Empathy In Action: Mastering Emotional Resilience And Connection For Construction Leaders With Erin Thorp | Ep. 234

COGE 234 | Emotional Resilience

In this episode, we explore the crucial role of empathy and emotional intelligence in the construction industry. Our guest, Erin Thorp, a renowned speaker, and coach, shares invaluable insights on how leaders can effectively understand and support the emotions of their team members. We also delve into the dynamics between men and women in the workplace, highlighting the mutual learning and valuable contributions each gender brings to the table.

Erin emphasizes the importance of women entering the construction industry, embracing their unique perspectives, and unleashing their full potential. Rather than conforming to traditional expectations, women are encouraged to show up authentically and contribute their distinct insights and skills. On the other hand, men should let go of the urge to change or fix women’s approaches. Instead, they are encouraged to foster curiosity and embrace the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with women. By leveraging the strengths and perspectives of both genders, construction companies can tap into the best available talent and build successful businesses.

Throughout the episode, Erin provides practical strategies for building empathy, active listening, and effective coaching techniques. By creating an understanding culture, and collaboration culture, construction leaders can enhance relationships, promote mutual learning, and drive project success.


Connect with Erin:

Website: www.erinthorp.ca

Book: “Inside Out Empathy


LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/erin-thorp-speaker/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/elthorp/?hl=en

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/erinthorpcoaching


This episode is hosted by Eric Anderton, author of “Construction Genius: A Guide to Effective Hands-On Leadership.” Eric’s book offers further insights and strategies for construction leaders to enhance their leadership skills and leverage diverse talents to build thriving businesses.



In this captivating podcast episode, we delve into the essential role of empathy and emotional intelligence in the construction industry. Our guest, Erin Thorp, shares invaluable insights on understanding and supporting the emotions of team members while highlighting the reciprocal learning and valuable contributions of both men and women. Erin encourages women in construction to embrace their unique perspectives and unleash their full potential, while men are advised to foster curiosity and collaborate with women. By leveraging the strengths and diverse talents of both genders, construction companies can harness the best available talent and build successful businesses. Throughout the conversation, practical strategies for empathy, active listening, and effective coaching are provided, empowering construction leaders to enhance relationships, promote mutual learning, and drive project success. Don’t miss out on this enlightening discussion with Erin Thorp, where you’ll gain valuable tools to enhance your leadership abilities in the construction industry.


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Empathy In Action: Mastering Emotional Resilience And Connection For Construction Leaders With Erin Thorp

Empathy is the topic of conversation here with my guest, Erin Thorp. She’s a keynote speaker, writer, and coach for leaders who struggle with conflict, communication, and performance during high-stress times. It sounds like leaders in construction. Nice thing about Erin. She has many years of working in construction on all sides and facets of the business, so she knows what she’s talking about.

This is a killer conversation and I think it’s part one of more conversations with Erin because we get into stuff that’s subtle and very difficult to tease out in one conversation. What I’d like you to do is tune in for the first couple of minutes as Erin defines what she means by empathy, then she’ll give some background as far as her own career is concerned. That’ll help you to get some context as far as her construction bonafide.

We’re going to get into things like how to be a good active listener and the challenges that men and women have working together in construction as it regards processing emotions. Men throw chairs and women cry, generally speaking. I think this conversation is good. What it’s going to do for you is it’s going to spark thinking for your daily interactions with people in your organization, whether men or women. That spark is going to be very important for you to lay hold of and consider how you can build better relationships with the people that you lead.

Being a leader is a tremendously challenging responsibility because of the difficulties we have managing different personalities and different people and having to learn how to do that effectively. That’s what this conversation is all about. Enjoy it. We’re going to come back to Erin probably by the end of 2023. We’ll have another episode later on in 2023 or maybe early 2024. Make sure that you catch that one as well. All I can say is tune into the conversation. You’ll enjoy it. It’ll be beneficial to you and useful. Thank you for tuning in.

Erin, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me, Eric. It’s great to meet you.

You have many years of experience in construction and in that time, you’ve done a lot of thinking around the idea of empathy. I’d like to kick it off by asking you, what do you mean by empathy?

I like how you phrased that, “You’ve had a lot of time to think about it.” For me, empathy is simply the ability to understand and accept other people’s perspectives, opinions, and feelings or emotions, whichever word strikes you but it’s that understanding and acceptance piece. It is what comes up when I talk about empathy in the work that I do.

What do you mean by acceptance?

