How To Use Empathy For Better Communication

A Comprehensive Communication Principle For Anyone Who Leads, Speaks, Writes, or Has a Relationship With Another Human Being

[ Originally appeared on Becoming Human ]

Has anyone ever told you that you are good with words?

You say something and, to them, it connects? Or you take an idea and you paint a picture that makes sense to your audience in a meaningful way?

In response, they might tell you that you are good with words.

Here’s what I think is really happening:

  1. You have a solid vocabulary — a diverse range of words that you have to select from.
  2. You are empathic

Please allow me to explain — in, of course, four parts covering what empathy is, how it works in communicating with other people, specific contexts to practice empathic communication, & a final note on leadership.

Whether you are a creator, a business leader, an entrepreneur, a writer, a public speaker, a social media influencer, a teacher, a parent, a spouse, a friend, a relative, a neighbor, or pretty much anything correlated with being a human — you might want to keep this concept as the facilitator of every communicative act you ever do.


Part One — A Working Definition of Empathy in Communication

How can empathy make you a better communicator?

Well, quite naturally, you already probably allow empathy to influence your communication patterns. Whether we actively consider it or not, we are constantly being influenced by others which then implicates what we say and how we say it. As George Herbert Mead articulates, you do not exist on an island. Every human being lives as what he calls “A Social Self” — any person is constantly affected by and lives according to what the social sphere has handed them. What can be important, then, is simply noticing the interconnection with others and being purposeful about how you decide to let it impact your communication. You are already influenced by others. The further opportunity is to intentionally act by considering those influences and making specific decisions with the others in mind.

Let’s say you wake up and get dressed — which is probably assumed since it is normal in our culture to wear clothes; something you’ve been influenced by (which, even the decision not to wear clothes is often done out of an conscious rebellion against said influence). You probably even have a closet or bedroom floor full of clothes. And not just any clothes, for the clothing style is probably specific to your cultural norms — out of all the possible clothing options in the world, we tend to only consider a few. Whatever you decide to wear has already been influenced by other people.

However, while you could just throw on something that you like (again, probably influenced by the social sphere), you could also consider who you are going to see or what environment you are going to be in and what set of clothing options will best facilitate your intended presence in those spaces and social situations. To do so, you would not only need to be aware of the societal norms and influences, but you would need to consider the perspective of the people involved and what your clothing options will communicate. You want them to see you as a professional? You may decide to wear an outfit that culture has deemed professional (influence) and that the persons involved will find agreeable (empathy). You want to subvert the norms and wear a beanie hat and a hoodie to that meeting? Well, you are working with a norm (influence) and deciding that you want to send a counter-cultural message based on how you feel the persons involved will interpret your casual outfit in light of those norms (empathy).

All of that and we’ve only covered clothing.

The tendency for egocentrism, despite our social reality, is deeply ingrained. Empathy, therefore, is a means to force yourself into functioning apart from that default. You move from being affected by others to intentionally working with the effects of others. You are already going to be influenced; the act of empathy requires another level of deliberate, conscious, and calculated decision making.

So how does empathy intervene in our various circumstances?

Empathy opens you up to better communication because empathy is being able to take the perspective of another and think, feel, & act as if you are them.

As you communicate, you are communicating to someone else, so when you inhabit their mind and see the world from their perspective (the empathic process called, you guessed it, “Perspective Taking”), you are able to adapt your communication to what will be most effective for the transaction. You transcend the default influence and make purposeful decisions based on the literal perspective of the person you are engaging with.

The question then becomes, “How will doing so make our communication better?”

A fair question.


Part Two — Applying Empathy In Everything You Do

I really do prefer writing in a story-based format. It is a normative option that is available because I have been influenced by a society that has made this a common form of writing. There is just something about the stream-of-thought & narrative style that resonates with me. You will notice, however, that this writing is done with headlines and breaks and a scripted out, linear map that outlines the information in what might be more intelligible for an audience.

Why would I not write the way I prefer to write?

Because I anticipate that most people will prefer the latter to the former. I’m intentionally choosing not to just react to my immediate state and consider what might be better for those reading this. If I want you, dear reader, to find these ideas that are important to me, beneficial to you, then there is a higher chance they will be if I attribute and accommodate with your perspective and not just mine.

Is this failing to be “true to myself?” Maybe. Or maybe it is a compromise. Because I am still writing in a creative non-fiction style that appeals to my perspective, but allows me to craft the writing according to yours. I’m trying to meet you in the middle because I have to constantly be considering your perspective in my decision-making process.

