Responding with Intention

By Joshua Messenger

May 11, 2021

Frantically, I scanned his text and drafted a response. He couldn’t back out from speaking tonight–not at the last minute! Sure, I could have swooped in and pulled out my emergency lesson I’d prepared a while back, but that would have defeated the entire purpose. I had to respond quickly, but I also needed to choose the right words.

So far, in the first few months of our new Fellowship of Christian Athletes Club, I’d been doing most of the heavy lifting. I knew there were others who were capable of leading, so I was eager to get some of them into the rotation. One guy in particular was had the potential to deliver an impactful message, and I was looking forward to this night. But after he made all the preparations and everything was ready to go, I received a text shortly before: “I don’t think I can do this.” 

Every conversation leaders have is an opportunity to leave a lasting effect. Think of the number of people you interact with every day, whether in-person, online, or by phone. Each engagement has a completely different context. They all require something from you, otherwise you wouldn’t be communicating. They need approval, laughter, information, a favor, or something else, and you need the same when you initiate the conversation. But to have the desired impact, leaders have to work through a certain process.

Recognize:  What is the context of this situation? We do this subconsciously every day in most interactions. They may be feeling sad, happy, peaceful, angry, surprised, or a combination of many other emotions. This requires the understanding that someone may be projecting a certain attitude but be feeling much differently within. 

Empathize:  What do they need from me? It sounds a bit awkward to phrase it that way, but it’s true. Are they looking for confirmation of a fact or an opinion? Do they need comforting or an earnest and personal dialogue? This is where we have to put ourselves in their shoes and understand what they need from us. Perhaps an employee appears to be slacking for no reason but is inwardly dealing with grief and needs a friend, not a boss. You may be the only one to perceive this unseen struggle.

Visualize:  How do I go about this? Once you understand what they’re feeling and what needs to be said, you have to determine how to respond. Is it time for a detailed reply or a simple phrase? Would a passionate delivery or quiet reassurance be best? Tone matters almost as much as the words you speak, so make sure to inflect as needed.

This all happens very quickly in conversation. Face-to-face communication is incredibly important, and it can be difficult to properly express what you need to in a short amount of time. You only have a few seconds to evaluate the situation and respond accordingly. 

Online, these steps are perhaps even more important. Any text or email can easily be misconstrued because there aren’t any nonverbal cues. A good technique I use is to read my response from the other person’s point of view. Am I getting the message across with the proper tone? A few minutes of editing and wordsmithing is always worth it to ensure the message achieves its purpose.

In the end, I could have responded in a thousand different ways to my friend’s text. I could have berated him for backing out or tried a “my way or the highway” approach. But ultimately, I recognized that anxiety was the root of what could have been easily misinterpreted as a selfish move. I was able to then empathize with him and visualize how to respond: reminding him of the reasons he would do well, while also gently pushing him in the right direction.

A fair number of conversations don’t need to go deep, but for many, a certain approach is required to deliver the desired effect. It’s far more useful to trade speed for tact in many situations. I still have room to improve, but since I’ve been intentionally choosing my words, I have found everything I say to be a little more genuine, and a lot more helpful.

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