It’s simply being able to acknowledge that what somebody has shared with us is true for them. There’s a difference for me between acceptance and agreement. Acceptance to me means that I can take this thing that you’ve just shared, your perspective, your opinion and I can hold space for it. I can allow it to be true for you without trying to change it. It also doesn’t mean that I necessarily have to agree or endorse what your position is. It can simply be true for you.

If I disagree with it in the context of work or I disagree with your truth as you said and let’s say, you are a customer, a subcontractor, or an employee of mine and there’s a circumstance where I need to try and change it or it’s appropriate to change that perspective, how do I handle that then?

I think that’s what we often see and why we have these very tense and tough conversations throughout any construction project, whether it’s in the beginnings or the ends because there’s often a difference of opinion. There’s often a difference in priorities and how we see these things coming together. The role empathy plays in that is just for a minute. When we come to the conversation, there’s my way and there’s your way. Right off the bat, we’ve identified and we see this problem very differently.

Where I think empathy can play a role is in each one of us. Usually, it takes one person to make the shift but even if you can allow yourself for a couple of minutes to explore what’s going on for the other side, why might they have the opinion they have? Why might they be feeling like they’ve been feeling? A very classic example is I spent many years as a general contractor. Subtrades have some very specific thoughts about general contractors and some of them are not always so pleasant because of the way they’ve been treated in the past. When I would come up against a sub-trade in a contract negotiation, that was very rooted in their perspective, their opinion, and how they thought this needed to go. What I found to be most effective is to explore that with them.

Why is that true for you? How is it that you’ve come to that decision or that perspective? Why are you feeling the way that you’re feeling? It’s very interesting when you stop for a few seconds and get curious about what’s going on for the other person. You can almost see the shoulders drop and they’re like, “You care about what’s going on for me.” It helped on the construction side but it’s helping now in life. Raising children is when you can take a minute, put your perspective aside, and get into the perspective of somebody else’s. You can learn a lot and you now have the information that you need to help them navigate to the destination that you want to take them to.

When you take a minute, put your perspective aside, and get into somebody else's, you can learn a lot and have the information you need to help them navigate to the destination you want to take them to. Click To Tweet

Give us a little bit more about your background.

I have a degree in Civil Engineering and went right into construction as part of my internship program. During my degree program, I spent eighteen months on a construction site and was fortunate enough to do the design, the development, the build, and the turnover and it got me hooked. I loved the process. I loved seeing this thing that I had a hand in building. I loved the experience of working with all of the tradespeople. I loved the experience of moving people into their new space and going back year after year. When I graduated, I went right back into construction where I spent five years until our first child was born.

The construction lifestyle is not well suited still to this day for young parents. It’s very difficult because of how we have structured the industry, which is changing but many years ago, it was not conducive to having young children at home. I went to the supplier side. I still stayed in construction but I worked for a construction materials and supply company as a field engineer then as a project manager then as a director of engineering for them.

It was a global firm, so I was doing lots of travel. As my career progressed with them, so did the travel and the responsibilities. At that point, I had three kids. They were school-aged kids and life was getting pretty busy at home, so the travel wasn’t working for me anymore. I took a position at an owner’s company, then I went to the owner’s side of construction. I worked on the owner’s side for a large oil and gas project here in Alberta.

I spent five years delivering that project. It’s different seats in the project makeup. I was on the owner’s side, hiring trades, and seeing that side of things. I went back to commercial construction on the general contractor side around 2017. I stayed there until the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, it was my opportunity to start doing what I’m doing now.

I work with engineering and construction teams building empathy skills, teaching them how to have these tough conversations, and trying to equip them with the skills that I think are necessary to navigate leadership in construction as the landscape changes because we have a labor shortage. We have people that are demanding new things and different things. We’re trying to increase women and the minority population in construction. We need to access these demographics to be able to have a labor pool but our current leadership approach does not allow them to succeed.

Tell me about that. What do you mean by our current leadership approach does not allow them? I’m assuming by them, you mean minorities and women. Is that correct?


Why doesn’t our current leadership approach allow them to succeed?

I think for starters, we have so many more options now that the employee has a choice. When you think about traditional leadership models in the construction world specifically, it was very authoritarian, almost command and control like, “This is what needs to be done. Let’s go do it.” There was no room for this human element of, “I have an emotion. I have feelings. I have competing priorities.” I’ll use my own experience. When I first joined the construction world, 90% of my leaders were men who had wives that stayed at home and raised the kids. Already, they approached me like they approached their own experience. I was held to the same expectations that they held had themselves. However, I had a very different experience at home.

COGE 234 | Emotional Resilience
Emotional Resilience: Traditional leadership models in the construction world are very authoritarian. It’s almost command and control. It has no room for human elements.


