Empathy in Communication with Sharon Steed

“Empathy as a verb is a choice—and how you choose to engage in empathy is going to change from person to person based on each individual’s desires and needs."

Empathy isn’t just critical to good communication. It’s the heart of effective leadership. Yet empathy often gets pushed aside in the attempt to project a “perfect” professional image. 

With many people working from home in a year that’s been anything but normal, it’s time to break down the walls. No matter where you work or what kind of projects you manage, being empathetic can help you build deeper trust and connection with customers and coworkers alike. 

Thankfully, empathy is a skill anyone can develop and improve. In this episode of Time Limit, Brett talks to empathy consultant Sharon Steed—CEO and founder of Communilogue—about empathy and communication in project management. Listen to their conversation to learn:

  • What empathy is and why it’s important in the workplace
  • Why practicing empathy at work leads to a more inclusive culture
  • How to develop empathy as an individual and organization
  • One question that can help you become a more empathetic project leader
  • How to inspire empathy in your team and beyond
  • How to improve empathy in your communication

About our guest


Sharon Steed
CEO and Founder, Communilogue

Sharon Steed is an international keynote speaker, author and founder of Communilogue, a corporate empathy and communications consultancy. She is a subject matter expert on empathy at work, helping teams revolutionize the way they communicate, collaborate and approach diversity and inclusion by engaging empathy.

Sharon has spoken at companies and conferences in 17 countries spanning five continents, with a focus on improving team communication and collaboration through engaging empathy and vulnerability as a professional asset. She has given a TEDx talk on empowering insecurities.

A lifelong stutterer, Sharon uses her speech impediment to both teach what empathy is and to inspire audiences to engage in empathy actions daily. An author and course instructor for O'Reilly Media, Inc., her eBook Empathy at Work is available in the O’Reilly library. Sharon’s LinkedIn Learning course "Communicating With Empathy" has over 400,000 views. A Midwestern native, she currently lives in Pittsburgh.

Episode Transcript


Brett Harned:                                          Hey, welcome to Time Limit, a podcast all about project management, leadership and productivity. This is your host, Brett Harned. I'm the Director of Education at TeamGantt. So, I'm recording this episode in October of 2020, and the topic of this episode is empathy and communications, and it feels really relevant right now for a lot of reasons that I'm sure you can gather on your own. My guest is Sharon Steed, who so happens to be an empathy consultant. She brings a ton of personal experience to the table and then immediately draws you in to want to learn more.
                                                      If you're not familiar with the topic or what empathy consultants do, no worries. You'll get that info straight from Sharon in the interview right at the beginning. Then we'll dig into how to practice empathy as a project manager, how to instill empathy in others, and even how culture and inclusion can start with you. It's pretty exciting. Check it out.
                                                      Hey, Sharon. Thanks so much for joining me on Time Limit. How are you today?

Sharon Steed:                                          I'm great. How are you, Brett?

Brett Harned:                                          I'm doing pretty well, thanks. I'm really excited to have you here to talk about a topic that I think really impacts a lot of us in business no matter where you work, no matter the projects that you're working on or even the role that you're in, and that's empathy. So, I've met you through the Digital PM Summit where you-

Sharon Steed:                                          That's right, yeah.

Brett Harned:                                          In the Bureau of Digital, where you've come and given some really impactful talks on this topic. So, I think if folks want to check out those videos, they can probably find them and we'll also share some resources about you and your work in the show notes as well. But let's dig in. I kind of like to start topics or conversations like this at the super high-level talk, just to give people an overview of what we're going to talk about. So, can I start with just a definition of empathy? How do you personally talk about empathy and what it is?

Sharon Steed:                                          So, all of my talks, I try to focus on just really [inaudible], like "Here's what empathy is," but I come at it from a perspective of a person who stutters, and so as a result of that I focus on communication as a way to really engage in empathy actions. If you look in the dictionary, it's defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, and so I always say that, yeah, it's a fine definition and it does sort of explain what empathy is, however it doesn't really prescribe how one should approach it, right?

