More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt said, “nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” These words about the importance of empathy could not be more relevant today, as businesses communicate with their employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent weeks we’ve all been on the receiving end of a seemingly endless stream of pandemic related business communications. Like me, I imagine you’ve seen examples that resonated strongly with you, some that fell flat or rang hollow, and others that may have left you with a bitter taste in your mouth. Ultimately, the difference between the good and the bad comes down to President Roosevelt’s insight: the best among them put you and your concerns at their heart, while the very worst come off as disingenuous or opportunistic.
In this unprecedented moment, what organizations say and do will be remembered. Those who show authentic empathy have the opportunity to build enduring trust and stronger relationships with the people who matter most to their long-term success. Those who don’t will risk coming across as tone-deaf, alienating their audiences and eroding the goodwill they may have enjoyed before the crisis.
Demonstrating empathy requires that we first understand what it is and what it isn’t. According to a pioneer of modern psychology Alfred Adler, empathy is the act of “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” Unlike sympathy, which is limited to recognizing someone else’s hardship and offering our comfort and consolation, empathy means imagining ourselves in their shoes and trying to truly understand what they are feeling or thinking. While sympathy separates those who give it from those who receive it, empathy brings people together and has the constructive potential to uncover solutions, opportunities for compromise, and new ways forward.
Here are just a few ways to ensure your business communications are imbued with empathy:
‘Know your audience’ has always been a central tenet of effective communication. However, our audiences are on an emotional rollercoaster and their perspectives are shifting day-to-day as this situation unfolds. In this rapidly changing environment when regular two-way communication is more important than ever, businesses should look to ways to enhance their feedback loops, like employee and customer surveys, virtual town hall meetings or coffee chats, increased social media listening and engagement, and traditional media monitoring. All will help identify issues, trends, sentiment, and significant situational developments that you should address sensitively through your communications efforts.
Incorporate ‘mirror messages’ into your communications
To demonstrate empathy, we must not only understand our audiences’ current perspectives but go one step further to reflect them in every interaction. Taking a page out of the issues and crisis communications playbook, COVID-19 communications should begin with messages of concern for those affected. The extent to which these messages resonate with empathy ultimately depends on how accurately they mirror our audiences’ feelings and thoughts. We all want to feel heard.
Leverage technology to harness the power of nonverbal communication
Much has been written about the importance of nonverbal communication and body language, and the so-called “7-38-55 rule” grounded in research finding that 55 per cent of our total communication is delivered by body language, 38 per cent by vocal signals and only 7 per cent is delivered by words. While opportunities to connect in person are diminished by the need for physical distancing, during the pandemic video conferencing technologies are stepping in to fill the need. But like any new medium, these platforms come more naturally for some than others. As such, communicators need training and practice to build the required skills and comfort to present and communicate effectively through the lens of a webcam.
Timing of communications sends a message of its own
The timing and cadence of communications should be given the same consideration as the messages being conveyed. In fact, when and how frequently communications occur can underscore or undermine how the ideas and information shared are interpreted. For instance, in these uncertain times, regularly scheduled updates, regardless of whether there is significant news to convey or not, demonstrate accountability and offer some predictability and reassurance.
Ensure your actions and words are aligned
We all know the old adage: actions speak louder than words. It matters little how empathetically you communicate if your behaviour appears to say something different. For example, supposing your communications to employees empathize with them about the challenges of working from home and balancing work with childcare and other responsibilities, in the absence of new policies or accommodations to offer greater flexibility in their workday, that message may end up doing more harm than good.