How to communicate with compassion

Compassion and kindness are incredibly powerful in our personal lives. The ability to forgive, provide comfort and nurture ourselves and each other is priceless.

Whenever I’m communicating change, I look for opportunities to inject compassion into my work. Whether that’s coaching a leader to be empathetic through their words and actions, to reminding clients that numbers on organisational charts are real people.

I’m curious, how you do this in your roles and through your internal communication?

The reason for writing this article is because my blog stats show me you’re looking for advice and guidance on difficult messaging.

The most popular articles right now are:

What is compassion?

The dictionary definition of compassion is: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that includes one to spare or to succour.”

When I think about compassion, it’s rarely about pity, it’s about providing strength through kindness to someone else.

I recently received flowers from a friend who realised I was having a difficult time, she wanted to show compassion through sending me some beautiful blooms to brighten my day. I didn’t feel pitied, but cared for and thought of. There is a difference.

Right now, many Communication practitioners around the globe are communicating some incredibly difficult information in our companies. From restructures to the deaths of colleagues due to COVID-19, what we say and how we make people feel are paramount.

I’ve written a column for the upcoming Voice magazine from the Institute of Internal Communication (due out early next month for members) as part of their Great Communicators series. I analysed the marvellous Maya Angelou and mentioned one of my favourite quotes:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou.

I love that quote and use it a lot in my work, including during keynote talks:

Rachel Miller speaker

How are you making people feel through your internal communication? How are your leaders communicating?

Whenever I’m planning internal communication, I set my intentions upfront. I usually share this formula in my Masterclasses or on stage. Here’s what I shared at the CIPR Inside Changing The Conversation conference in Birmingham, UK, last year:

If you need to communicate something complex or sensitive right now, are you factoring feelings into your plans?

If not, why not? Take a look at your plans and see if you can define and refine them by looking through the lens of feelings. You’ll be surprised to find the opportunities you can create.

At a time when real face-to-face communication is being conducted virtually, I urge you to make time to think about it.

Why is this important?

Because that is what you remember. If I think back to difficult conversations I’ve had in my life, particularly life-changing ones around the health of my children, I can’t tell you the exact words that were used or what the diagrams and results said.

But I remember acutely how I felt before, during and after the conversations and the looks on the faces of the Consultants and how they made me feel. I can remember the tone and the fact everything was explained slowly and carefully.

What does good look like?

One of the best examples of compassion I’ve seen recently is from Airbnb CEO and Co-Founder Brian Chesky.

In a letter to employees at the start of this month, he explained the need to make difficult decisions, which have led to job losses.

Brian Chesky

He wrote: “Out of our 7,500 Airbnb employees, nearly 1,900 teammates will have to leave Airbnb, comprising around 25% of our company. Since we cannot afford to do everything that we used to, these cuts had to be mapped to a more focused business. 

Travel in this new world will look different, and we need to evolve Airbnb accordingly. People will want options that are closer to home, safer, and more affordable. But people will also yearn for something that feels like it’s been taken away from them — human connection. When we started Airbnb, it was about belonging and connection. This crisis has sharpened our focus to get back to our roots, back to the basics, back to what is truly special about Airbnb — everyday people who host their homes and offer experiences. 

This means that we will need to reduce our investment in activities that do not directly support the core of our host community. We are pausing our efforts in Transportation and Airbnb Studios, and we have to scale back our investments in Hotels and Lux. 

These decisions are not a reflection of the work from people on these teams, and it does not mean everyone on these teams will be leaving us. Additionally, teams across all of Airbnb will be impacted. Many teams will be reduced in size based on how well they map to where Airbnb is headed.

How we approached reductions.

It was important that we had a clear set of principles, guided by our core values, for how we would approach reductions in our workforce. These were our guiding principles:

  • Map all reductions to our future business strategy and the capabilities we will need.
  • Do as much as we can for those who are impacted. 
  • Be unwavering in our commitment to diversity. 
  • Optimize for 1:1 communication for those impacted. 
  • Wait to communicate any decisions until all details are landed — transparency of only partial information can make matters worse. 

I have done my best to stay true to these principles”.    

Airbnb Brian Chesky letter

Further reading: A message from Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky.

Demonstrating the power of compassion

There are so many things in this extract alone that demonstrate the power of compassion. Chesky has written honestly, in jargon-free language, displayed emotion and empathy, managed expectations and expressed his own feelings.

The fact he has drawn on their core values only strengthens the message. There isn’t an easy way to communicate changes that impact people’s jobs. But if you can communicate with compassion, sensitivity and genuine emotion, you’re on the right track.

The end of the note from Chesky splits the employees into two groups – those staying and those leaving. I welcome this, it’s a smart move. Do you do this in your Internal Comms? This is what his note said:

“To those of you staying, 

One of the most important ways we can honor those who are leaving is for them to know that their contributions mattered, and that they will always be part of Airbnb’s story. I am confident their work will live on, just like this mission will live on.

To those leaving Airbnb, 

I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.


I’m going to end this article with some thoughts on servant leadership and provide you with some more resources to read.

Servant leadership

Back in 2018 I wrote an article focused on Why leaders need to serve and welcomed Angie Main, who highlighted servant leadership.

She wrote: “Too often I find leaders lack skill and confidence and haven’t practiced being good communicators – we can be harsh on folks and we expect these skills as a given.

“Serve other leaders by helping them get really good at this stuff and park the need to be the hero:

  • Listening – you’ll serve people better when you listen intently. Listen with the intention to have your mind change.
  • Learning – possessing the ability to take up, and act on new information and to facilitate this in others. Be honest about what you don’t know.
  • Collaboration – gather diverse views to solve complex issues, together. Understand when collaboration is needed and not.
  • Communication – manage a clear and steady stream of consistent information. Do not feed decision debt.

Too often when I ask senior leaders to talk to me about leadership , creating dialogue or leveraging employee engagement they wheel out friendly HR and comms folk to deal with the people stuff. My advice when planning that next programme and auditing comms capability is to look at leadership capability too.”

Further reading on the All Things IC blog

Come and join me live on LinkedIn every Wednesday

Thank you to everyone who has tuned in live to Spin The Wheel with Chuck Gose and I on LinkedIn or watched the replay.

We are uniting Comms practitioners around the world thanks to our friends at SocialChorus and I invite you to join us. Tune in for free at 8pm BST (3pm EST) every Wednesday. RSVP here.


You can watch last week’s show below and online.

Spin The Wheel with Chuck Gose and Rachel Miller


Thank you for stopping by.

Do feel free to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC if you have a view you’d like to share.


Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 26 May 2020.

Picture credit: Brian Chesky via Airbnb.


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