Brett Harned:                                          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sharon Steed:                                          And so I say that empathy as a noun is an idea and it is intangible, but empathy as a verb is a choice, and how you choose to engage in empathy is going to change from person to person based on each individual's desires and needs.

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah. Thank you for that. I always think it's nice to hear from someone else in their own words what something is, to level set the conversation, and I like the way that you broke it down from being a noun versus a verb. This is really interesting to me, really good way to put it.
                                                      So, I asked that because your job, so in your role you're an empathy consultant, so wondering if you could talk a little bit about what led you to your work and then what does your work look like? What's involved in being an empathy consultant?

Sharon Steed:                                          Yeah, it's actually just fascinating because it's a thing that I didn't set out to do. I began my career as a writer because I was always really concerned about having to physically talk to people, and so I was like, "Okay, well I don't want to talk to people so I'll be a writer and I won't have to talk to people," and it turns out that, as a writer, you spend like 75% of your time actually talking to people, and so I was even more so obsessed with just language and communication than I had been previously. And so, I had come to this point where I was so terrified to just talk to people that I knew that I had to overcome this fear. And so, I decided to just give a couple of talks on stuttering and personal branding and those kinds of things. And in my very, very ill-informed way, I thought that, "I'm going to give a couple of talks and I'll be cured of this fear of talking, and then I can go and live my life as a writer," and that's obviously not what happened at all.
                                                      And so, as I was giving these talks, people just kept coming up to me and saying, "Hey, I really appreciate it, you talking about empathy, because I think it's a topic that we, just as a society, we have to learn how to have empathy for other people." And so, over time, I developed this hypothesis of a best way to engage empathy is through communication, and so, as a person who stutters, I use my speech impediment to teach people, one, what empathy is and the ways that we can really engage empathy, and then two, excuse me, I have a little bit of a cold.

Brett Harned:                                          No worries.

Sharon Steed:                                          And then, two, that communication and communicating, it's going to be a little bit different for every single person and if you are uncomfortable or insecure in the way you communicate, that's okay. I think that people should still try to speak up, and just the process of trying to communicate effectively and connect with other people is going to be much better than taking yourself out of the conversation completely. And so, that's what I really do in my consulting practice. I give a lot of talks that range from 20 minutes to 60 minutes and I talk about the bigger ideas around communication, empathy and things like insecurity, vulnerability. And then, in the proper consulting practice, I facilitate workshops that are really just conversations focused on people tapping into their own personal experiences and their personal lives to be better communicators and collaborators, and to create a lot more inclusive cultures on their teams.

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah, that's great. I think what you do, in so many ways, takes so much courage and it's almost like you've tapped into this part of your life and the experiences that you can draw on to help to teach people to be empathetic, to practice empathy within their communications and even just within their beings day-to-day. Part of me feels like a lot of folks drop that part of their personality. I do believe everyone in some way has a heart, right? And then there is empathy deep down in everyone, but people get so mired in the day-to-day and the stress of work and life that sometimes empathy is something that they don't practice. So, I think you coming to the table bringing that experience and making people think about it just feels so valuable to me. I'm sure that the response you've gotten has been positive.

Sharon Steed:                                          Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that it's more than just about having people think about things in a different way. I think I just, as a result of my personal story with stuttering and me being onstage or now on camera and stuttering, it really makes people feel things that they don't always tap into in that professional setting. I mean, I think that a part of the reason why my talks can be very impactful is because I do make people really uncomfortable and then it's in that discomfort that they then begin to think about, "Oh, I could be doing something differently," or, "I have this insecurity and it really is tampering my personality or my productivity," and I can really figure out the ways to use all of themselves in their professional lives. I'm a firm believer that our weaknesses don't... Well, they don't have to keep us from doing great things. They can actually assist us in creating cool products or just being better people on a global sense.

Brett Harned:                                          Right. Absolutely. I'm curious, in your work when you are working with an organizations or even teams, what kind of issues are folks facing that you're helping them through, or what kinds of challenges might exist?