Sometimes what you want is not always best. Sometimes, it is the adapted approach that can bear the intended fruit of your intended communication.

The medium might be more important in fulfilling your actual message.

So first, let’s talk about what is happening here and then let’s get into some ways to contextually apply empathic communication.

The Technical Steps — Of Which There Are Two

The nuts and bolts instructions for carrying out empathy (as defined at the end of Part One) are called “Attribution” and “Accommodation.” They do tend to follow a specific sequential order of attribution being first and accommodation following, but this is how you can take the concept of empathy and apply it into a tangible act.

Step One: Attribution

You attribute a perspective to the person receiving your communication by stepping into their shoes — you take their perspective. Once you begin seeing the world from their eyes, you can now make some attributions about where they are, what they want, and how they need something conveyed to them. Attribution is the act of gathering information concerning where your audience or recipient is and how they will best receive your message.

But then, you still need to do something with that information.

Step Two: Accommodation

You accommodate what you want to say, do, or pass on to what you have attributed as the state of your audience or recipient — you adapt your behavior & communication to their perspective that you have taken into account. Attribution gives you a tangible plan (putting on the specific clothes based on the message you want to send) and accommodation is the act of speaking, behaving, or acting out that plan (showing up in that outfit and acting accordingly during the situation).

This is why a solid vocabulary or a depth to your internalized content or wisdom is helpful — because the more language, ideas, & information you have to operate from, the more options you have to fit the communicative needs of the other. When they say you are good with words, they may just be saying that you have a large toolbox to choose from in attributing and accommodating your communication to be empathic.

Some Application Guidelines

A couple steps to take you through this process:

1 — Contextual Adaptation

You can’t simply grasp for any word to make a point, you must be able to use the best, most specific & implicit set of words that is within your arsenal that will make the most sense to the other. In any given context, this is the decision to work with what the other needs. You adapt whatever you are wanting to communicate by translating the raw message in your mind to what makes the most sense in the situation. Too much technical jargon, using words that your audience doesn’t have or share meaning with, or speaking in a pattern that only makes sense to you are easy ways to have a communication failure — despite how accurate or good your content is.

This is why the empathy part is important. If you use the word you prefer to use, you are banking on the assumption that it makes just as much sense to them. But if you can understand their perspective, you can carefully choose words that fit into their communicative state. You could say that there are no right words to use — though some words might be better — there are only words that function better in a specific context.

This intentionality is applicable to any situation where you are going to communicate something to someone else.

As a parent, you have to use language that will make sense to your children (even if you are wanting your children to grow their own language set). As a leader, you have to consider the perspectives, needs, and contexts of the people you are leading. As a business, you have to work with the language set of your potential consumers.

In any situation where you are going to communicate something ask, “What communication do they need?”

Based on your attribution and accommodation, be purposeful about using whatever answer you get to that question — whether they are your preference or not and whether they are their preference or not. Remember, adapting to a context and speaking empathically doesn’t mean you have to tell people whatever they want. Sometimes you have to know where people are at so you can compel them into a different future.

Which may result in them proclaiming that you are good with words.

Because technically, by doing this, you are.

You are good with tailoring your words to your receiver.

2 — Communication Is More Than Words

In putting yourself in your audience’s perspective and adapting accordingly, we must remember that communication is not just the words you use — it is anything that passes on a message or information to a recipient.

Communicating empathically, then, is not just about adapting to what your audience needs to hear, but also:

  • how they need to hear it,
  • where they need to hear it,
  • the style they need to hear it in,
  • and why they are looking to hear it in the first place.

You need to ask all of these questions and anticipate the best-crafted message in response.

Empathic communication is not just adapting your language, it is considering all of the variables for what happens when you send a message.

For example, I’m anticipating that you would like to see this mapped out further (a table would be ideal if I wasn’t lazy…so there’s some failed empathic communication for you) so here is my attempt to accommodate what I want to say to how I think you might prefer.

If communication is more than just words, this would mean you have to consider:

  • What words you are going to use — working with the lexicon & understanding of the message’s receiver.
  • How those words should be crafted together — from where you put content and the role it plays in the larger message, to the use of images or storytelling, to the tone and style and other non-verbals that complement your words, to the timing of certain words and where they go.
  • What the length should be — which means sometimes you can’t say everything you want to say.
  • What platform you use to send the message from — which is most applicable to interpersonal (relationship-based) communication, but it is also applicable to content that you might be producing.
  • What is the context of the person sending the message — their apparent authority, credibility, or voice. You may have to change your context to best adapt to the other. You may also have to subvert a preconceived context in order to strengthen your message (i.e., a parent letting go of their authority to empower the child — this is called “Complementary Communication” in reference to authority).
  • What should the physical or spatial context of the message be — the location or time or their state of being when they receive the message.

