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Don’t assume you know how I feel

Difficult conversations are a regular part of work for lots of us - whether you're supervising employees, assisting community members, or working with individual clients.

And many of us struggle to set limits and hold people accountable for their behavior while also offering them compassion for the intense emotions or difficult circumstances they're experiencing.

And that's where the inspiration for our next book highlight comes from...


This month we have an excerpt from Compassionate Leadership: How to do Hard Things in a Human Way by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter.

“We've all been on the receiving end of hard messages. We all know how we feel when we hear things we don't want to hear. And although it can be very useful to put ourselves in others' shoes it can be a trap.

Too often we think we know how someone feels and are blind to what they are actually experiencing. 

This makes it difficult to connect. It also makes the other person feel even worse because they feel unheard, unseen, or simply misunderstood. Instead, to be more present with others we need to set aside our biases, our assumptions, and our fears and bring genuine curiosity to the conversation.

Curiosity starts with a beginner's mind. Try to see the situation and the person with fresh eyes instead of assuming that you know what they will say or how they will feel… instead of making assumptions about what you notice, ask questions.

Potentially insensitive questions start with assumptions like, “I know this is really difficult for you.” Or “I understand how you feel.” Or “I know you are upset”.

These things could be true, but they are all assumptions based on our own experiences and biases. They fail to give space to the other person to have their own unique experience. And thus they don't serve us well.

Wiser questions come from a place of genuine care and compassion. Those questions could go something like “Would it be helpful for you to tell me how you feel?” Or “Is there anything I can do for you right now?” Or “Is there anything I can share or explain to help make this easier for you?

…We put time and effort into planning how we will engage in hard things like difficult conversations. And in doing so we naturally create expectations of how we hope the conversation will go.

Although it is important to consider the impact of messages, if we want to be fully present with others we need to let go of these types of expectations. 

Letting go of expectations does not mean that we don't consider potential scenarios. Planning for various outcomes is just good preparation.

Letting go of expectations means that when we are in the moment we let go of what we hoped would happen and that we are present with what is actually happening. Then we can adjust accordingly…

It’s also important to be able to let go of things that the other person says in the moment. Remember they are human. This is not easy for them.

They may be upset. They may say things to you and about you that are not nice. Give space for this. You don't need to agree, but you can let them have a moment to express sorrow, frustration, anger, or shame.

If you can, let go of your own reactivity to any negativity. If you can pause and choose how you would like to react, you can create space for them to be human.

The Power of the Pause is simple. The first step is to be aware of when and how we become triggered. … the second step is to simply stop and take a moment to collect your thoughts.

Take a breath. Notice the urge to react and take a few more breaths.

Notice any unhelpful emotions such as anger frustration or shame arising. Be present with what you are experiencing and see if by focusing on breathing you're able to calm down and clear your mind.

The third step is to choose how you want to respond…”


For me, this passage is helpful because it reminds me that: 

We can unintentionally cause harm (and create more work for ourselves) when we take an empathy shortcut by assuming we know how someone will react to a hard conversation or we assume that we know what someone is feeling or what’s behind their behavior.  

Instead of putting effort into trying to guess how someone is feeling and trying to say the perfect thing (then backtracking when we get it wrong), we would be wise to put more effort into learning how to stay open and steady when other people are upset. 

If we can stay cool (or return to cool) in hard conversations, it allows the other person to feel heard. That’s one of the most compassionate things we can do for another person.

Even if we can’t fix their problems, we are helping when other people feel heard and understood. 

If you’d like to read more, check out the book!



“Compassion Fatigue Strategies is a much-needed framework for our work in animal welfare. From individual tips to organizational policies, the course leaves students with tangible ways to achieve compassion satisfaction that are applicable no matter the type or size of an organization.” 

- Lindsay, Director of Shelter Outreach & Engagement

Compassion Fatigue Strategies, Plus! at UFL’s Shelter Medicine Program starts in less than 3 weeks! Join me and a wonderful group of animal care and welfare pros from around the world when class begins on Monday, February 26th, 2024.  

I love supporting students on the discussion boards and live sessions, but if you like to study on your own, then you don’t have to do any of that stuff! Work at your own pace, with six months of access and continuing education credits too! More info here.



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