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Managing Stakeholders in High-Stress Situations with Advanced Empathetic Communication


We recently spent some time with internationally renowned Dr. Peter Sandman who is an expert in managing public outrage and risk communication. In our last article we covered a brief introduction to public outrage and the foundations for empathetic communication. Today we will cover four advanced approaches to managing stakeholders in high stress situations with empathetic communication. These principles can be used to help manage the fear, anger and outrage that can occur among stakeholders for various reasons.

Interestingly, for most people, empathetic communication in a high stress-situation is an unnatural act, which is why Dr. Sandman has developed guidelines to follow when your empathetic intuition is at its worst.


1. Cultivate an empathetic attitude

Empathy is more than a strategy, it’s an attitude, which means it’s not something you want to ‘fake’. The easiest place to start is trying to understand how the situation looks from your stakeholder’s perspective. The thing to note here, is that trying is the most important part of showing empathy.


2. Find the balance between being interested but not intrusive

There’s a fine line between being oblivious to how someone feels – which is insensitive, and telling them how they feel – which is presumptuous and can provoke denial even if you’re right. It is also important not to interrogate or probe so deep that the person feels under attack. The key here is to find the middle ground between being oblivious and intrusive.


3. Practice deflection

Deflection is an extremely useful technique for not being too intrusive. Deflection means taking the pressure off one person and generalising the situation. Rather than saying ‘are you worried about property prices?’ instead say ‘some people in a situation like this would probably be worried about their property values.’


4. Acknowledge uncertainty

If you focus too much on how confident you are, it’s human nature for your listeners to feel that they are much less confident. According to Dr. Sandman, the trick is to acknowledge uncertainty candidly (but with a confident tone), which paradoxically makes everyone else far more confident. He has some specific strategies for acknowledging uncertainty:

  • Changing ‘confident’ to ‘hopeful’ will improve your risk communication, help protect you from attack and inspire confidence.
  • Don’t acknowledge uncertainty in the abstract or in the past. But rather express tentativeness in what you are saying right now.
  • Show your distress at having to be tentative, for example ‘I wish I could give you a definite answer on that’.

‘Rules of Empathy’

Dr. Sandman acknowledges that some people feel like the concept of ‘rules’ of empathy’ is an oxymoron. We tend to assume that empathy and empathetic communication should be intuitive, not a set of guidelines you learn and practice.

And while empathetic communication when managing stakeholders may be natural for a lot of people during positive times, for many people during times of high stress it is not intuitive, which is where these guidelines come in. Although practicing empathetic communication may feel inauthentic at the beginning it shouldn’t sound inauthentic to the person on the receiving end. The good news is that over time it will stop feeling inauthentic because it will become habitual.

The next article in our public outrage series focuses in on strategies to reduce public outrage. Make sure you’re subscribed to our blog so you don’t miss it.

Kelly Newbery




Risk Communication: 5 Steps to Reduce Public Outrage
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