All of this is termed “Non-Verbal Communication” and takes the communicative process further than just words. Because as a parent, you have to be aware of the non-verbals, not only of what is associated with whatever you are saying, but also of the non-verbals including proximity and touch and facial expressions and location. Even when you aren’t talking, you have to be aware of what messages you are sending that will communicate to your children.

If communication is more than words, then everything you do is saying something — empathically passing on those messages are incredibly important, as well.

The same can be said for the leader — you don’t need to just be empathic when you give a speech, run a meeting, or send out an email. The space you create, the way you move in relation to your people, the way you carry yourself, the things you do and participate in are all saying something. This is why a business can have majestic language in its advertisements or social sphere, but can cause a lot of problems if they transgress an ethical value that their audience finds important.

If Marshall McLuhan was right — that the medium is the message — then we will want all of our mediums to empathically transmit our messages, too.

3 — The Details Are Important

First, let’s acknowledge that your audience will never hear or take in every single word or communicative act. You most likely have not memorized or even paid attention to every word written in this article.

Therefore, you don’t have to worry about every word, right?

Actually, I’d argue it is the opposite. Every word, every compositional choice, every detail must be intentional. This is why poets might be the best communicators — they are working with certain constraints that make every word necessary & important. Although your audience will not be registering every single word, the purposeful craft of every single word creates a flow that the audience will recognize. Poor composition, ineffective words, or distracting content will lead to an audience determining an amateur-ness to the messenger — which will lead to the conscious decision that this message isn’t worth their time. Even the good messages will be ignored.

But good verbal and non-verbal details, even if they aren’t fully internalized, have the potential to set up openness and empowerment to hear the messages they need to hear. Just like storytelling, you sometimes include details that aren’t the main point because those details platform the audience to better understand the main point even if those details are lost on them after the fact.

Even though every detail might not be appreciated to the same extent you appreciate them, even though it might not feel worth your time, pouring over every detail will create a flow that will determine how the audience judges to engage whatever you are producing.

Craft like a poet, then, and carry every detail with fragility and attention and care.

4 — The Importance of Self-Empathy

This whole concept of being empathic with others can come across as a demand to forget about yourself in the communicative process and just play to other people to get what you want or give them what they want.

Not true.

We must acknowledge that, for certain personalities, if you internalize that assumption, it can be really unhealthy.

  • If you are an ego-driven individual, you will hide yourself to get what you want from other people, constantly playing different roles to appear how they want you to appear.
  • If you are a “helping” personality, you will sacrifice yourself in order to make someone else happy.
  • If you are a people-pleasing or peacemaking personality, you will avoid difficult communication to keep things calm and easy.

Sometimes the empathic process can reveal that you actually have to craft a message that isn’t completely what your audience wants to hear because it will expose unhealth and compel them towards health. If you forget about or completely abandon what you bring to the message, you lose yourself, and therefore, the value you bring to the process.

Maybe we could say it this way — you can only take on the perspective of another if you have owned your own perspective first.

Empathy towards another is only as effective as the empathy you have towards yourself.

Essentially, if you don’t know who you are, what you need, what you have to offer, the vocabulary that you have gathered up, or the essence of what you bring to the table — your communication will always be a shallow effort to appease and will be less effective.

You can’t lose yourself in empathy — empathy should produce the most effective version of yourself in the messages you craft. Call it self-awareness or “knowing thyself,” but whether you are a leader or you are in a relationship, whatever content you communicate must be an accurate reflection of what is inside you even while it is adapting to the context of the other. Only then can you properly & healthily attribute and accommodate to your audience.

And don’t forget, just like the poet — you are a part of the audience, too.

You pour over every word and you take yourself into account because, even if good content could be produced by putting in less effort, you are also receiving what you produce.

You go through the process of self-empathy because, whatever your create, even if it is intended for someone else, will also be received by you.

In creating a message, you will be changed…always keep that in mind.


