Rhetorical Empathy as a Leadership Tool

By Christine M. Nowik

Leaders spend much of their time communicating with others with varying degrees of success (Riggio, Riggio, Salinas, & Cole, 2003). Effective communication is a hallmark of good leadership and is associated with greater employee satisfaction, collaboration, and identification with an organization (Kim & Rhee, 2011), specifically two-way communication that fosters mutual benefit between communicator and audience. In public relations, this type of communication is called “two-way symmetrical” (Grunig, 2006). A new model of communication that fuses two-way symmetrical communication with the skills critical to leadership effectiveness, specifically transformational leadership, is Rhetorical Empathy (Blankenship, 2019). This article advocates for the use of rhetorical empathy as a leadership tool and provides a case example to illustrate its potential.

Image from: https://upliftconnect.com/six-habits-highly-empathic-people/

Rhetorical empathy is a mode of communication characterized by four things:

  • Yielding to an Other by sharing and listening to personal stories
  • Considering motives behind speech acts and actions
  • Engaging in reflection and self-critique
  • Addressing difference, power, and embodiment (Blankenship, 2019, p. 20).

Acknowledging that both rhetoric and empathy are complex constructs, Blankenship weaves a thoughtful approach to communication that challenges traditional Western ways of knowing and communicating. She suggests that instead of the win/lose paradigm that characterizes our classic and contemporary discourse, individuals can enter a space of vulnerability where their goals are not to reinforce their positions but to open themselves to the possibility of being changed.

Rhetorical empathy deviates from the Western modes of communication by combining rhetoric, “a strategic use of symbol systems using various modes of communication – language, still and moving images, and sound,” with empathy, “both a conscious, deliberate attempt to understand an Other and the emotions that can result from such attempts – often subconscious, though culturally influenced” (Blankenship, 2019, p. 7). Grunig (2006) underscores this idea in his work on two-way symmetrical communication, noting that the goal of effective communication should not be persuasion as much as it should be mutual understanding between parties.

To leverage this framework for communication effectively, leaders must do a few things. First, they must critically reflect on their privilege as leaders and must “become vulnerable enough to consider our own motives, our blind spots, and our prejudice” (Blankenship, 2019, p. 11). This type of self-reflection is critical to the engagement of empathy: The ability to truly hear an Other, engage with perspectives other than one’s own, and be vulnerable enough to change personal perspectives. Leaders must also reflect on the role of power in every dynamic, considering what Follett (1924) suggests in Creative Experience: “Genuine power can only be grown; it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.” Coactive power provides the opportunity for leaders and organizational citizens to enter a space of vulnerability and establish the possibility for a change in perspective. Through a willingness to enter a vulnerable space, to truly listen for understanding and not for the sake of identifying weaknesses in opposing arguments, and to commit to “being with” instead of “power over,” leaders can engage rhetorical empathy as part of effective leadership.

The concept is a slippery one, though, in that leaders might struggle with operationalizing its core tenets. Thus, a case example could be helpful. One organization undergoing significant structural change affords organizational citizens the opportunity to submit anonymous questions to leaders, who compile them, answer them, and distribute them to the organizational community. This approach is an excellent opportunity to engage rhetorical empathy, especially because this organization lists “empathy” as one of its core values. One submitter requested more compassion from leaders during computer-mediated organizational meetings, particularly when leaders were announcing position eliminations and other staffing realignments. The specific language of the request is below:

“Please emphasize to the presenters that while this is an energizing time for the architects of the reorganization, it may be a demoralizing and destabilizing time for attendees. A show of compassion would be greatly appreciated.”

An organization that identifies empathy as part of its core values might respond with rhetorical empathy, reflecting its yield to an Other and listening to the personal story, considering the motives behind the speech, engaging in reflection and self-critique, and addressing the power imbalance:

“We are sorry that our communication appears to lack compassion. That is not our intent. We recognize that sometimes computer-mediated communication can strip the humanity from interactions, which means that we should double our efforts to convey our compassion and respect for the community as we navigate our organizational changes together. Please know that we are committed to ensuring that you see, hear, and feel our compassion. We will do better. We will be better. Please continue to share your feedback and suggestions for how we can improve.”

This response demonstrates compassion and empathy as well as entry to the vulnerable space where perspectives can be changed. This type of response would have built considerable trust between organizational citizens and leaders, undoubtedly enhancing the organization’s ability to change. However, the organization’s leaders made a different choice, responding in this fashion: “We will continue to demonstrate positivity, compassion and civility.”

In the face of a sincere request for humanity from an organizational citizen, leaders in an organization that espoused empathy as a core value chose to play defense against its own team, the wrong strategy in any context. The message here is clear: We are unwilling to yield to an Other, even when doing so would be in complete alignment with our organizational values. We have not reflected on our privilege or power dynamics, and we are unwilling to change our perspectives. In one short sentence, the leaders of this organization likely decimated goodwill and trust among organizational citizens.

Effective leadership requires strong two-way communication based in a real desire to understand another’s perspective. Rhetorical empathy is one such tool for enhancing leader effectiveness and presents an opportunity for further study in context. At the very least, leaders should consider how well their current communication approaches leverage two-way communication that prioritizes empathy, understanding, and new perspectives over attempting to persuade an Other to accept a perspective.

Blankenship, L. (2019). Changing the subject: A theory of rhetorical empathy. Colorado:
University of Colorado Press.

Follett, M. P. (1924). Creative experience. London: Longmans Green and Company

Grunig, J. E. (2006). Furnishing the edifice: Ongoing research on public relations as a strategic management function. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18, 151-176.

Kim, J., & Rhee, Y. (2011). Strategic thinking about employee communication behavior (ECB) in public relations: Testing the models of megaphoning and scouting effects in Korea. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23, 243–268.

Riggio, R. E., Riggio, H. R., Salinas, C., & Cole, E. J. (2003). The role of social and emotional
communication skills in leader emergence and effectiveness. Group Dynamics: Theory,
Research, and Practice, 7, 83-103.

Christine M. Nowik is pursuing a Ph.D. in Leadership and Administration at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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