September 26, 2021

Empathy: Its role in critical communications

Image of the author

For many different reasons, the last few years have brought a lot of us to our knees. Professional and personally. I’m sure many you found yourselves in similar positions as I did. I’ve been concerned about my family, my co-workers, my community, and naturally . . . my own wellbeing. At the same time, I found myself in the position of having to communicate in an ‘official’ capacity to our company regarding various situations – pandemic protocols, community issues and political events (just to name a few).

What hadn’t necessarily occurred to me right away was the significant impact I was having on people whose daily life looked vastly different than mine.

The impact of my tunnel vision

It’s easy to fall into the trap of having ‘tunnel vision’ when it comes to the many different demographics that make up the audiences for whom we craft our messaging.

In this example: I’m a middle aged, white, male, husband and parent of a 15-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl in Minnesota. And that was the context that my initial communications were tailored for until it occurred to me that MOST of my audience were dealing with vastly different experiences in their day-to-day.

Using empathy

I can see at least 6 ‘categories’ where my experience and interpretation of message could impose wild variations from the experience of employees I was trying to reach:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Marital/Partner status
  • Familial status
  • Geography

The list represents a small sample of the aspects that could lead to potential miscommunication and misunderstanding. The actual list is limitless, therefore the importance of practicing empathy in communications cannot be overstated.

Merriam-Webster defines empathy this way:

Empathy – “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

Taking the right action

The most important element of empathy that I’d like to point out is that it is, by definition, an ACTION. Empathy is not a passive practice. Practicing empathy is a purposeful and deliberate act that requires effort.

When we are called upon to communicate important information on behalf of our organizations, we are telling people their lives are changing – big and small changes. That’s why it’s important to have a clear and meaningful message that can relate to everyone.

The IABC-MN Connection

Ok, why is all this coming from the new ‘Technology’ focused IABC-MN Board member? Well, I’ve seen how technology intended to assist communicators can accidentally serve as a “negativity-amplifier” without deliberately practicing empathy.

I was welcomed to the board this year in hopes of being able to apply my technology experience to support our chapter’s renewed sense of experience. We’ll be exploring and investing in solutions that’ll result in more member connections, mentoring opportunities and board interactions.

We’ll work to find new ways to use technology to welcome ‘pre-members’ into the IABC experience. Ensure more frequent and impactful touchpoints with current members.

At the heart of all that technology-related activity is still the message. We can be the most efficient organization that has ever existed but if we forget empathy along the way, it’s all for not.

I think I can speak for the entire board when I say that empathy will be a primary consideration as we build and evolve these solutions over the next year.