Sharon Steed:                                          I think that a lot of people, they don't always consider that they are entire human beings and their co-workers are also entire human beings, right? And so, they come to work and they have all of these other things going on and their existence as people and they're trying to push all of those other things away and just focus on work.

Brett Harned:                                          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sharon Steed:                                          But the problem there is that all of those other things that are going on are affecting you, some of them in positive ways, other in negative ways. But the really important thing that I'm trying to pull out of people is that all of those things are going to give you perspective, and so my whole goal is to get teams to see their co-workers as full people who have experiences that can give the team and the company perspective in order to be more productive, be more collaborative and create better products and experiences for the company's customers, consumers, clients.

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah, absolutely. So, is it kind of like a recognizing that everyone brings some level of baggage to the table and just recognizing the fact that that's there and embracing it more so than just ignoring it or trying to sweep it under the rug, so to speak?

Sharon Steed:                                          Oh, yeah. I mean, we have a tendency to be like, "I'm tough. I'm good. Here's all the things that I'm really, really, really, really good at," and my favorite one is, "My greatest weakness is that I sometimes work too hard," and it's like, "No, [inaudible] things," but it's okay to amplify the things that you struggle with, because it is going to help you connect on a deeper level with both the people inside of the office as well as your customers and consumers, because if you are going through something hard, other people are probably having that same kind of experiences and they're still engaging in your products, engaging in your service. And so, yeah, I mean, the goal is to really to get people to see their insecurities and vulnerabilities as assets and to do the same thing with their co-workers as well.

Brett Harned:                                          Absolutely. I'm curious. I've had this theory swimming around in my brain for like the past year, and I just had a conversation with a co-worker about it this morning, and it's this idea of being professional and what professional actually means now to people. I've got this thought that in olden days, in days of yore, professional meant something entirely different than what it means now. I think that for all intents and purposes, folks like us who... Our careers were born in the digital industry. The sense of being professional is far different than a lot of other industries and I think that we've started to lead change in that respect, in that people are not expected to wear suits. People wear jeans and T-shirts. People, for better or worse, use curse words in public and in meetings and things that some formal folks would think, "Oh, man, this is so unprofessional." But there are people in the industry that you look up to because of that, and I do have this sense too that there is empathy within that newer definition of professionalism. Would you agree with that?

Sharon Steed:                                          I think so. And I mean, I think people are just tired of this whole idea of cookie-cutter professionalism because it only really encompasses one kind of person and this world is made up of so many different kinds of people that come from a lot of different backgrounds. I mean, I know that as a black person I would go on these job interviews and people would be like, "So, are you going to straighten your hair or are you going to leave it like that?"

Brett Harned:                                          Really?

Sharon Steed:                                          And it's like, "But this is how I look. This is my hair." And it's just this whole thing about only one thing can be professional, and I don't know, I mean I think that we just need to redefine what professional is, because especially now, I mean, I'll be on calls or whatever and people's kids will be playing in the background or the dog is barking or... I was actually giving a talk a couple of days ago and I was at my parents' house and my mom came into the room as I was recording and I'm like, "Hey, this is my mom." And all the people in the chat were like, "Hi, mom!" And I'm like, "You know..."
                                                      This is what it is now and I think that people are just tired of this very unattainable person who is always on and has the, quote, unquote, "right things" all of the time. And so, yeah. I mean, I think that we're just in a new day and age where professional is any person or situation who can just get things done and it doesn't matter where you are or what's going on in the background.

Brett Harned:                                          Yep, I think that's exciting, again.

Sharon Steed:                                          It is.

Brett Harned:                                          And you made such a good point. I think the current situation with not everyone but many people having to work from home, knowledge workers specifically working from home, I think people are more patient and it's almost like that empathy is just creeping in and I hope that we hang onto it when things do get back to normal.

Sharon Steed:                                          Me too. [inaudible] Who knows?