Part Three — Specific Contexts to Practice Empathic Communication

Public Speaking

This is why speakers are encouraged to “know your audience”. You have a room full of people, but I’m assuming the gathered group is not a random or unbiased selection. So under the disposition of what you know about your audience — the more you can adapt your communication, the more effective the transmission will be. I would go so far to say that there is never a generic message or speech fit for any and every crowd. Whatever the essence of your message is — it will need to take shape differently depending on where you are and who you are with.

Along with the application guidelines, here are some communicative questions to consider about your audience in crafting a message that you are going to be publicly giving:

  • Who are they?
  • Why are they there?
  • What is their motivation?
  • What are the general cultural or accepted rules for the space or event (a protest rally will be different than a TedTalk)?
  • What concepts and language are they familiar with?
  • What are they unfamiliar with?
  • How much of the unfamiliar can you push into without losing them?
  • What is their attention span?
  • What images are going to help?
  • What voice should you take on — Authoritative? Friendly? Storyteller?
  • What is the emotional energy of the people in the room? How can you connect with their emotional perspective?
  • What tone will be best received for different parts?
  • How should you set up the delivery of the different pieces of content? What should the first words be like? How should you explain different informative pieces, especially if they are overly dense or require jargon? How many pieces should you have? How many stories? What mix of logos, ethos, & pathos should be used?
  • How much should you cut out (because you should always say less than you initially want to — a general rule is that your audience is less interested in the depth of the content as you are)?

The more you utilize empathy, the more effective your communication will be in a large group or public setting.

Writing

There is an infinite number of ways you can say what you want to say — from the content of your words to the composition of your content to images and graphics that can visually aid your message.

What combination of those factors will be the most effective for your audience?

The same questions for public speaking can be just as easily applied to your writing.

This is why many writers resort to clickbait-y titles or seem to be selling the seven ideas / secrets / tools to make you successful / happy / better. Because those authors understand that people want to be those things and, while I don’t agree with that use of empathy — the one that uses another’s perspective to get them to do what I want (this is called manipulation…and it takes someone clever & empathic to manipulate) — it does accomplish their goal via empathy. It is the same with Mass Media (this is what makes marketing so effective — they are manipulating you by using your own perspective to sell their stuff).

My biggest suggestion for writing is this — first, write it how you need to understand it.

Second, write it so that they will be capable of understanding it.

Just thinking through what specific words you should be using and how you should map out your ideas to be best received by the person on the other end of those words will make your communication more effective. We should be cautious about just throwing a writing together based on what comes to the top of our minds. Some folks are capable of doing this, probably because they are naturally and empathically already in tune with their audience and have a great toolbox to draw from. For most of us, we will just end up replicating what we have been influenced by as “normal writing” — you use a story here, then a graphic, then a table, then a listicle, etc — and it might not be what aids your message to be received well. Remember, there are components to writing that are non-verbal, as well. Simply deciding when a sentence ends or a paragraph breaks is a non-verbal decision. Again, poetry can clue us into proper compositional imagery alongside of language.

Make every word, image, story, emotion, and compositional decision, even graphics, a necessary reflection of your attribution and accommodation.

And please, don’t hijack empathy for manipulation. It is great to make your writing more accessible to folks — to share what you have discovered by working with where they are — but to utilize an audience’s context with the sole goal of developing a platform or enlarging your leadership or selling something not only objectifies, and therefore isolates you from, your readers — it also reveals that you are creating something by extrinsic motivation and we are just a means to your selfish end.

Social Media

Considering the perspective of your potential audience will alter how you craft a post. If you only consider yourself in how you communicate online, we can all tell…and we will also probably not read what you put out there. If you are looking to use Social Media to connect with other people, well, socially, then you need to communicate with them, not to them.

I don’t know that I need to mention this, but posting your own myopic thoughts on a social media platform doesn’t normally do a lot of good — they lead to a lot of debate, disagreement, and yelling, but they don’t benefit many of the people involved, including yourself (except for, possibly, a sentimental feeling of getting your thoughts out and appearing to be heard). It might be more beneficial to just journal if that is your intention.

Also important for emphatic communication in social media:

Each platform also has its unique benefits — you shouldn’t post to Twitter the same way you post to Facebook or the same way you post to Instagram.

Message size & the immediacy of the content, its visibility, and its pragmatic value, though, are the most important aspects for social media because of the competition of the individual’s most valuable resources — awareness, attention, and time. Not to mention that social media is designed to encourage individuals to scroll — people are encouraged by the medium to only give these resources to the content that they want. Your content should reflect the competition for these limited resources.