You said they held you to. What do you mean by that?

For instance, they could come in at 5:30 in the morning if there was a concrete pour and stay until 10:00 PM because somebody had life at home under control. I did not have that luxury. We are a two-income family. My husband worked as well and has a career. Our kids were at daycare. They needed to be picked up and dropped off. There were certain times that that needed to happen. It didn’t mean I was any less committed to the work. It meant I have other things going on in my life outside of twelve hours on a construction site.

Let me ask you this. I live in California and in the summers, it gets into the 100s here. We have to have early morning pours. It’s the reality of the business. Some of the pushback that I think on the one hand is the idea of changing the command and control aspects of construction, which there’s a logic behind it but they may have negative impacts. I understand where you’re coming from there but we have a schedule, a client and we got to get stuff done and because of the weather, we’re going to have this pour at 4:30 or 5:30 or even earlier in the morning. Simply because if we don’t, then we’re not going to be able to get it done. What do you say in that situation as you’re describing your circumstance, I get that, but then there are the realities of the business.

I live in Canada, so we have minus 45 days. We have the same thing. It’s like, “It’s getting up to minus 20. We have to do this thing today.” I get that there are these circumstances of the business that dictate when things get done. What I’m suggesting is the command and control style of leadership that does not allow for a conversation about what might I need and what are some possibilities for me to participate in this industry but also allow me to raise a family. It could be children or aging parents. There could be a whole bunch of things that everyone’s situation is different.

The command-and-control style of leadership does not allow for a conversation about what someone might need. Click To Tweet

It’s when we make the assumption that everybody is having our experience. Again, if I go back to my leaders’ experience, their assumption and how they approached leading me was, “You should be able to do what I do. Get someone to look after your children.” I have someone except that someone is me sometimes. This is where the conversation and the skill of empathy become so important. If someone would’ve said, “We have to have a concrete pour at 5:00 AM. Can you make that happen? What do we have to do to support you to make that happen?”

Let me ask you about that because you are giving a practical example. I do think it’s very important to think about it. What should I do in that situation if I’m the owner of a construction company and I have a project manager like yourself who has responsibilities outside of work and I have this concrete pour? How should I handle that?

To me, it’s about the conversation like, “What do you need to make to make this happen?” That would’ve looked like, “I can be there at 5:00 AM but I’m going to need to be gone by 3:00 because that means that somebody is going to have to pick up the kids.” I can ask my husband to shift or get somebody to look after that or even if it’s a one-off. “Today is the day you need me for twelve hours,” but it’s not an expectation that goes on for weeks and months and years that Erin is available from 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM. That’s where we get ourselves into trouble as leaders. We don’t have a conversation about how can we support you to meet the project goals but also meet the priorities in your life. What needs to happen there?

Having been in the seat for the last few years of my career, I was in that leadership seat having these conversations. What I learned is what the employees ask of the company is very minimal. It’s literally about being flexible with some work arrangements and maybe getting a little bit creative about how we stagger shifts or where people end and pick up and how we piece out scopes of work to different people on the project. It requires a bit of creativity but it doesn’t require a ton of resources, money, and all of these things. It’s your time that you invest in the conversation and the ability to get creative and think outside the box. It might be something different that we’ve never done before but it doesn’t mean it can’t work.

That’s interesting you say it’s very minimal because what I’m hearing there is that, let’s say I have a certain perspective that we’re doing the concrete pour and we’re going to be here from 5:30 or 4:30 all the way until whenever we’re done. That’s just my frame of reference. When someone comes in with a request that is outside of that frame of reference, I have a difficult time processing it. I’m talking about it from a company owner’s perspective here. For instance, I have five kids. My wife runs the house, so she doesn’t have an outside job. When we had our kids, I took zero time off. Maybe 2 or 3 days but now I’m running a construction company and I’m mandated by the government to give someone three months off to have a kid. To me, that doesn’t sound very minimal.

We have all of these competing pressures on construction companies and I understand where you’re coming from with the labor shortage. I get where you’re coming from there and yet a lot of construction company owners are frustrated because they have all of these burdens upon them. At the same time, I’ve signed a contract and construction is tremendously risky. Not only have I signed the contract but I’ve put my house on the line. I’ve personally guaranteed this and then I have my employees coming to me asking for all of these things that, at times, I agree with you, Erin, are minimal but they’re not in some situations. How am I supposed to handle all of that?

This is where the skill of empathy can benefit us. I always say, those of us in the construction world, we’re paid professional problem solvers. That’s what we’re paid to do, manage risk and solve problems. We get good at seeing the opportunities, assessing a bunch of information quickly, and making very quick decisions, which serves us well when we are talking about tasks and situations in terms of the construction project itself.