Brett Harned:                                          So... I know, right? You never know. I want to kind of move back into your work and we were talking about empathy on the individual level and building that, and part of me feels like there's some organizational level to this that's really important that almost, maybe mandates is a bad word, but at least sets a tone. So, I'm wondering if there are any core values or practices that organizations or even teams should hold or think about or act on in order to make sure that they are building an atmosphere that is empathetic?

Sharon Steed:                                          I mean, the first that comes to mind is just transparency and this kind of goes back to the professionalism thing.

Brett Harned:                                          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sharon Steed:                                          You being on and perfect all of the time isn't helping anybody, especially people in charge. I know that Satya Nadella from Microsoft, his son turned out to be disabled and he was talking about, "Well, as a result of experiencing this child that has a disability, I'm able to better empathize with the people on my teams as well as in my organizations." And there was a time when people who were CEOs of corporations just don't talk about their personal lives. So, transparency, it gives people the sense that you are a person who has an entire existence beyond just being your job title.

Brett Harned:                                          Right.

Sharon Steed:                                          And so, that's the first thing that I like to tell people, is to just be honest and be as open as you can about the experiences that you have in your life.

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah, I think that's really good advice. It's funny, transparency and honesty is one of the things that I always teach or at least mention when I'm talking about project management, because it's one of those jobs where the whole world is coming at you, right? Like, you've got clients and stakeholders and team members coming at you with different things. You've got a scope and a timeline. You're looking our for issues and risks and sometimes it gets overwhelming and an issue pops up and you kind of just want to sweep it under the rug because it's going to throw everything off and it's going to cause problems. But if you do that it's just going to make things worse, right?

Sharon Steed:                                          Right.

Brett Harned:                                          I feel like PMs are in this position where empathy is so important, not only in that vein of honesty and transparency but also just recognizing that you're managing a team, like you mentioned before, who are all different types of communicators, who are all doing different types of work, have different types of professional and personal goals, and you're wrangling them together to try to get one thing done, and it could take 10 to 20 people to do that one thing. I think the one place where PMs really struggle with empathy is in this idea of always needing to know what's happening on your projects, which makes sense, right? That is a part of project management. Got to have your finger on the pulse. But there's this thing that we do that's basically like a stop and chat or a follow-up or a check-in, right? This thing where you're kind of just wandering around the office or maybe you're checking in on slack and just seeing how someone's doing, where they are with their progress, and unfortunately it's something that we have to do but it can also cause a strain on that project manager to team member relationship.
                                                      So, I'm wondering, from someone who really has empathy top of mind and practices, what's your advice to those project managers who do need to get those check-ins but they maybe are met with an annoyed team member or someone who's not happy and just doesn't want that person around? But how can you be good about tracking work and following up on things in more of an empathetic approach?

Sharon Steed:                                          So, I like to talk about these key empathy behaviors and these aren't going to be things that are, it's like, "Only these three things," but all of the behaviors that are going to push forward empathy sort of fall into a few different categories and so the first one I talk about is patience and the second one I talk about is perspective.
                                                      And I think that, as PMs, I think that it's important to... I know this is going to sound very counterproductive, but to just have a little bit of patience. Everybody is having a hard time keeping up with everything that's going on, right? And so, you are in charge of all of the aspects of the project but every single person on the project has their own role and task. And so, if you just have patience with people then they're probably going to also give you a little bit of patience back, and I guess for PMs, a good way to have patience is to say, "How can I help you get this completed?" And there's a way to say things where it's like, "Okay, so how can I help you get this done faster?" No, no, no, it's, "Okay, I'm coming from a [inaudible] place. How can I help? Is there anything that I can do to get you to succeed?" Right?

