Empathy is a valuable tool. However, in conversations and corporate communication, trying to declare the empathy we feel may distort our intended message.
The Power of Presence
When someone shares a story of loss or illness, empathy invites us to experience that same sadness, pain or discomfort. Our kindest gesture can be as simple as remaining present and aware, caring and listening. But unpleasant feelings ignite our desire to “fix” things. Advice erupts, filled with our road-tested coping mechanisms and sometimes laced with our own set of similar experiences.
In trying to relate to a suffering brother or sister, we have only succeeded in making that person feel unheard and alone.
I have both done this, and felt that. When I forget to offer a friend the warmth of my supportive silence, I try to apologize at the first opportunity. When I need support and receive instead a burst of recommendations or comparative anecdotes, I use that person’s misguided sentiments to better inform my future responses to a soul in pain.
The Inappropriate Sentence
As a professional communicator for more than two decades, I can’t discuss the confidential work I do for clients, but I can share this excerpt from a message I received. I’d already heard about the company’s decision through other channels such as news outlets and social media, so my strong negative reaction to seven words on its September 2017 letter surprised me.
“Candace, we know change can be hard.”
No one meant to amplify the stress of finding a new health insurance company and new doctors with that single line. Empathy just doesn’t translate well in messages like that one, a formal announcement that an insurer decided to stop offering certain policies to thousands of customers like me.
While I respect the collaboration and good intentions that may have generated that sentence, I believe deleting that line would have made the company’s announcement stronger.
Imagine any business delivering the news of company layoffs with a similar sentence, or introducing the details of office consolidation and relocation plans with “We know moving can be inconvenient.”
No Perfect Message Point
Words cannot fix everything. The “perfect message point” is a myth. But, while no magical combination of words will transform bad news into good news, some messages may amplify negative emotions in the recipient. In my opinion, the letter violated a basic tenet of change management and crisis communication: Be direct. Don’t try to soften the blow of bad news with something YOU feel or “know” about the recipient’s internal experience, particularly when you are not among those directly impacted.
The best approach to difficult personal or professional messages is often the same. Keep the empathy; let go of the words.