The Empathy Message: Say it Like You Mean it


Expressing empathy comes naturally to some but not all. You don’t have to say you’re sorry, you just need to show that you care.

With all the practices and pitfalls of communicating during crisis, few things are more fundamentally important to effective communication than expressing sincere empathy to those affected.

Yet somehow genuine expressions of empathy during crisis and critical incidents are rare. Don’t get me wrong, I see and hear no shortage of canned, cliché, box-checking statements but given the inherently emotional nature of communicating with people who are angry, scared and/or threatened, it’s surprising communicators don’t put more emphasis on empathy.

In my experience, poor empathy statements (aside from simply not knowing any better) are generally a result of one (or a combination) of three mindsets:

Mindset A: The organization is afraid of any position or statement resembling anything that might be construed as guilt or otherwise complicate legal proceedings.

My response to mindset A: Bullshit. If someone can find a case where an empathy statement or even a well placed apology, when delivered effectively, tipped the scales against an organization in a legal proceeding, let me know. An organization has either done something wrong or it hasn’t; it’s either broken the law or not broken the law. What an organization “says” now doesn’t change its past “actions”. Dig?

Mindset B: The organization believes it’s more important for its representatives to maintain a professional distance from the tragedy, either because they think it’s more appropriate to “be strong” for those affected or simply because they don’t want to appear weak.

My response to mindset B: I saw this a lot in the Coast Guard. (I had a commander once tell me that when telling a family the Coast Guard was calling off a search for their loved ones his job was to “be the grownup.”) The decisions humans make, the ideas we support, the opinions we hold, are all infused with some level of emotion – and that’s everyday life – so to think it should (or even could) be extracted or removed in a crisis situation is an interesting idea, but I don’t see the advantage. I’m not saying turn on your inner drama queen but, if emotional distance was the prime directive in crisis communication, we wouldn’t have empathy statements at all – we’d just tell people to “rub some dirt on it” and get back in the game.

Mindset C: The organization and its representatives simply don’t care.

My response to mindset C: At least be honest about it. I don’t think you need to tell people you don’t care (that will become quickly apparent), but you may want to save the ink or breath it would take to pretend to care. A cliché empathy statement delivered poorly communicates apathy on multiple levels, intellectually and emotionally. At best, the anemic empathy statement has no effect whatsoever. At worst, it further creates the perception your organization is apathetic and insincere.

A good empathy statement doesn’t need to be polished, or earn you a nod from the Academy. The most important element is sincerity – both in tone and body language. This means the words are organic, thoughtful and genuine.

Here are few other thoughts on communicating empathy effectively:

  • Use your own words and voice (by voice I mean your own style of talking.)
  • Don’t be afraid of the personal pronoun – it’s okay and often more appropriate to say “I” versus “our” or “we.” Try to stay away from “the company,” “the agency,” “the organization.”
  • Stay away from hyperbole – a fatal train derailment and subsequent Bakken crude spill is tragic, but it’s not “One of the darkest days in U.S. history.”
  • Deliver a message that is short, understandable and relevant. By relevant, I mean to the concerns and fears of the audience, not those of your organization.
  • When delivering a prepared statement that contains an empathy statement, don’t read the empathy part. Don’t read it if you’re in front of an audience, don’t read it if you’re doing a radio interview and don’t read it if you’re doing a print interview. When you’re reading an empathy message it looks AND *sounds* insincere. It will come across in your voice as well as your body language. Even if you’re sitting down one-on-one with a print reporter, reading from notes, sends that journalist a message that may influence the tone of their story.

2 thoughts on “The Empathy Message: Say it Like You Mean it

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