It gets in the way when it comes to the human being and the relationship issues that are happening. Quite often, we want to approach those human interactions the same way we approach the task interactions. We want to be quick about it. We think we have the answer, we’ve been here, we’ve done this before, we were raised in a certain way, so you should have to deal with it.

I always say, when we know better, we do better. I think we know that human beings want to feel connected. We know that they want to feel like they belong somewhere. When we approach them with this mentality of, “Do what I’ve done and I’ve got the answer,” it disconnects them. They no longer care because you’ve demonstrated as a construction owner or a leader that you don’t care. That’s how it comes across. It might not be your intention but that way of approaching the problem is the impact. The impact you have is you’ve driven disconnection.

To finish this thought, when we take that time to, “What’s going on for you? What are you trying to achieve by taking three months off? How are we going to do this?” When you take time to get into other people’s interiors, it takes time. I’m not going to dispute that. It isn’t quick but you have to slow down to understand that and gather the information you need to build a plan to go forward. That’s the skillset that new leaders have in this new changing landscape. When they can embrace, build that skillset of slowing down, and understanding where people are coming from, they unlock the opportunities that are there and that’s when we’ll start to attract people back into our industry.

I’d like to push back against that a little bit. There’s a freeway already built but they’re redoing it and it’s right by my house. They’re spending months or years doing it and they’re working nights. When I drive by that, for instance, I see a bunch of dudes out there doing their thing. It seems to me that there’s a certain reality to construction around things like schedules and the actual physical work itself because there is physical work involved.

I understand where you’re coming from in terms of the changes in culture that have occurred over the years and how construction doesn’t naturally fit into that. There’s a tremendous amount of change that needs to take place and yet, the way some construction companies would look at it is, “I’m going to keep working on finding the people who fit in with my culture as opposed to trying to adapt my culture to everybody else. Isn’t this my business and I get to do it the way that I want to do it within legal realms and all that stuff? With all the responsibilities I have as an entrepreneur, do I not have some privileges to run the business the way I want to run it?”

I think what I’m seeing in the clients that I work with, it’s the business owner’s right where I think it’s a bit shortsighted. It’s when we then start having the conversation around why can’t I find people and why aren’t people joining me or if they join me, why don’t they stay? That’s the piece where it’s like, “If it’s working for you, you’ve got a robust workforce, you can deliver your projects, and things are going great, don’t change it.”

Clearly, you’re doing something right and you’re attracting people that see and fit with your vision. Where I find it interesting is, all of these conversations that I’m hearing in our industry now are like, “We can’t find people. We can’t get them to stay. They come and stay for six months then they’re gone.” If people aren’t staying, that’s when we need to look at what we’re doing and going, “What are we doing that isn’t meeting the needs of the people?”

I’m going to be perfectly blunt here. It’s like if I’m running a construction company and I’m hiring a dude who’s going to take three months off when he has a kid. My first thought is, “I don’t want to hire that guy. I don’t want a project manager taking three months off because my project is not taking three months off. The talent pool isn’t massive anyway so I’d rather wait and hire someone who is not going to take three months off. Maybe a week, two, even a month, but three months?” If that’s in the middle of the summer when we’re supposed to be building, that has a massive impact on my company.

I took three years off to have three kids because, in Canada, we get a year-long maternity leave.

For the record here, I am making a distinction between maternity leave and paternity leave.

I dealt with this as well as a leader in the last part of my career. In Canada, the first thirteen weeks are for the mother but the other 37 weeks are for either parent. You could have a guy that takes 37 weeks off of work, which is the better part of a year. You’re right, you’ve got to deal with these things. What I know is when we’ve invested in these people, developed them, and built their skills in the grand scheme of their career like these three years, I took off. Over the years I was in construction, they were this big in my career.

In your career, yes. As a construction company owner and I’m not necessarily thinking about that because I don’t have a contract with you where I know you’re going to be with me for 25 years, develop your career, and be an awesome performer. Therefore, I don’t care if it’s 3 years out of 25 years. I’ll work around that. That’s not the reality I’m in.

That’s the problem. We’re not thinking long enough term. We’re thinking very short term. We’re not thinking about how do we develop, retain, and keep this talent because again, 3 months, 2 weeks, 37 weeks, or whatever the timeframe is, people have lives. People get sick, have kids, have aging parents, have mental health issues, and all kinds of stuff going on inside their lives that they might need a little bit of support through.

