Comms Lab: The Commonest Mistake

Comms Lab: Episode 13

The Commonest Mistake in Responding to Emotion

In this video, I’m talking about what may be the commonest mistake people make when they respond to emotion.

You pick up on the emotion.

You respond with just the right words.

Your tone is perfect.

And yet…

If you make this one mistake… It may all be for naught!

I call it the empathy killer, and there is a very high chance that, unless someone has pointed it out to you, you’re making this very mistake whenever you respond to emotion.

That was certainly the case for me.

It was a habit that had been trained into me through years of 7-minute OSCE stations and time-pressured work environments. Little did I know that it was a false economy.

Since I fixed this habit in myself, I reckon I’ve saved many hours of cumulative time in difficult conversations.

0:00 – One Simple Mistake?
0:48 – JAMA paper on Physician Empathetic Statements
1:24 – Two Different Responses
2:06 – So What Made the Difference?
2:29 – 2 Examples
3:13 – Silence is Gold


Comms Lab

A path to highly effective communication skills

Hayden is an emergency physician at University Hospital Geelong and a senior lecturer at Deakin University, Geelong. He is somewhat obsessed with the science and art of effective communication, and in particular: difficult conversations. He believes that we can all get better at having difficult conversations, and that the process of learning to do so can be seriously fun.

Hayden is also an avid but terrible surfer, ad hoc gardener, and dad to two awesome kids. | LinkedIn |


  1. nice work mate!.. great video….
    the pause is key…
    but there is in my experience another secret of something you do before, during, and after you have a chat with families…
    …you actually care…



    • Thanks for the comment, Luke. I agree that actual caring is the crucial prerequisite for natural compassion. When I’m at my best, the stuff just flows.

      Then again, for most of us, actual caring is a finite resource. Compassion fatigue is a real thing too. There are times when it’s harder to access that sense of genuine care in ourselves.

      For me, great communication skills serve a couple of important functions in this regard:

      When the “actual caring” is present, great communication skills enable us to make the greatest possible impact with it.

      When we suffer compassion fatigue, excellent communication can sometimes reignite “actual caring”. It’s not quite “fake it til you make it”, but it’s something like that. My experience is that when we demonstrate great communication skills, others are empowered to show us parts of themselves they might otherwise keep hidden. The more we see of another person, the better we understand them. And in my opinion, greater understanding is the most potent fuel for greater compassion.

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