This course teaches a powerful blend of the two most crucial conversation skills, empathy and assertiveness. We all have these skills to some degree, or at least the potential for them. They are in our genes. They may have gone rusty or been blunted by life’s experiences but they are recoverable. The course aims to help you recover them. It is a how-do-you-actually-say-it course, packed with clear guidelines and examples you can apply to your own difficult conversations.


Part One familiarizes you with the two skills, shows you how to use them separately, and identifies common mental habits that get in the way. Mental habits matter. They are the reason why these skills are not easy. Becoming aware of them is a step towards laying them aside.


Part Two shows how the two skills in combination create an extremely effective way of communicating, and how you can use this in a variety of difficult conversations. 

Topics for this course

46 Lessons


We have tried to boil the art of connecting with people down to its simplest basic ingredients (simple is not the same thing as easy). If I want to improve the connection between us there are two and only two things I need do. One is make sure I understand you, the other is make sure you understand me. The first is to do with how I listen, the second with how I speak. If this sounds a little too simple and obvious, what is perhaps not so simple and obvious is the quality of listening and speaking needed. It makes all the difference when the listening is done with empathy and the speaking is done assertively. These two skills produce a relaxed and safe atmosphere of mutual understanding, respect, honesty and trust – crucial for winning people’s cooperation. By using these skills I can take the initiative in improving our relationship – I do not need to wait for you to make the first move. The word ‘skill’ needs a caution. These are not like manual skills, such as driving a car, which once developed, we can use automatically while our mind and heart are somewhere else. They require our full attention. They are skills of the heart, ways of expressing our whole self and helping another person do the same. They are ways of making an honest connection with another person.
Example of the two crucial skills in action
Why are these skills so effective?


Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Our first reaction to most of the statements which we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. ‘That’s right’, or ‘That’s stupid’, or ‘That’s unreasonable’, or ‘That’s correct’. Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of his statement is to him. Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person Empathy is paying full attention to what is going on in someone else’s mind. The difficulty we all have with this is that we are usually distracted by what is going on in our own mind. To pay attention to someone else we must first find a way to flick the switch – to divert our attention from the noise in our own minds, to give ourselves permission to set aside for a while our own sensations, memories, opinions, prejudices, thoughts and feelings, so that we can tune in to what is going on in their mind. Flicking this switch is a deliberate choice. But many of us never make it. We are so engrossed in our own private world that we assume it is the only world there is. If we are interested in others at all it is only in so far as their thoughts and attitudes relate to our own. We are not interested in their inner world in its own right. We rarely take the trouble to step with an open mind into their shoes and try to imagine what their experience of life is like, what things look like from their point of view, what matters most to them. We hardly ever do empathy. So we are rarely if ever really present for them – physically, yes, but not mentally or emotionally. And usually we are unaware of this, totally oblivious of how disconnected we are. If you want to train yourself to pay more generous attention to others, how can you do it? A practical way is to focus your attention deliberately on specific questions about them, as shown below. Here is the first of 25 sets of practical *guidelines* in the course, giving clear instructions on what to focus your mind on and what words to use:-

Coaching with empathy?

When someone comes to you with a problem what method do you use? Are you aware what your preferred method is and its effect on the person you are trying to help? In this situation most managers and professional people automatically assume the role of problem solver. Solving problems is one of the skills that got them where they are. They are well practiced at it and enjoy it. It has become a habit – probably an unconscious one. But though sometimes it is the best way to coach people, it can often be even more helpful to listen with empathy instead. What difference would this make?


4 Assertiveness I have found that the more I can be genuine in the relationship, the more helpful it will be. This means that I need to be aware of my own feelings, in so far as possible, rather than presenting an outward façade of one attitude, while actually holding another. Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person In this course we define assertiveness as behaving in such a way that people know unambiguously where you stand. Your assertiveness makes it easy for them to take you seriously, because without threatening them you are being transparently honest and clear about your own feelings and needs. The word is often confused with aggression. But aggression is quite different in two respects. First, it is not transparently honest – of course it is driven by feelings but it does not openly admit them. Second, it is threatening, and therefore it puts people on the defensive.

Saying what you want?

Many of us learn very early in life that it is unfair, rude, and perhaps punishable to ask for what we want, because it might clash with or deprive someone else of what they want. This may have been part of the necessary and well-meant social training provided by our carers when we were little. But many of us have taken it to mean that it is safer to keep quiet about what we want, and this has become one of the underlying beliefs that have shaped our personality and relationships. In order to avoid conflict we have acquired the habit of suppressing one of the most vital and empowering questions we can ever ask: “What do I want?”

Conclusion of Part One and preparation for Part Two?

This course is about a way of communicating that enables us to live and work together honestly, successfully and harmoniously. It has just two ingredients, empathy and assertiveness. Empathy is the art of giving my attention, respect and understanding to others. Assertiveness is the art of winning theirs. Often these are taught as two separate skills, but they obviously go together like two sides of the same coin. There are very few difficult conversations that cannot be handled successfully with this pair of skills. But the approach is radically different from the one many of us are familiar with:-

Giving feedback, or criticism?

Most people find criticism hard to take. We all know this, and it makes us nervous about giving it. Many people try to avoid it altogether. Some try so hard to do it a nice way that the message gets watered down. Others do it in a way that makes people feel attacked. What we need is a way to be tough on the issue yet soft on the person – to make the criticism strong enough to be taken seriously yet without putting people on the defensive. If we do not do it assertively people are unlikely to take us seriously. But on the other hand, if we do it without generosity it is hard for them to receive it with an open mind.

Customer support – responding to calls for technical help?