What I know from my own personal experience and leading folks through this, as an employer, we demonstrate we care. We offer the support we can and sometimes, it might be, “There’s not much I can do here,” and you need to take a leave of absence and we need to fill your position. That is a tough conversation but we’ve taken the time to understand it first before we’ve made the decision. When we demonstrate that level of care through empathy skills, we build connections.

COGE 234 | Emotional Resilience
Emotional Resilience: When we demonstrate that level of care through empathy skills, we build connections.


I personally have returned to companies that have demonstrated those things to me. I’ve gone back when things were better and life was conducive to being back in that industry or that company. I’ve had people return to work for me after taking time or parting ways for whatever they needed to part ways for. That’s why the conversation is important. We’re losing people that are incredibly skilled that we have worked hard to develop and we want to keep them in the industry in whatever way that looks like.

Again, you made a general statement there. We want to keep them in the industry but don’t I want to keep them in my company? I’m all for people being in the construction industry but if I’m a construction company owner, I want the best people working for me. I don’t care who they are or where they come from. I want them to work for me.

That’s where I would challenge the owners that have the mindset of like, “I can’t give someone three months off,” because again, you’re looking at three months off versus the entire contribution that the skilled worker could bring to your company over the duration of them being there.

I understand that. In your career, as you were in the construction industry working in it, you were called too emotional. Tell me a little bit about that.

As a female, I contend when feeling overwhelmed, angry, upset, and frustrated. My go-to way that I express that is I cry. You can imagine how tears might have been received on a construction site. It’s not farfetched to believe that I was called emotional. What I’ve found interesting and what I’ve come to understand is, in a very general sense, the masculine expression of emotion and the female or the feminine expression of emotion is very different but we all express emotion.

I’ve had superintendents and construction leaders that have thrown chairs across the room and put hammers through the wall because, on a construction site, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to express emotion. For the first few years, I was like, “I’m emotional? Look at you guys. This is a real double standard.” In those early years, I did spend a lot of time trying to figure out how can I express emotion in a way that is acceptable on a construction site. The reality of it is it was exhausting trying to change this aspect of myself, which in reality, never had to be changed. We had to build an understanding of like, “I might shed a tear and you might throw a hammer but it means we’re both frustrated,” and it’s okay.

I think it’s interesting because I was reading The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. It was a pretty cool book in many ways. One of the lines that stuck with me was one of the characters and he was behaving like a total knucklehead but his wife started crying. There was a line in there about how no man can resist the tears of a woman. They’re paralyzed when a woman starts crying. It goes both ways because a woman is feeling very uncomfortable when a man starts throwing a hammer through a wall or begins to behave in an aggressive male manner, which other men may be comfortable with or at least understand.

That’s what I learned to realize. All of our collective discomfort with displays of emotion. Part of it is, as leaders, building our capacity to hold other people’s emotions. Somebody might cry in your office or get up and throw a chair. How do you build the capacity to sit in discomfort and allow them to express their emotion like, “You’re feeling frustrated. What’s that all about?” and stay in the conversation?

Let’s talk about that specifically. How do I build the capacity to sit in that emotional display and rightly interpret it as a leader?

The first step and action that leaders need to take is feeling their own feelings. A lot of us, especially as leaders, there is a more traditional accepted view that, as leaders, we cannot show weakness, so we cannot feel anything. We’re supposed to be always present, showing up, and have our stuff together. It’s not the reality because we’re human beings and we have emotions for a reason.

Emotions are simply information. They tell us when we’re doing things that are aligned with the way we want to live. They tell us that we’re doing things that are not aligned with the way we want to live. There’s simply information and the very first step that another human being needs to understand is that they have to be comfortable with their own emotions. You have to be willing to say, “That meeting pissed me off. I’m feeling frustrated. I’m super let down by that trade. I feel very taken advantage of because of this negotiation.” You have to give it words and be able to sit with it.

Emotions are just simple information. They tell us when we're doing things aligned with how they want to live. They tell us we're doing things unaligned with how we want to live. Click To Tweet

Are you talking about internally give it words or externally to others or are you talking about both?

I think it’s both. It starts internally where you simply acknowledge it. For most of us, this is what we do. We feel something and we go, “I’m getting angry. I’m getting upset.” We shove it down and we go, “Don’t feel it. Push through.” What happens is it’s like pushing that. It’s like putting it in a little pressure cooker and you keep shoving emotions in this pressure cooker when all of a sudden, you’re sitting in a meeting and one guy looks at you sideways or asks maybe not so intelligent question and you’ll lose your marbles in the middle of the meeting. You come unglued and nobody can figure out why. It’s because you haven’t done your own inner work.

