Empathy couldn't be more crucial at a time when people are feeling misunderstood, maligned and lonely.

This, on first glance, may not have much to do with the underpaid and overworked Public Information Officer and undoubtedly touches on many a raw, unacknowledged nerve.

However, isn't it time to look at what empathy actually means and see if it could provide the modern communicator with invaluable insight?

Empathy is often a misunderstood word but the dictionary definition is;

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

Source: Merriam Webster

Ever heard the saying 'walk a mile in someone else's shoes?' that's pretty much what this means. It's not treating people how you would expect to be treated, but how they would expected to be treated. Or in this case, 'spoken' to.

So much communication from the emergency services or Government viewpoint is very inward focusing. It's all about outcomes rather than a change in behaviour or a shift in attitude. The language used is written from the perspective of someone who has been trained to write in a certain way, usually according to some educational qualification. It doesn't necessarily take into account things like slang, cultural differences, language or reading ages.

Empathy allows us to understand the motivations of citizens and give them what they need. After all, when you understand someone's motivations not only can you communicate more effectively with them but you can also illicit behavior change.

NYPD Officer hugs protester

As an example, it may be hard for a police department to connect with a demographic if none of that demographic serve with them and it it may be hard for anyone working in Government to connect with a particular group of citizens if they come from a well educated and monied background.

Think about your messaging - is it for you and your peers or is it for those that you serve? It's important to understand the language and the behaviors of the people you are trying to communicate with rather than expecting them to adhere to your communication style.

We all see things through our own prism, yet it's still possible to learn empathy by asking questions, being curious and keen to have experiences we wouldn't otherwise have if we didn't make the effort to go to our audiences rather than expecting them to come to us.

Conversely, by communicating the story of those who you are representing you can also work towards fostering understanding the role of those who are in a position of trust or care. This works particularly well with frontline workers such as ER nurses or police officers. Instead of communicating the facts (officer X arrested X people and nurse X worked X hours) - tell a story about how they felt when working their shift.

Being open, honest and authentic is more likely to get understanding on both sides. Understanding equals better communication, which can only edge closer towards better outcomes for everyone.

We are all human. We all have flaws, but we can all demonstrate empathy to a degree that is comfortable for us personally.

Communication is crucial to understanding and healing. Look at the powerful words you use and see if you can change them to show you've thought about the audience, rather than the performer.

May 14, 2021

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