The Role of Empathy in Crisis Communications
The Role of Empathy in Crisis Communications
Let me start by saying this is not a blog about the COVID “infodemic” in the mass media – plenty to explore there also. I’m more interested in exploring the role empathy plays for organizational communications during times of crisis, not the role honesty plays for media outlets and journalists during times of crisis.
What is empathy? My favorite definition of all time is by the researcher, professor, lecturer, and author Brené Brown, “empathy is feeling WITH people. To me, I always think of empathy of this sacred space where someone is in a deep hole, and they say ‘I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed. And we look, and we say ‘Hey. I know what it’s like down here. And you’re not alone.’ Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice because to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
In this excellent RSA Short video above that animates Brene Brown speaking on empathy, she quotes research conducted by the nurse and researcher, Theresa Wiseman. In Wiseman’s 1996 study, she identifies four defining attributes of empathy:
- Perspective taking
- Staying out of judgement
- Recognizing and understanding emotion in other people
- Communicating that understanding of emotion
The last two qualities here seem most important to me. As Wiseman herself notes, if you can recognize and understand emotion in others, you are very likely already taking their perspective and thus staying out of judgement.
These are the two I’ll focus on when examining the importance of empathy in our business communications, especially during a crisis. You might be thinking to yourself; this all seems pretty obvious. But if it’s so obvious, why do people often miss the mark when trying to communicate effectively with their audience during a crisis? From politicians to businesses to yes, even international relief and development organizations, humans-sounding-human-to-other-humans isn’t always as easy as it should be.
Empathy is hard enough on a personal level. As the video above so touchingly illustrates, displaying genuine empathy requires opening up in a very vulnerable way to somebody else. This is most important to do when the subject matter is difficult, and also when it becomes the hardest. Because put simply, nobody likes to feel bad. If you’ve mastered being able to do this most of the time in your personal life with your closest family and friends, congratulations. That’s more than most of us can say.
Being vulnerable is even harder in a business setting on the individual and organizational level. We are conditioned to always “put our best foot forward,” both as individuals at work and as organizations working with valued customers, clients, members, etc. If we are seen as experts in what we do, that’s great for business. People come to us for our expertise and experience as respected and reputable organizations. There is a desire to hide mistakes and a reluctance to say “we don’t know, we have never done this before.”
But what happens when you misstep as an organization, or when the unprecedented situation at hand is one that nobody knows how to address? You could hide the mistakes from the general public, and you could “fake it till you make it.” Sometimes these tactics might work, at least in one-off situations or for a little while. But especially in today’s media-saturated and constant-contact environment, chances are your shortcomings will come out one way or another, so it can be on your terms or somebody else’s. And faking it till you make it is a fine strategy, as long as you’re somewhat transparent that you are doing it. If you build a reputation as an organization that communicates openly and honestly about your plans and the times those plans fail, you build trust. Then when the unprecedented crisis rolls around, that honesty and transparency you’ve hopefully displayed all along will save you.
Where does empathy tie in? Beyond “getting ahead of the story” by being open and transparent with your audiences, you are doing something even more important – you are building human connection. You are reminding your audience that you are an organization of humans who have shortcomings and make mistakes. This connection opens the two-way street for vulnerability, understanding, and when it calls for it –empathy. You allow your audience permission to be human themselves, and to make and share their uncertanties and mistakes. That way, even in times of great distress with many unknowns, we can support each other and continue to learn from each other. It’s the only way we can all move forward.
COVID-19 is a global health pandemic that is unprecedented in modern times. There is no playbook and everyone is merely doing the best they can. And there are many emotions in the situation we’re all facing, both positive and negative: fear, uncertainty, reluctance, complacency, loneliness, connectedness (in new ways!), hopelessness, hopefulness, a strong motivation to help others. Chances are a portion of your audience shares something you're feeling about the situation. And maybe some of your emotions can even inspire the same in others. If you are in a position where you are communicating regularly with the people you serve, don’t shy away from these emotions in your communications. By stepping around the curtain and speaking directly, honestly, and from a place of empathy, you might build a stronger relationship with your audience than you ever had before. That bond will last beyond this time of crisis and help you and the people you serve move through the next one.
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