I can’t sit with somebody else and even think about holding onto their emotion if my emotional bucket is under pressure and full. It starts with the inner work, then with little bits at a time, Eric, sitting with people and allowing them to feel their emotions. There is no magic to this. It’s like, “I can see that you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?” It starts with those little conversations over time and eventually, we get better. It’s like one push-up a day. You can do 10 and then 25. We then build the capacity to hold bigger conversations and more emotional conversations.

I understand where you’re coming from and I think that the logic works very well in a situation where you know you have long-term relationships with someone. The word that came into my mind is in domestic situations. I’m having a conversation with one of my kids and they’re going to be around for a while. I’m going to be around for a while. I’m willing for the incremental progress but I’m a project executive having a conversation with my project manager.

Though I may be willing for a long-term relationship, I still have a concrete pour at 5:30 in the morning. If you are not on the job site managing that concrete pour, then something has to happen. There’s the immediacy of the work at hand which still needs to be dealt with as I’m building this empathy muscle that you’re talking about. How do I manage that dynamic?

I love what you said about the domestic piece because we can do a lot of practice there in our personal relationships. That’s where we can build some of this. I always call our personal relationships like going to the gym, then the race or the performance is when we’re at work. I can do a lot of work in terms of my own emotional management, understanding, and reading other people in my personal life so that when I get in front of that project manager, to use the example that you’ve laid out, I can look at that and go, “What am I feeling about this? I’m feeling like there’s some urgency. I’m anxious. I’m a little bit frustrated that maybe this isn’t happening in the way it is. What’s going on with you?”

I don’t react from this place of being frustrated. I can respond and get curious about it. Here’s the thing. In the human brain, when someone is having an emotional reaction, they can’t access their logic and reason. There is an order of operations in our brains. If we are feeling a big emotion, it doesn’t matter what it is, joy or ecstasy, you can be the happy or the not-so-happy ones, but when we are feeling big things, we do not have access to logic and reasoning. It’s like bringing a calculator to a knife fight.

We do not have access to logic and reasoning when we feel big things. It's like bringing a calculator to a knife fight. Click To Tweet

People say this all the time, “Calm down. Think about this logically.” The brain physically can’t do that so you have to have the emotional conversation first and then get into the problem-solving mode.” That’s why we need to build this skill. It’s because we have to be able to deal with the emotion. Otherwise, people get frustrated and throw and break things, then they leave. That’s why so many of these conversations in construction blow up into these bigger things than they need to be because we haven’t taken time to deal with the emotional part of the human being sitting across the table from us.

Let me back it up a little bit. We’ve been in the realm of crisis in our conversation here. How can a leader become a fire preventer as opposed to a firefighter when it comes to managing leading their teams and helping people to manage their emotions so that we can access more of the logic and reason which is needed in order to build a project profitably?

To me, this is about that proactive check-in where you’re having a meaningful conversation with your team members. It’s not like, “Is everything okay?” Most of us will say, “Yes, we got it under control,” and there might be a different thing going on. It’s some good questions like, “Where are you feeling overwhelmed? Where are you feeling stuck? How can I support you in meeting your project goals? What’s top of mind this week for you? What are your priorities?”

How often am I having this conversation?

It’s going to depend. I think new people on the team where you’re building relationships need to have it more often because this is part of that foundational, relationship-building block. You’re probably having that conversation once every week or two weeks but with somebody that you’ve got an established relationship might be a monthly check-in. If they’ve been with you for a while and there is this level of comfort that if something does pop up or go sideways or they start to feel a little bit overwhelmed, they’re going to come to you anyway. You’ve got to gauge it with the team but it’s not every day. It’s not a super time-consuming thing.

Give me your top three questions that you’ve found to be most effective as a leader to tap into some of this. Being emotionally intelligent yourself but then also helping the people that you lead to understand and process their own emotions so that those things are not having a negative impact on their performance.

I always like to get people thinking about what’s going well because our human brain likes to focus on the negative quite a lot. I like to start with, “What’s going well now for you?” Maybe that’s this week or this month but what’s going well? Another good one is like, “Where are you feeling challenged?” That can bring up a whole bunch of different things. Unless it’s a teenager. Teenagers are the only demographic that I found that can answer an open-ended question with one word still, which is very interesting.

COGE 234 | Emotional Resilience
Emotional Resilience: Get people thinking about what’s going well because our human brain likes to focus on the negative quite a lot.


