“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler
Business communicators know that every person they write for has a story of their own. Whether or not your story or message (memo, ad, offer, annual report, etc.) is effective can depend on your ability to empathize with theirs.
Let’s distinguish from the get-go that empathy isn’t sympathy. Sympathy may listen but doesn’t necessarily immerse you in another’s experience. Sympathy doesn’t walk in their shoes but offers instead, “I feel sorry for you.” Empathy, however, can be a power source for sustaining relationships, because you put yourself in another’s life. Empathy says, “I’m interested in more than my own ability. I genuinely care to understand your needs, and I’m ready to meet them.”
To write with more empathy, start by asking yourself the following three questions:
Question 1: Am I listening to my reader?
Intentionally listening to ideas, visions, needs, and problems that differ from your own perspectives equips you to write with empathy. No matter what you write, the message is more effective when you allow your readers’ lives and needs guide you.
Before you write, check in somehow with the audience you want to reach. Do you know what they like and dislike? Have you asked (by way of interview, lunch meeting, research, or survey) what kind of a life they’re living and why? For example, I’m a member of a writing group and attend several classes in other interests. I enjoy how these activities allow me to practice asking others about their lives, creating lots of opportunities to fully listen and learn.
Some may call this ability, “having an ear for others.” I like the way Ernest Hemingway frames it, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Question 2: What challenges does my reader have right now?
Naturally, when you focus on others, you increase your capacity for compassionate action.
For business communicators, empathy requires you to go beyond listening and dig around for real-time problems or answers that you – and the message you’re writing — are able to help resolve.
Why does knowing their challenges matter?
To write clear, compelling content, you must know any roadblocks that could keep them from receiving your message. These challenges could be anything from their emotional state (like, if they are terminally ill) to their level of education against the type of information you’re sharing. Once you put yourself in their shoes from these perspectives, you’ll know what words or phrases to use or avoid, which could trigger unwanted emotional reactions. You’ll also be able to better structure your content to support engaged reading.
Question 3: Am I writing like a human?
When you re-read your content, ask yourself: Would I use these words and tone of voice in live conversation with my reader? The answer may be more important than you realize. According to a recent survey on customer service, 65% of customers prefer a casual tone over a formal one in company communications.
Without a doubt, your reader craves human connection. In fact, a study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that we’re wired to manifest this need. While silently reading, we hear an inner voice in our brains that reads words as if they were being said aloud. This ability allows us to pick up on nuances like tone and inflection. And if your tone and inflection are off, you could be sending mixed emotional signals to your readers as they try translating what you mean.
So, instead of writing with a stiff, unauthentic voice, write like you’re actually speaking to a person. Keep your language simple and direct. Further, ensure that your company’s verbal brand uses a human voice. And while you may have to adjust your tone depending on the type of content you’re creating (think a blog versus a report), you can still better reach audiences when you sound real and human.
The next time you put your thoughts in writing, see if you have good answers to these three suggested questions. Start with an understanding of your readers. Communicate in a conversational, compassionate way. From there, your writing should become more human and less jarring — and lead with the empathy your audiences crave.