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
Has anyone ever told you that you are good with words?
You say something and, to them, it connects. You take an idea and you paint a picture that makes sense to them in a meaningful way and they get it. In response, they might tell you that you are good with words.
Here’s what I think is really happening:
- You have a solid vocabulary — a diverse range of words that you have to select from.
- You are empathic
Here’s what I mean:
A Working Definition Of Empathy in Communication
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.
Two Technical Steps
This is further defined by two applications of empathy called “Attribution” + “Accommodation”.
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.
That is step 1, gathering the information of where your audience or recipient is and how they will best receive your message…but you still need to do something with that information.
So you do 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.
This is why a solid vocabulary or a depth to your 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.
How To Do This
A couple steps to take you through this process:
1 — Be Intentional In Adapting Your Communication
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.
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.
For example, I don’t like using headlines and section titles to map out my writing — I would rather write it all in a story based, stream-of-thought style, but I understand that the general audience (mostly) prefers the former to the latter so I still use a creative non-fiction approach, but I craft what I say & how I say it.
This intentionality is applicable to any situation where you are going to communicate something to someone else.
Ask, “What communication do they need?” based on your attribution and accommodation and be intentional about using whatever answer you get to that question — whether they are your preference or not.
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.
You need to ask all of these questions and anticipate the best crafted message in response.
Now 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 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.
- What should the physical or spacial context of the message be — the location or time or their state of being when they receive the message.
Empathic communication is not just adapting your language, it is considering all of the variables for what happens when you send a message.
3 — A Note On Detail in Your Messages — Craft Like a Poet
First, your audience will never hear or take in every single word. 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 are 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 intentional 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.
Pour over every detail like a poet — even though every detail might not be appreciated to the same extent you appreciate them, it will create a flow that will determine how the audience judges to engage whatever you are producing.
I’ve tried to do this, but only you, the audience, can determine if the attempt is successful or not.
4 — The Importance of Self-Empathy
This whole concept 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.
For certain personalities, if you go this direction, 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.
But here is what is most important:
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 if self-awareness or “knowing thyself” (to thine own self be true), 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. Only then can you properly & healthily adapt to your audience.
This also brings up an important point that goes along with “Creating Like a Poet”:
4 — You Are Part of the Audience
You pour over every word, even if good content could be produced by putting in less effort, because 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.
Specific Contexts & The Effects of Empathic Communication:
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.
Ask all of the above communicative questions 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?
- What tone will be best received for different parts?
- How should you set up the delivery of the different pieces of content?
- 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 and you accommodate, the more effective your communication will be in a large group or public setting.
There are 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?
[ use the questions above to help ]
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).
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.
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.
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…to only give their resources to the content that they want. Your content should reflect the competition for these limited resources.
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.
There is another dynamic that is much more applicable in corporate or organizational settings. Empathy will probably lead to your meetings being shorter.
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.
Or 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?
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.
One more note — on Leadership
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).
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.
If you lead something, constantly be in tune with how the stakeholders, consumers, & co-workers see, feel, & experience the world.
THE SHORT VERSION
You can have great content, but if you don’t utilize empathy — if you ignore your audience — 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.
I’m working on discovering how to “Become More Human”
If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share what I’m finding to help craft how you live, too. You can find more here: