So far, 2020 hasn’t been an easy year. As we pass the half-year mark of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are feeling exhausted much earlier in the year than we normally would. 

In the midst of all the upheaval, content creators have turned their gaze to a particular theme of interest: empathy. Brands are looking to shift their tone of voice so that mindfulness, understanding, and compassion for other people become a top priority.

At Acrolinx, we’ve been working to engage with and explore this topic, both for our own company development and as it relates to our product. We also acknowledge that empathy isn’t a gimmick or marketing tactic, but an essential part of being human and connecting to each other. 

Businesses Need Empathy Too

Empathy is a relatively understudied topic. We know that empathy is about emotion, and, in particular, about emotional connection. It involves both accepting and allowing different perspectives and emotions in other people, and also sharing it with them to enable encouragement and support. 

Why does this matter for large organizations? Aside from cultivating an inclusive workplace, data-driven support of empathy is also a good business decision. As it happens, people have been looking into what it means for companies to be empathetic long before 2020 threw us some curveballs.

A 2016 study by the Harvard Business Review scored a number of companies with an Empathy Index, which covers a wide variety of criteria, including company culture and brand messaging. They found a high correlation between a company’s Empathy Index and their performance, and posit that empathetic cultures keep the best people working in the healthiest environments, leading to a high degree of success. 

While the Harvard Business Review study didn’t directly measure empathetic language, it did include public messaging on social media and brand perception as factors. And, it acknowledged the importance of language in contributing to a company’s Empathy Index.

What does Writing with Empathy look like? 

When we tend to think of empathy, it’s usually in a dialogue setting between two or more people. We’re told to “put yourself in the other person’s shoes” and use words that make that person feel safe and supported to express themselves. It’s not particularly specific advice. And it doesn’t help develop the full range of skills needed to provide emotional support for other people, in a range of different settings.

But what does it mean to communicate with true understanding, in any context? What does it mean to use empathy as a business, where your target audience isn’t yet engaged in a dialogue with your brand? 

5 Tips for Communicating with Empathy:

    1. Respond in a timely manner to the concerns of your target audience.  Whether it’s a global crisis or a support ticket, addressing the issue promptly (without instantly turning it into a marketing campaign) shows people you genuinely care how they’re feeling. 
    2. Take inspiration from reflective listening. Rather than simply saying “I understand your concerns,” try to pair your understanding with a reflection of the context that’s causing people to react in a particular way. Often it means adding an additional sentence like “I see where you’re coming from. I would feel the same way if I experienced [describe person’s lived experience].” Without relying on interpretation, reflecting someone’s feelings back to them in your own words helps people feel not only heard, but understood.
    3. Acknowledge people’s subjective experience even if you disagree. “We know the recent changes to our terms and conditions may make some people uncomfortable, however, you can rely on us to provide you with clear communication and flexible options.” 
    4. Be accountable. Regardless of the intention behind your communication, your organization should take responsibility for how your content affects people, even if it elicits an undesired reaction.
    5. Use emotive language in content responsibly. Use an emotional analysis tool to make sure you’re not unnecessarily evoking fear or anger to prompt a reaction from your target audience. 

Developing Empathy Within Acrolinx

Acrolinx’s exploration of empathy in language is still in progress. It goes beyond just understanding empathetic language. We’re busy putting together a guide that goes into more detail about how we trained a neural network on a dataset of texts labeled for their empathy.1 And with this scoring tool, we’ll look at what companies are doing with empathetic language in real time.

The mini guide will present more of our findings, some of which include:

  • Among different industries, there are measurable differences in general use of empathy. For example, sample texts from companies in the healthcare industry are likely to have a higher level of empathy than sample texts from other industries.
  • Among different companies within the same industry, there are also measurable differences in empathy. Looking at the general distributions of empathy scores over a sampling of texts, we can see that, whether deliberate or not, empathy is  part of a brand’s linguistic tone, and a factor which can set it apart from the crowd.

We’re looking forward to sharing our developments with you. It’s never been more important to relate to one another in a way that celebrates diversity and makes people feel safe and heard. If you’re interested in learning more about empathy and further developing your skill, here are a few fun resources for you. 

Listen: ”Conversations with People Who Hate Me” by Dylan Marron 

Watch: Ted Talk by Joan Halifax titled “Compassion and the true meaning of empathy”

Read: Mean People Suck: How Empathy Leads to Bigger Profits and a Better Life by Michael Brenner

Buechel, Sven and Buffone, Anneke and Slaff, Barry and Ungar, Lyle and Sedoc, João. “Modeling Empathy and Distress in Reaction to News Stories.” Proceedings of the 2018 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP 2018). 2018.