What’s going well? Where are you feeling challenged? I always like to say, “What do you need from me to support you in achieving your goals?” Sometimes it’s like, “Not much, this conversation has been great,” or it’s like, “I could use X, Y and Z.” It’s up to me as a leader to figure out, “Can I do that? Is that an option for me?” At least, you’re asking them to start to think about some of these things.

How do you practice active listening in these types of conversations?

For me, the skill that I always go back to is when somebody is done sharing, I will repeat back to them what I’ve heard in my own words. It’s enough of a pause. What that does is it forces me to not respond right away but to make sure that I’ve understood what they’re saying. I’ll say something like, “If I heard you right, this was your concern, your challenge, what you think is going well, and here’s what you’ve asked me for in terms of support.” They might be like, “Yes.” That simple act helps people feel heard and understood.

How do I manage my inner dialogue that’s occurring as the other person is talking? What I mean by active listening is I understand that what you said there is a great one but that seems to be like after the person has finished talking. I’m talking about, I asked the question like, where are you feeling challenged? The person begins to speak and then my mind goes over here. How do I stay in that space of active listening so that I can fully hear what that person is saying to me?

Probably what happens before the piece I shared around repeating back is I take notes. I literally write it down as they’re speaking. I’m like, “They said this and they said that,” because it engages that part of my brain. If anything comes up in terms of a question I have or an area that I want to explore, I’ll make a little note in my notebook that we can come back to after I’ve confirmed understanding.

The act of taking notes helps you to stay focused. Let’s say it’s an in-person conversation. Are you going to tell the person, “I’m going to be taking notes and the reason why is it helps me to fully hear what you’re saying?”

I say it all the time. Even in meetings like this online, people will be like, “Why are you looking down, Erin?” I’m like, “It’s because I got my notebook. I’m taking some notes here because it helps me to stay in the conversation.”

I found that to be very powerful myself when I’m in coaching conversations all the time. That’s what we’re talking about here. It’s interesting that as a construction leader, there are times when you’re functioning in an executive manner where you’re giving direction and you’re receiving reports of what people have said but there are also times when you’re functioning as a coach. What do you think are the keys to being an effective coach as a leader?

There are a few things to be an effective coach. One, you have to spend some time observing what’s happening. You have to watch the team. You have to pay attention to how people are behaving. What are you seeing in terms of the actual behaviors? What are people saying? What are they doing? You need to get curious, so you ask way more questions than you dole out advice.

COGE 234 | Emotional Resilience
Emotional Resilience: To be an effective coach, you have to spend some time observing what’s happening. You have to watch the team. You have to pay attention to how people are behaving.


How do I do the asking of the questions without being manipulative or coming across to others like I’m being manipulative?

We’re getting pretty nuanced here. I feel like when people are new to the goal or the task or new to the thing that you’re asking them to do and you start asking a lot of questions, that’s when it can feel manipulative. They’re like, “I’m new. I don’t know anything. Why are you asking me all these questions?” That’s where they probably need a little more direction than questions.

I feel like where the questions are warranted is when people are simply lacking confidence or motivation but we know they know how to do things. That’s when we can get into, “What would you do? How have you solved this problem in the past,” and get them to see that they have the answers and they don’t need to keep coming to you. Not in all instances but for the most part. They’re skilled, competent, and know what to do but maybe they’re lacking some competence or some confidence. That’s where the questions can help and feel supportive versus feeling manipulative.

We began our conversation with this idea of empathy and you gave us that definition of empathy is the ability to understand and accept emotions. As we’re wrapping up the conversation, I want to take a hook back into that. When is empathy inappropriate?

It’s certainly not an exhaustive list but in my experience, the only time it warrants not understanding what’s going on for people emotionally is in those life-and-death emergency situations. I go back to if I’ve got a gas line that’s been hit on a construction site, my priority is keeping people safe. Not how are you feeling? I’m going to go to command and control. I’m going to evacuate that site in the best way I know possible. In our modern-day world, for the majority of us at work, that is about the only situation where there is life and death on the line and we don’t need to lean into the skill of understanding what’s going on for someone else.

We don't need to lean into the skill of understanding what's going on for someone else when there's a life-and-death situation. Click To Tweet

That’s interesting that you say that, the only situation empathy is not appropriate is in a life-and-death situation. What if I have an employee who for the last six months has been not performing and not showing up? Maybe I’ve gone through the, how you doing, what’s up at home and all this stuff. There comes a time when I’m going to take some command and control and say, “You are no longer working here.” That’s not an emergency situation but what I am asking is firing someone an act of empathy, disciplining them, giving them a performance improvement, or write up.

