult conversation years ago, I have worked to push through my hesitancy to say things that may be difficult to hear. I have stopped using the “sandwich” method because I realized that when I used that, every time I would share positive feedback, teachers were not really listening–instead they were bracing themselves for the other shoe to drop. My goal is to be a clear communicator while being understanding and empathetic. I want to have great relationships based on mutual respect and trust, without fear in the environment.

I have watched many leaders be successful in this careful balance of communicating in a way that promotes continuous growth and positive relationships. I have found that most err on one side or the other–some are too brutally honest and have to work on being empathetic, others are too empathetic and have to focus on being clear and honest. We share the goals of being clear with communication, focused on what our students need and deserve, while supporting each other.

I picture an old-fashioned scale, with brutal honesty on one side and relationship-focused communication on the other. I continuously work to get more balanced, and the best advice I can share is to have a focus on what our students deserve, in every conversation. What side do you fall on with your communication, and what do you do to work toward that perfect balance?

Image credit: https://melaniekillingervowell.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/scales-of-justice-tipped.png

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7 thoughts on “The Communication Balance: brutal honesty or wimpy empathy?

  1. Allyson,

    I once heard the “sandwich method” of feedback described as the poop filled Twinkie. I agree that we need to find that balance of honest feedback & maintaining positive relationships. If we frame everything we do in the context of what’s best for kids then our conversations will find that balance. Have fun with your FISH!!:)

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  2. What a brave post! I love that you’ve shared this important lesson for leaders. It reminds me of Jonathan’s “warm demander” phrase.

    There are times we all struggle with “striking the balance”, but being aware of it is the first step in doing it the way it is both effective and supportive.

    Thank you for sharing!

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  3. A good discussion starter Allyson. Often I feel like two people in one. Good cop. Bad cop. But then again, all communication is two-way. Speakers require listeners and vice versa. One element of this communication mix is to always employ questions. If you study the philosophy of Socrates, developed what we now know as the Maieutic method. It can be described through the actions of a midwife. Socrates talks about drawing us into the middle. He says soul knowledge is already inside of you and you have got to be a midwife and pull it out of people.
    Anther way of looking at this is to ask ourselves if we are doing things TO people or FOR people. Or, can we navigate to become one who works WITH others?

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    1. Thank you for reading and responding Vic! I love your point about listening–I agree that REALLY listening is crucial in conversations and building relationships. Your last sentence resonates with me as well…to or for or with is a great evaluation question.

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  4. Great stuff Alllyson, love the honesty, vulnerability and reflection. While I applaud your pursuit around balance. It’s a term I’ve pushed back against. In your case I understand what you’re aiming for but I also would argue, it matters what you lead with. If the choices here are empathy vs honesty, what do you lead with? Every interaction/relationship has a starting point. Over time, hopefully both emerge but before that trust is established, do you lean or emphasize one approach over the other?

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