Meetings

I’ll leave this brief (foreshadowing what empathic communication should do to our meetings). There is one dynamic of sitting across the table from someone and adapting the conversation as you go — knowing what questions, information, or content is most applicable to the individual(s) that are present. These meetings are fine, but there is another dynamic that is typically more applicable in corporate and organizational settings.

Any meeting agenda should reflect the perspectives and assumptions of those involved for what the meeting should function like — that both parties showed up with certain expectations of content. Sometimes that content is, “We are just going to sit and chat for three hours,” but the content must be agreed upon through the empathic process or else you are going to end up with confusion, anger, and a disconcerting feeling that our time was not respected.

Empathy will probably lead to your meetings being shorter, as well.

Relationships

Empathy should guide your communication, especially in your relationships. Can you sit across the table from someone and simply ask:

“What is the best way I can say what I want to say so they understand it?”

If you are in an argument, how should you sit (probably next to each other as opposed to across from each other)? What tone should you have? What facial expressions should you be intentional about using (nodding, smiling [non-creepily], or imitating their behaviors) and which should you avoid?

You aren’t just communicating with yourself in your relationships — the other person’s being needs to be accounted for. The beautiful thing about empathic communication in an invested relationship is that there is an unspoken arrangement that all messages being sent and received also includes the good of the other. Not only should you, therefore, consider all of the questions already posed in this writing, you should have specific interests to what this will do to the person in your presence and how whatever you say or communicate will need to adapt to their context alongside yours, together.

Just in general:

  • Have you considered the frequency of your communication in collaboration with what the other needs?
  • Or the timing of what you say?
  • Or the non-verbals you communicate when you are standing in the room together and how they affect the other person?
  • Or if there are words that have a particular meaning for that person that should be used with that shared meaning in mind — especially if it triggers trauma — because it could greatly impede the conversation and render the goal of connection ineffective.

Any of your communication, no matter your goal, needs to work with where the person is at to be most effective. Even if your goal is to piss the other person off, you still need to understand how they see, feel, and experience the world.

However, for the people you love, especially if you are constantly trying to see, experience, and feel the world as if you are them, how you interact with that person should be constantly shifting towards the healthiest way to be in relationship with said person. Which again, sometimes does involve saying hard things or causing disruption for the relationship at stake.


Part Four — A Note On Leadership

Two important anecdotes from my experience — ‘trust’ and ‘being ahead’.

First, you can’t take people where they don’t want to go; which means you need to know where they are and lead them to where they need to go (which may be different from where they want to go). If you are trying to lead people somewhere, you not only have to know the terrain to which you are trying to lead them and own that uncharted territory for yourself, you also need to adapt to their context in a way that will allow them to trust you to take them to what might be uncertain, strange, or downright scary. It starts with you — they have to trust that you know what the hell you are talking about. But they also need to trust that you are connected to them, concerned for them just as much as yourself, and that the relationship is more important than any ulterior motive or agenda.

Trust is essential in leadership and you are much more likely to build trust if you are in tune with the minds, hearts, and contexts of who you are working with.

Attributing and accommodating are more important than ever in the field of Leadership because, as a leader, all you have is only as great as the relational equity built over time.

Second, the implication of leading folks is that you have seen and explored the terrain to some extent and are, by definition of “leading,” ahead of them. But be careful, because if you are too far ahead, there won’t be any recognizable form to follow. You may have explored the world miles down the road, but they might only be able to handle the first step in that direction. If you start miles ahead, not only will they probably not want to follow you, but they might not even be able to see where you are in the first place.

Often, as leaders, we embody creativity and we transcend what is normal and we go in unexplored directions — but the real value of creativity is empathy; that you are able to combine your vision with where people currently are.

For me, I have noticed that empathy leads me to considering, “How did I first experience this? What was that first step in this direction like for me?” and then adapting my communication to that experience.

You may be a full step ahead because you have been empowered to do so. You may even be one thousand steps ahead. But empathizing with your community might mean staying just a half step ahead.

You may need to come back a bit.

If you lead something, constantly be in tune with how the stakeholders, consumers, & co-workers see, feel, & experience the world.


Conclusion — A Final Word

You can have great content, but if you don’t utilize empathy — if you ignore the recipients of your content — there is a chance that your content will be un-relatable to everyone.

There is a chance that you won’t have an audience.

Whenever you communicate, use empathy.

Take the perspective of the other and adapt every part of your messages accordingly.

Your communication will be better.



Originally published at tylerkleeberger.com.