I think it can be and it’s about what comes before that. You hit the nail on the head when you said, assuming I’ve done all of the conversations. Assuming that I’ve explored what’s going on for them, I’ve restated the expectation, and I’ve taken time to understand. I’ve worked with them to find solutions to get them back on track. If you’ve done all of that work, performance management, performance plans, and even terminating somebody can be an act of empathy. It could be the thing that they need to get started in the next area of their life.

Clearly, they’re not on the right seat in their bus of life. As humans, we like to stay safe. Even if we’re not performing and it’s slightly uncomfortable, it’s the devil we know and it feels safer to us than leaving and starting something new. Sometimes, as leaders, we have to be the people that give the person the kick out of the nest. It can be an act of empathy if you do it with all of that stuff before.

I’m going to ask one last question. It’s a two-part question and I’d like you to give some short advice to women entering the construction industry about how they should conduct themselves then I’d like you to give some short advice to men in the construction industry as they’re working with women. You can structure that any way that you like but something punchy and memorable that a woman and a man in the business can understand as it relates to men and women working together in construction.

For the women in construction, my advice would be that the first piece is that you’re not broken. There’s nothing wrong with you if you think, act, or express emotion differently. There’s nothing wrong with you and there’s nothing that needs to be fixed. Stop wasting your energy trying to change who you are and show up. Be there for part of the conversation. The advice for the men is very similar. Stop trying to fix people that don’t look, act, and think like you. For both sides, we have to get curious. Why do you think that way? We have different ways of approaching problems because we have different perspectives. That’s the piece we have to start to leverage.

This is one of those conversations where we could go a lot longer. I think what I’m going to do, Erin, is I’m probably going to invite you to come back on the show at some point.

Sure. That would be great.

What I’d like to explore a little further is this idea of you are not broken and stop trying to fix people. The reason why I want to explore that is because my immediate thought to that is, “I know that there are always areas that I can improve in and there are times when it’s inappropriate for me to behave in certain ways and I need to change that.” As a leader, I’m not necessarily trying to fix other people because that’s not necessarily my job but I am trying to give them opportunities to develop and point out areas where they are performing and not performing. There’s a lot of subtlety and nuance in this conversation here.

There is and it would be a wonderful conversation to dive into.

Erin, tell us a little bit more about yourself, how people can get ahold of you, and all that good stuff.

COGE 234 | Emotional Resilience
Inside Out Empathy: Explore the Underestimated Superpower Essential for Building, Developing, and Inspiring a Rock-Solid Team

They can find me and connect with me on LinkedIn or Instagram. I am there as well. My website is www.ErinThorp.ca.

You have a book called Inside Out Empathy.

I do have a book called Inside Out Empathy. They can find that on Amazon or any book retailer.

Please give Erin a look on LinkedIn or her website or check out her book. Erin, it’s a very interesting conversation here. I think it’d be very valuable to continue it and I appreciate you taking the time to be on the show.

Thank you for the opportunity, Eric. It’s been great to talk to you.

Thank you for tuning into my conversation with Erin. As I was saying in the introduction, we will be coming back to Erin. What we’re going to be talking about in that conversation, by the way, is what she shared right at the end about you are not broken and stop trying to fix people. That dynamic because it’s a subtle dynamic and we’re going to be diving more into that.

In the meantime, feel free to reach out to Erin on her website, on LinkedIn and check out her book Inside Out Empathy. Share this conversation with other people. I think it’s a very important conversation because we are talking about how to interact with a variety of different people, different cultures, different backgrounds, men and women in construction, and all this great stuff. We need to continue this conversation, think about it, and reflect upon how we can improve as leaders. It’s all good stuff. Thanks for tuning in.


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About Erin Thorp

COGE 234 | Emotional ResilienceErin Thorp, an empathic keynote speaker, writer, and coach, sharpens leaders’ skills in conflict resolution, communication, and high-stress performance. After 20 years leading in male-dominated engineering and construction sectors, she identified a critical gap in leadership training – mastering emotions, connecting empathetically, and embracing vulnerability.
During the pandemic, she noticed these gaps causing leaders to treat their employees poorly, leading her to pivot full-time into leadership coaching. Erin, author of the 2017 book Inside Out Empathy, promotes harnessing empathy for team-building. A sought-after speaker and facilitator, she has enlightened audiences at the Vancouver Leadership Forum and Women Building Futures Conference, alongside corporations like WNORTH and Schneider Electric.
A Civil Engineering graduate from the University of Calgary, Erin is an Associate Certified Coach and Certified Mental Fitness Coach. Based in Calgary with her husband and three children, Erin unwinds by reading, exploring outdoors, and family cooking.