What’s Better Authoritarianism or Empathy in Helping Others?


When helping others, be it as a mentor, therapist, coach, or even a friend offering assistance, how we communicate plays a pivotal role in the outcome. There’s a delicate balance between two distinct approaches: the authoritative, no-nonsense style akin to a drill sergeant and the empathetic, understanding approach characterized by asking questions and active listening. Both methods have their merits and drawbacks, and understanding when to employ each can significantly impact the effectiveness of the assistance provided.

The Authoritative Approach

Imagine a scenario where directives are given briskly, without much room for negotiation or discussion. This approach is akin to a drill sergeant—a figure of authority who commands with certainty and decisiveness. There are certain benefits to this style:

Clarity and Directness: Orders delivered in a straightforward manner leave little room for ambiguity, ensuring that the recipient knows precisely what is expected of them.

Efficiency: By cutting through the noise and providing clear instructions, tasks can be accomplished swiftly, making this approach suitable for high-pressure situations or emergencies.

Establishment of Boundaries: Authoritative communication can set clear boundaries and establish a sense of order and discipline, which may be necessary in specific contexts.

However, there are significant drawbacks to this approach:

Lack of Empathy: The authoritative style often lacks empathy and may come across as cold or uncaring, potentially damaging the relationship between the helper and the one being helped.

Resentment and Resistance: Constantly barking orders may breed resentment and resistance, leading the recipient to push back against the guidance offered, ultimately hindering progress.

Limited Problem-Solving: This style may discourage the recipient’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They are merely expected to follow instructions rather than engage in meaningful dialogue.

The Empathetic Approach

In contrast, the empathetic approach involves understanding the individual’s emotions, concerns, and needs. This style emphasizes active listening, asking questions, and fostering a supportive environment. Its benefits include:

Building Trust and Rapport: By demonstrating understanding and compassion, the helper can build trust and rapport with the individual seeking assistance, creating a conducive environment for growth and development.

Encouraging Self-Reflection: Empathetic communication enables individuals to reflect on their thoughts and feelings, empowering them to find solutions autonomously rather than relying solely on external guidance.

Tailored Support: By actively listening and asking questions, helpers can tailor their assistance to the specific needs and circumstances of the individual, ensuring a more personalized and practical approach.

Nevertheless, the empathetic approach also has its drawbacks:

Time-Intensive: The empathetic approach often requires more time and patience, as it involves actively listening, engaging in dialogue, and fostering open communication, which may only sometimes be feasible in time-sensitive situations.

Potential for Enabling: In some cases, excessive empathy may lead to enabling behaviors, where the helper inadvertently reinforces negative patterns or dependencies rather than promoting independence and self-reliance.

Difficulty in Establishing Boundaries: Empathetic helpers may struggle to establish and maintain boundaries, potentially leading to burnout or emotional exhaustion as they become overly invested in the well-being of those they assist.

The communication style employed can make a significant difference when considering the recipient of assistance. While some individuals may respond positively to authoritative directives, others may feel demotivated or disempowered by such an approach. Understanding the unique historical frameworks, preferences, and needs of the individual is crucial in determining the most appropriate communication style.

The context of the relationship between the helper and the one being helped can also influence communication effectiveness. While a paid client may expect a more professional and results-oriented approach, someone receiving assistance free of charge may value empathy and understanding to a greater extent.

Which communication style would you like to be remembered for?

Many would lean towards empathy—being remembered as someone who genuinely cared, listened attentively, and provided support without judgment or condescension leaves a lasting positive impact on those who have been helped. While there may be moments where an authoritative approach is necessary, empathy fosters genuine connection and facilitates meaningful growth and development in those we seek to assist.

Which communication style are you more apt to respond to better?