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Communicating with FINESSE: Does Your Dog Have More Empathy Than You Do?

The word Empathy with capital E.  Communicate with FINESSE.
Is empathy a learned skill or a natural trait? Either way, it is essential for communicating on issues with high levels of complexity and uncertainty.

The comment is a common one.

“It does not surprise me that they do not want to save $60,000,” quipped the second-in-command of the electrical department. “They are more concerned with being popular and helping their friends.”

“By ‘they,' I assume you mean the Board and me as the interim Town Manager?” I asked.

“Well, not really you, but them – yes,” came a frustrated response.

I decided to move to a more productive line of discussion.

“Here is the math," I stated. “We have a $20 million annual budget, which equates to over $1.6 million per month in spending. Sixty grand is indeed sixty grand, but at the same time, it is a relatively small amount of the annual budget. And there are five other issues on the agenda that have savings of more than $60K."

“Sixty thousand is real money to my department,” responded the second-in-command. “We can’t afford to waste that amount of money.”

“We all agree on that, and we need to do what it takes in the short-term to minimize it,” I stated as I moved to close the discussion. “The Board understands the issue and will not forget it. They will move on it, but it may not be as soon as you would like. Timing is everything, and the decision is theirs, not ours.”


Empathy is the ability to place someone in another person’s (or species’) mental or spiritual position. While the concept of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” is widely accepted, there are several issues with it related to effectively communicating to decision makers on issues with high degrees of complexity and uncertainty.

The first is whether (or how) it is possible to vicariously understand the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of a person in a role that we have never experienced. Even if we have been in a similar position, how do we understand a senior decision maker in an objectively explicit manner – which includes the decision maker’s experiences, emotions, and biases but does not include ours.

The second issue related to effectively communicating to decision makers is whether empathy is a learned skill or a natural trait. Educators and psychologists believed that empathy had to be taught for many years. The view that empathy may be more natural than learned has gained popularity in recent decades. After all, how does your dog know?

FINESSE is the mnemonic for remembering the basics of effective communication: Frame, Illustrate, Noise, Empathy, Structure, Synergy, and Ethics. The first E in FINESSE stands for Empathy.

Decision Makers Have Many Strategic Decisions

Strategic decisions are characterized by high degrees of complexity and uncertainty. These decisions usually take months or years to resolve. The allocation of resources (the decision) is not trivial.

Our decision makers believe they are making the biggest decisions of their lives or careers when confronted with strategic decisions. And they probably are. The lesson is that it DOES NOT matter how simple, routine, straightforward, or logical the trusted advisor believes the decision is. It matters what the decision maker thinks.

Our decision makers also are making more than one strategic decision at any given time. As trusted advisors, we only deal with one or two of these decisions.

Success depends on finding empathy for the decision maker and being able to communicate on those terms.

We Have a Hard Time Making Decisions

On the one hand, most humans do not want to be responsible for harming others. Bad things may happen in this world, but we do not want our actions to have caused them.

On the other hand, most senior managers do not have patience. Their ascent through the ranks required making tens of tactical decisions each day. Making good strategic decisions requires making one good decision each week or each month. Many decisions makers subconsciously and incorrectly believe they are not contributing if they are not making decisions.

Between the two hands, decision makers may balk at making a strategic decision for one of three reasons:

  1. They may not understand

  2. They may not wish to allocate the resources

  3. The TIMING may not be right

The trusted advisor really only contributes to the first. As in the story at the beginning of the article, the second two are in the decision maker's control.

Get To The Point

An outcome of empathy is understanding and appreciating that decision makers do not have enough time. Empathy also leads us to realize that decision makers will ask you for more details when they are ready to allocate resources. Or perhaps not at all. Being empathetic means that all that you do is about the decision maker, not about you.

The number one question you should ask yourself is, “Why did they ask you to present?” Get to that answer in the presentation as quickly and concisely as possible.

Being empathetic means doing the hard work to listen and understand what the decision maker needs. These are a few things that senior decision makers appreciate when you are asked to effectively communicate related to issues with high levels of complexity and uncertainty.

  • Provide your conclusions in the beginning, whether a written or verbal presentation

  • Maintain similar presentations at all levels

  • Get advice from someone in the inner circle

  • Share your written information report before the presentation

  • State your credentials early

  • Share your role in the process

  • Highlight any other underlying perspectives

  • Trust that questions will be asked to the degree needed by the decision maker

  • Know when it is time to leave

Communicating with FINESSE

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in an objective manner is tough, especially when you have never been in their role or situation. It is a big task. Empathy starts with understanding that it is all about the decision maker, not you.

Is empathy a learned skill or a natural trait? Probably some of both, which means some people are naturally more effective communicators and others have to work at being effective communicators much harder. Whatever it takes, the responsibility for effective communication of a message belongs to the sender (trusted advisor), not the receiver (decision maker).

The first E in FINESSE stands for Empathy.


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