It is often very disturbing to a customer when something goes wrong, or seems to go wrong, with a product or service he depends on. Behind many calls for technical support there are strong feelings – anxiety, frustration, anger, disappointment, panic. And until the customer has expressed his feelings and let off steam it is very hard for him to calm down and think rationally. Just because they are so eager to get stuck in and fix the problem, customer support people often make two mistakes:- They expect the customer to engage in a rational conversation before letting off steam. They take it for granted that he knows they intend to stay with him, get to the bottom of his problem and help him resolve it. Of course that is their intention, but in his highly charged emotional state he probably doesn’t assume it.

Persuasion without argument?

In persuasion you are trying to influence people’s thinking and win their agreement. The trouble is they resist, and so persuasion is mainly about overcoming resistance. But resistance is driven by emotion. When people’s negative feelings are aroused it is hard for them to be open-minded, and when presented with facts and logic they can do little but argue. That is why reasoned argument so often fails to persuade.

Handling resistance in a meeting?

The reason why people resist change is usually because they are afraid of losing something they value. It makes no difference whether their fears are real or only imagined, because either way, while they are being driven by fear their minds are closed to reason. But how can resistance be handled in a room full of people each with a different concern? We cannot empathize with them all at once. How can we encourage them to express their concerns and yet prevent the meeting from turning into chaos? This needs both a firm hand and a clear structure. Here is a structure for running such a meeting. It will enable you not only to listen with empathy to each person who has a concern, but also to keep firm control. It’s also good fun running a meeting this way, not only for you but also for the other members of the meeting.

Handling complaints?

Behind every complaint there are strong feelings – anxiety, frustration, anger, disappointment, panic. It is bound to be very disturbing when someone you rely on for goods or services lets you down – or seems to let you down. Until you have let off steam it is very hard to think rationally. A mistake customer care people sometimes make is expecting the customer to be able to think rationally before letting off steam. Here is a simple, reliable method for handling customers’ complaints:- Example CUSTOMER (fuming): I’ve a good mind to write to the Consumer’s Association about this ****** hotel! HOTEL MGR (empathy): Something has obviously annoyed you, sir. CUSTOMER: (letting off steam) Too ****** right! When I courseed I was promised a quiet room. I don’t call being on the first floor over the car park quiet! HOTEL MGR (firm and clear): I do apologise. I’ll see right away what I can do to get you moved. (Sorts out the room change) Is there anything else I can do to make you happy? CUSTOMER (much calmer, with his confidence in the hotel restored): No, that’s fine. Thank you.

Receiving criticism without being defensive?

Most people experience criticism as a personal attack even when it is not meant that way, and have a strong instinct to defend themselves. Of all the situations in this course, this is the hardest to handle gracefully. But reacting in a defensive way to criticism always raises the tension, because it fails to take the criticizer’s underlying concern seriously, and therefore makes him feel even worse about you. It therefore diminishes you in his eyes. An un-defensive response, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. It increases your stature in his eyes and enhances the relationship. And far from showing submission, it actually shows strength. Another thing to bear in mind is that much of the criticism you receive is false. The reason why is given below. An understanding of this can help you stand firm and not submit to it. What you need is a way of being firm yet un-defensive in the face of false criticism. This might sound like a lot to ask for, but, as we shall see shortly, a combination of empathy and assertiveness places it within your grasp. Of course some of the criticism you receive probably is true, and you need a graceful way of responding to this, too. You also need to be able to tell the difference between true and false criticism.

Criticising someone’s idea constructively?

When someone gives birth to an idea they are naturally attached to it. It is their ‘baby’. When they feel it is being attacked they react as though they themselves are being attacked. So if you need to challenge them you had better do it in a supportive way. Otherwise not only will you find yourself in bitter argument, but also you will fail to influence them.

Handling Conflict

Negotiating for a win-win agreement?

What do empathy and assertiveness bring to the art of negotiation? They make possible a win-win instead of a win-lose outcome, provided you can (a) agree on a common objective, and (b) agree not to accept any outcome that fails to satisfy both sides. These two conditions are no small matter, because we often start negotiating not with a shared aim, nor with the intention to take care if one-another’s interests as well as our own, but with the aim of maximising our own advantage. The idea of being equally concerned about the satisfaction of both sides does not occur to us. But it makes a big difference not only to the outcome but also to the spirit in which the negotiation is conducted. Without it we inevitably see and treat one-another as enemies, with fear of being taken advantage of as the underlying motive. But with it, feeling safe we will not be taken advantage of, we can treat one-another as friends, and that opens up a wider range of possible outcomes. Here is the spirit of it:- Instead of trying to gain an advantage over one-another let’s try another way. Let’s agree at the outset not to accept any outcome unless it satisfies us both. In other words, let’s agree to take care of one-another’s interests as much as our own. Then we can feel safe enough to look for a solution that satisfies us both. This lesson is a suggested procedure for having this conversation.

Motivating People

Giving very bad news in a humane way

Getting a busy person’s attention

Repairing Relationships?

We hope this course has unlocked a treasure chest for you by offering a way of turning potential misunderstandings and conflicts into fruitful and harmonious relationships. Nothing can be more rewarding. But it’s not easy, is it? The principles and skills we are teaching may be easy to understand, but it takes a considerable amount of practice before they are firmly enough embedded to be reliable. And there are obstacles in the way – mental habits that can be hard to let go of – especially when you are under pressure. If you have identified some relationships you would like to improve, here are a few practical suggestions about how you might use the skills and insights in this course to create a better connection.
  • Lessons 46

It’s time to start spending your time in a way that lights you up. I’m here to help you map out the steps & guild you along the way.



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