How to Balance Empathy and Assertiveness in the Workplace

This time you’re ready.

You know you need to deal with a workplace issue head-on.

Maybe you’ve been feeling overwhelmed with a project… or maybe it’s about that incomplete report your staff member wrote… or maybe you need to stick-handle a friendship and a working relationship with someone.

Does this sound familiar at all?

You’ve geared up and decided that enough is enough.

One way or another, this situation is getting resolved.

Than it happens… The never-ending parade of annoying thoughts that flash through your mind.

Maybe I’ll just call in sick for the next 2 weeks and not deal with the project… but then when I get back it’ll be even worse… Ugh! I’m stuck!

How do I tell him that they hated the recommendations in his report without crushing him… he worked so hard on it. 

What if she freaks out when I tell her that I can’t spend so much time talking to her at work anymore? 

Your mind is getting more and more creative at coming up with the slew of awful things that could happen, as you watch in horror and wonder why you can’t put this level of creative thinking to better use.

I get it. I’ve been there.

Balancing empathy and assertiveness is kind of like riding a bike… you don’t want to lean too much to either side or else you risk falling off.

But before you even get there, there’s a question you need to ask yourself.

And your answer will actually determine whether you’ll muster up the courage to have the conversation or not.

The one question you need to ask yourself. 

Are you ready to try your best to have this discussion and risk feeling awkward… screwing it up… making the other person upset? (pick your deepest fear of choice).

Until you can honestly answer yes to this question, even if it’s a timid yes, you’re not going anywhere.

Difficult conversations are… well… difficult. The only way we get better at them is through practice. And when we try something new, we usually suck at it… at first. That’s why we want to avoid it.

We hate sucking.

So what’s the solution?

Become at ease with being perfectly imperfect.

It’s actually quite simple. We need to become at ease with possibly sucking at things, as challenging as this might seem.

Getting there, however, can take some time and usually requires a wee bit of help. But when you really think about it, no one gets this stuff right on the first go round. So why should we be harder on ourselves than we would on others?

And once you become at ease with being perfectly imperfect, you can then move on to your next task, which is figuring out how to balance two of the key emotional intelligence competencies that we all need to develop in the workplace, and in life: empathy and assertiveness. 


Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and appreciate the way others feel. When we’re using empathy effectively, we can tune into others without letting their emotions overwhelm us.

When we underuse our empathy, however, it’s all about us. We don’t care about others or the impact of our words and actions on them. And this is the best way to quickly damage our working relationships.

On the flip side, when we overuse empathy, we’re overly concerned about others. Our needs don’t get met and we essentially become the office doormat. This is the best way to slowly damage our working relationships.


Assertiveness is essentially the other side of the coin. When we are using our assertiveness effectively, we find the right words and the right time to express what’s on our mind. We are firm and direct when necessary and we achieve our goals by articulating our needs appropriately.

If we’re too assertive, we become aggressive and turn others off because we don’t consider them when we voice our opinions (hence the need to temper our assertiveness with empathy).

And if we’re not assertive enough, we back down when the heat is on instead of finding a way to share our perspective and reach our goals. In essence, we’re not empathetic enough towards ourselves in the situation.

Assertiveness and empathy are 2 of the 15 of the emotional intelligence skills in the EQ-i 2.0 model of emotional intelligence that I cover in my Leadership Development Coaching Program.

How to balance it all…

If you’re struggling with balancing these two skills, here are a few questions to help you get unstuck:

– If you cave in too much, what makes you do so? What are your fears about asserting yourself more?

– On the flip side, if you push your point of view forward too forcefully, what are your triggers? When do you find yourself doing this the most?

Identifying and acknowledging our fears and triggers is often half the battle. Once we’re aware of them, we can then more consciously choose how to act instead of operating on autopilot… doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same results.

– If you’re overly concerned about other’s feelings, what are the downsides of worrying too much about others? How does that negatively impact the situation and your relationships?

– And on the flip side, if you don’t care enough about others, how does this negatively impact your relationships in the workplace? And how does this affect the task at hand (both the process of getting things done and the outcome)?

Taking the time to figure out the negative impacts of our strategies is often a powerful motivator for change.

And last but not least, think of a role model who balances empathy and assertiveness effectively. How do they do this? What can you learn from them?

The workplace is a wonderful training ground to help you stretch out of your comfort zone and grow into your best self, if you take the opportunity to use it as such. As one of my favourite quote says, “Fail sooner, so you can succeed more quickly.” – Tom Kelley

Wishing you failures that help you grow and successes that help you stay motivated!

Onward 🙂