Empathy is the word … and it’s catching

This past week I corresponded with Cheryl Stephens, a treasured colleague and friend who has blazed many a trail for decades as a plain language expert, writer, teacher and lawyer.


She had put out a call via social media for volunteers to review and comment on a piece she was preparing. Its audience is lawyers who support plain language, and the article posits that we need to cultivate empathy for our readers if we want our messages to reach them the way we intend.

After sending my comments on her article, it occurred to me that the ideas I tapped out built on my own thinking – and earlier post – about empathy. My friend was gracious with my continuing on that train of thought in my own writing. So, here goes …

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Anytime we talk about what empathy looks like, I find it’s worth having a short discussion of the difference between it and its cousin, sympathy.

I think that the two terms get confused for people, making us think we’re displaying empathy where in fact we’re not. The kind of Pollyannaish attitude I wrote about before – where a study found that the chronically cheery actually connected less deeply with people – describes to me an empty kind of empathy that is really more characteristic of sympathy. 


Sympathy goes well with tea … but empathy goes well with our writing

So what’s the difference? In my mind, it’s this:

Empathy is what happens when you feel someone’s pain and struggle as if you were actually going through them yourself (or the proverbial “walking a mile in their shoes”). When you have empathy, you’re genuinely attuned with their needs and can offer support in meaningful ways.

Sympathy also has you feeling bad for somebody; but here it’s more a sense of pity. We’ve all sent In Sympathy … cards (which maybe even contained our rushed jottings on how we “know just what you’re going through”). But here, we are not identifying with the person’s experience and reactions – we just feel sorry for them. And that sentiment is fleeting – we will still probably move on from it with our day-as-planned.

I wrote a series of storyboards for an elearning program a couple years back, designed to teach melanoma survivors providing volunteer peer support to others who were recently diagnosed and just starting treatment.

Empathy is one of the three key strengths that volunteers are encouraged to rely on the most, and it appears throughout the learning modules. It’s defined there even more concisely, relative to sympathy:

  • “Sympathy is feeling for someone
  • Empathy is feeling with them”

People familiar with personality disorders such as Narcissism will recognize how important true empathy is; because in people with those disorders that quality is markedly absent (though they’re brilliant at faking it), overruled by a fragile ego that preserves self-interest above all. The world stage is witness to this brand of behaviour as I write, with the media’s relentless observation of President Trump’s personal interactions.

Writing with empathy can still be hard to achieve

In plain-language writing, I’ve always seen understanding the needs and perspectives of readers as Job One. And I’ve been applying that focus to every project, for more than twenty years.

But as I’ve noted, the best of intentions can still lead us down the proverbial Road to Hell, if we’re not careful. Even when trying to use a direct, friendly voice that shows we relate to our reader’s needs, things can still slide South if we don’t first get other views on our work.

Other writers or editors, and people who work with the intended reading audience (salespeople, product managers, customer care reps) can all provide insights into how people will interpret that information. Because they’re closer to the everyday context where readers will need to use it.

I recently got such feedback from a colleague that a turn of phrase I thought would relate well to the client came off to them as being patronizing. His reaction was based on how we were making the target market view themselves, in my description of the kind of people we were trying to get to buy our product.

A direct connection with readers helps bridge the empathy gap

That’s why, when possible, the best way to make that desired empathic connection is to interview and field test documents with people typical of the ones who need to read and use them.

Atop the traditional consumer focus groups, we can design discrete examples for groups referred to us by the people on the front lines, such as Customer Care, Patient Rep and Complaints Resolution groups that many large organizations have set up in-house; or we can go to where typical readers spend their time, like waiting areas, community centres … anywhere we see our information being used and acted-on.

I’ve been impressed to see how much this idea has come into its own over the past decade, with technological interfaces now putting people into jobs dedicated just to monitoring and improving the Customer or User’s experience. Information designers and accessibility consultants are brought into projects to help organizations comply with government regulations and demonstrate a workplace’s value of inclusiveness.

With the growing adoption of online shopping and mobile communication – using transactional tools like online forms – persona creation and customer feedback are common elements in communications and marketing plans.

So how does this relate to empathy?

It is impossible for a person to put themselves completely in another person’s shoes, and even our best attempt may send the complete opposite message of what we want. But if we get to know what makes them tick – start to feel with them – that’s when we can more likely watch our writing lead to more of the actions we want to see.

In my post about how to write it forward and upward, I gave examples of how we can positively word things we say to elicit a more positive outcome from the people we are saying them to.

That post got some hearty discussion going among fellow Canadian editors who also reacted – in some cases, negatively – to some of the examples I gave. It seems that even the ones that were supposed to sound more positive came off as condescending, and made a few readers bristle.

Along with empathy for the people were communicating with, I’m reminded by that discussion about how important context is in every single interaction.

Watch for my next post , where we’ll look at the importance of saying the right thing, at the right time, in the right setting. I just want to take the right amount of time to develop the right message. When the right moment appears, I look forward to posting it here.


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