Brett Harned:                                          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sharon Steed:                                          And then, in terms of perspective, you always want to remind yourself that you don't have context on every single thing that's going on in this person's experience of life, and so, just always keep that in the back of your mind. They could be going through something very challenging at home or have another project that they're working on that is taking up a lot of their time. And so, just coming back to the "How can I help?" Question. That can open the door to have a more sincere conversation about the things that this other person is going through and why things are probably taking a little bit longer than they, quote, unquote, "should be". And, as a result of that conversation, this other person is going to feel like you actually care about them and that you want to see them succeed and not just get the project done.

Brett Harned:                                          Right. You said a couple things there that really resonated for me, and the first is being genuine, right? And you want that other person to know that you care. So, first of all, you have to care, right?

Sharon Steed:                                          Yes. Always. Very important fact.

Brett Harned:                                          You have to be the person who isn't just looking for that update, right? You have to be genuine in that, and if you're not, I think people see through that [crosstalk] immediately.

Sharon Steed:                                          They do. Absolutely.

Brett Harned:                                          The other things is around context, and I'm interested in your opinion on this because a lot of times you will not have the context and part of me feels like you don't necessarily deserve that context and that's part of what being empathetic is, right? It's knowing that there is context but you don't necessarily have the right to know all about the ins and outs and the details of why someone is behaving a certain way. Do you agree with that? Am I thinking about that the right way?

Sharon Steed:                                          Exactly. [crosstalk] I mean, I feel that people are going to share what they just do inadvertently and then they're going to share the things that they choose to share. Beyond that, it really isn't your business, and so what you have to get comfortable in is that you don't know all the things that you don't know, and you just have to leave it at that, and I think that that also just goes back to trust and trusting that this person is doing the best that they can, and that they aren't intentionally just trying to just not complete things on time. There's just a lot of other things going on in their life and you have to trust that they are going in the direction that everybody else on the project is going.

Brett Harned:                                          Right. Yeah, trust is so important. We're heading on so many themes within project management. This is an interesting... I'm curious, from your point of view as an empathy consultant, how do you instill empathy in leaders when it feels like they're lacking?

Sharon Steed:                                          So, I feel like leadership is inherently an empathetic task, and so the good leaders are going to know that and they're going to embrace that. The bad leaders are just going to completely overlook that, because if you look at what a leader is, they are a service person. They are, quote, unquote, "in charge" of the team, but their job is to make sure that every single person on the team has all of the tools that they need in order to get things done, and so they are of service to their team. They have been their team to those outside of the team and they sort of keep things together inside of the team, and so leadership is just... So, okay. The good leaders, again, aren't going to get bad. The bad leaders, I think, are only going to look at, like, "Well, I'm in charge and you have to do the things that I say." Well, it's still a team and all of you are there to work together in a very collaborative format.
                                                      And so, if you as a leader take yourself outside of that team framework, then you aren't really assisting people. You are separating yourself. And so, I think that the things that you want to tell those kind of leaders to do is to come back into the circle here and have sincere conversations with the people on your team, so they can tell you, "These are the things that I need in order to feel supported here." Because, I mean, that's your job, is to support them into doing their job, right?

Brett Harned:                                          Right.

Sharon Steed:                                          So, some transparency in those conversations is going to be helpful. And, I mean, some of the most impactful leaders that I have seen have said, like, "Hey, there are certain things about being a leader that I am insecure with or that I struggle with. And so, I need to work on these things. Can you tell me the things I'm doing well, as well as the things I'm doing not so well?" It's almost like a personal 360 evaluation, just on your own time.

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It's almost like we all have to work on ourselves actively in order to give our best selves at work.

Sharon Steed:                                          Absolutely. Yeah.

Brett Harned:                                          Which is not a shocking finding for anyone, I'm sure, but it's just one of those things that you kind of forget for whatever reason until you're in that moment and you're like, "Wow. This is not great."

Sharon Steed:                                          Well, even then I think it's hard to... Because we as people on teams, we all have tons of other things that we have to do, and so if you are in charge, you have to add on all of that other stuff, and so it's hard to take a step back and be like, "Oh, wow. I'm not doing this one part of my job well and I may not feel that I have enough time to really improve upon it."

Brett Harned:                                          Right, right.

