In order to empathize with people living on social margins, the famous writer George Orwell spent some time pretending to be homeless, living among tramps and beggars.
Although Orwell’s social background was far from being poor, he wanted to experience the life of these people, do what they do, and feel what they feel. This episode from his life served as the material for the second part of his book Down and Out in Paris and London.
One doesn’t have to walk in another person’s shoes (or become homeless) to know how that person feels. This is because humans are naturally hardwired for recognizing, understanding, and responding to feelings of others, which is pretty much the definition of empathy.
When we watch movies or read books, we feel what other people feel. They don’t have to be real, nor does the cause of their pain (or some other emotion) have to be familiar to us. So you can cry with the main protagonist when he loses his dog, even if you’ve never had a dog. Or you can feel the jitters of an ambitious dancer while she gets to the stage even if you are a lousy dancer, with no aspiration to dance in public.
Authentic communication is all about responding to emotions from everyone involved, back and forth. Remember how you feel when you cheerfully say good morning to your grumpy neighbor who just brushes you off? Or when you react with annoyance to a child who is thrilled about seeing a butterfly? If you can’t remember, you can certainly imagine it, right?
People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou
There are a lot of definitions of empathy, but so far you get the point. In the context of writing, it’s good to know that there are three types of empathy.
“I know what you feel” – Cognitive empathy, also known as perspective-taking, includes understanding and comprehending how someone feels, on an intellectual level. In other words, it’s when we KNOW how someone feels, using our rational thinking.
“I can feel your pain” – Emotional empathy involves feeling the emotions and mental state of another person. It’s all about our emotional reaction to that. Humans, as well as some animals, have so-called mirror neurons in their brains, which allows us this type of… well, mirroring (yet another proof that we are biologically equipped for empathy!).
“I want to help you overcome this” – Compassionate empathy is a mix of cognitive and emotional empathy. It involves not only observing and understanding, as well as feeling what is happening inside another person, but also spontaneous action towards doing something to help that person.
As one of the most influential ways to build trust with your customers, writing is white canvas you can paint the way you want. And no approach to connect with them is more powerful than responding to their emotions.
Marketing and copywriting are usually primarily focused on provoking emotions. Sometimes they do it in odd and unnatural ways, like when you are supposed to feel exceptionally happy while doing the laundry or singing a happy tune while having period cramps.
On the other hand, non-marketing communication creates a space for genuine connection. Instead of (forcefully) provoking emotions, it’s all about responding to them with understanding, empathy, and compassion.
In writing, besides understanding how a person feels, cognitive empathy can help you craft your message most appropriately. For example, it can help you use proper structure and form. Short sentences and not too long paragraphs allow the reader to focus on the content, without getting distracted by the form.
Avoiding wordiness, messy structure and complex sentences and paragraphs is highly recommended.
Insisting on using complex language is often driven by ego. A lot of professions have their jargon, which eases communication between experts. But when they use it while speaking to ordinary people, they minimize a person they are talking/writing to. It’s often an attempt to compensate for their own insecurities, lack of interest or understanding of authentic communication, hiding under intellectual phrases, complex sentences and wordiness.
Emotional empathy is what should be interwoven in the content: in tone and style, by using carefully selected words, acknowledging feelings of another person and expressing our own.
You should be clear about the message you are sending, leaving no space for double messages, inappropriate emotional tone or making it all about you. You are writing to the person with the idea of helping them solve a problem, so avoid focusing on you or your business.
One common mistake when addressing someone’s emotions is imposing how they should feel about something. It often sounds like “I hope that you understand” or “Thank you for your patience.” This way, the person is forced to give up their right to not understand and to not be patient. This sort of silent (and usually unconscious) manipulation has nothing to do with empathy; it only serves to make us feel better.
Ultimately, a customer should feel encouraged to act. By using compassionate empathy, we add action: something they can do in the direction of feeling better or solving the problem. You, as a writer, should offer some kind of choice or action, so that the customer knows that you are present and willing to act.
Words that listen: How to express empathy in writing
Now, imagine that you work at the appeal department of a bank. You handle the customers who aren’t happy (which is the reason why they write to you). They have complaints about the products, staff and other countless things people can complain about.
Now imagine Jack. Jack is your customer who lost his credit card during vacation. He immediately called the bank to cancel his card, but he wasn’t happy with how his problem had been handled. So, Jack wrote to you complaining about how the call center had treated him.
Jack is primarily angry and irritated, but he is also worried. It’s not hard to imagine how a person in his situation could feel.
What makes this situation tricky is that you can feel angry, as well, because emotions are contagious. Thanks to this, we can be empathetic, but we can also be infected with other people’s feelings, and it can cloud our judgement. So if you feel this sort of emotional transfer, take some time to vent it out and let the emotion fade away.
How can we handle Jack while being empathetic on a cognitive, emotional, and compassionate level?
I am sorry to hear that you’ve lost your card. That situation is stressful by itself.
Not being heard and understood by our staff makes it even harder.
I would like to sincerely apologize for that, on behalf of the entire team, and my own name.
We will go through your case and find out what happened (and why). As soon as I have more information (in the next five days), I’ll get back to you.
In the meantime, if you need any help or have questions about this issue, please feel free to call me.
How have we handled the situation with Jack?
Firstly, using cognitive empathy, we stated that we understand what happened and how he feels. By using short paragraphs and simple language, we made it easier for Jack to understand our message and, thus, we made it more authentic.
Secondly, we acknowledged Jack’s and expressed our feelings towards his state of mind (stressful situation + not being heard and understood by the team) and then we apologized.
After that, we told him what will happen next (and when). Finally, we gave him an opportunity to call, so we left the communication channel open. Jack now knows that we understand, that we care, and that we are present.
This way, we showed compassion. We didn’t minimize his feelings or try to convince him he was wrong. He might be wrong, but his emotions aren’t. So before we handle his problem (complaint) as bank officers, we can reach out to him as human beings. In fact, one doesn’t exclude the other.
By applying everything we have explained so far, I (the person who is writing this) can easily understand that you (the person who is reading this) might feel overwhelmed by all this advice. It may be complicated to follow the guidelines, so I’m guessing you could use some sort of shortcut.
Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. – Theodore Roosevelt
While life is often complex and doesn’t offer shortcuts to valuable lessons, this one is pretty simple. So in this case, the shortcut is: think of any situation where you felt like someone didn’t understand you. Remember when you were Jack from the letter above. What kind of approach would you have appreciated in this situation? How would you have liked to be handled? What words would have sounded understanding and appreciative?
So, every time you are not sure about how to respond, just use your own capacity for empathy and look at the problem from another person’s perspective.
While practicing empathy and compassion towards your customers, don’t forget that the same goes for you. If you, in the beginning, struggle to apply empathy in your writing, be selfempathetic and selfcompassionate: you might need some time and practice to learn how to do it, but that’s a normal part of the process.
You probably already write and you are, as a human being, already equipped with empathy. There’s no onesizefitsall solution or recipe for how to use empathy as the foundation to effective writing. The most important thing is that you care and your craftsmanship skills will come with patience and diligence.