Sharon Steed:                                          Yeah.

Brett Harned:                                          All right, so we're coming up on time. I feel like I could talk for another hour about this. It's so interesting to me. Communications really feels like my sweet spot and empathy is such a huge part of that. The last question I usually ask guests on this show is related to the theme of time limit, this idea that we're all managing work and teams and projects under constraints. So, I usually ask for some recommendations but I feel like, practicing empathy, there should be no constraints when it comes to time or budgets, unless you're looking to formally work with someone like you, right?

Sharon Steed:                                          Right.

Brett Harned:                                          But to me I think the question here is, how, if I'm working in an organization that isn't prioritizing empathy as a value, how do I do the right thing when maybe that organization doesn't formally support me?

Sharon Steed:                                          Yeah, I mean, that's a tough one. In my consulting practice, I've been really, really privileged to work with companies that really prioritize it.

Brett Harned:                                          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sharon Steed:                                          It's actually really funny how that works. I get contacted by the companies that don't actually have to have a personal empathy, and I never hear from the ones that desperately, desperately need it.

Brett Harned:                                          Right.

Sharon Steed:                                          But a thing that I like to tell people is that culture and inclusion can begin with you. It only takes one person to make a shift in an entire team's culture, and so as a communications-swayed person, I'm always going to say that the first thing that you can do is just re-evaluate how you approach conversations, and I say that speaking is where we put all of our energy in conversations, but people should focus on having folks speaking as well as listening to be incredibly active parts of conversations. And so, it makes a really big difference when people can tell that you are actually paying attention to them and to the things they're saying and to the things that they're feeling. And it really does just begin with that. That's why patience is so important.
                                                      A thing that I tell people is, just the simple behavior of repeating what people said to you back to them is going to make a really big difference in how this other person feels and thinks in this conversation. I think that we rush through conversations incredibly quickly and we don't always consider that there are a couple of different goals here. One is to achieve the very specific task of the conversation and two is to continue to build upon the relationship that you already have with this person. Every conversation is going to lay the groundwork for the next conversation, and so just put a little bit more emphasis on just paying attention to what other people are saying, and I think that it can have, or, I mean, I've seen that it can have a very profound impact on the way people just communicate with each other and the whole environment of the team.

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah. I couldn't agree with that more. I mean, I just think of it as someone who is slightly introverted. When I work with or meet someone who is warm and welcoming and engaging, and does some of the things that you mentioned in terms of practices within communicating, I immediately kind of come out of my shell and transform a little bit and become more comfortable. And I have to think that that happens when someone intentionally focuses on the way that they're putting themselves out there. That just tends to build a better culture overall.

Sharon Steed:                                          Yeah, absolutely. You nailed it.

Brett Harned:                                          Well, Sharon, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been really interesting. I'm so fascinated by the work that you do and I hope people look more into your work and your talks because it's really good stuff. So, again, thanks for joining me.

Sharon Steed:                                          Thank you for having me. This was a wonderful conversation.

Brett Harned:                                          Absolutely. All right, so that was your primer on empathy and project management. Remember, being transparent and genuine will help you to build trust, and recognizing that others bring non-work baggage to the table and the fact that you don't know if that baggage even exists or not is something that you may never know. That's why empathy is important and helps you to build better relationships with your team members, your co-workers, and anyone else in your life.
                                                      So, thanks again for checking out Time Limit. Visit teamgantt.com/podcast to view the full show notes, along with Sharon Steed's bio and links. And please give the show a like and subscribe, so we can keep delivering great interviews like this one wherever you listen to your podcasts. And of course, check out teamgantt.com for a well-designed, easy to use project planning and management software that can help you complete any project on time with the help and collaboration of your team. I'll see you on the next episode.

More episodes


Creating an Inclusive Workplace Culture with Yvette Pegues
Creative Design & Project Management with Greg Storey
Agency Operations & Project Management with Rob Harr
How to Grow and Lead a Business Successfully with Chris Dreyer