Messaging with Empathy

Effective coping with everyday stress is greatly enhanced by having empathy for others. Why? For one thing, understanding and appreciating the thoughts and emotions of others can provide you with personal insights. For another, empathy facilitates communication with others, and communication allows you to see that you are not alone – others deal with the same sorts of conflicts that you do. This sharing gives you a sense of humility, that you are not the special one. Finally, empathy helps you develop a giving/receiving interaction with others that brings everyone benefits.

A giving/receiving interaction? Think about that for a moment. Have you ever been hesitant to accept help from someone because you consider yourself independent and empowered? That’s fine, but remember something very important: Independence and empowerment are strong signs of good coping, but when independence occurs without empathy, the result can be social isolation; when empowerment occurs without empathy, the result can be false pride. When empathy is present, however, you are able to understand others’ need to give; you become more willing to accept their help; and thus, you allow them to receive the special blessings of giving. What could be more satisfying and empowering?

Empathy can also help you in dealing with adversaries. Understanding why someone may want to be your opponent can give you insights and help you defuse conflict by showing others you understand their issues and insecurities. It’s a tricky dance, but empathy can help show you the steps.

With all that in mind, let’s talk about public social messages – words and phrases that are a part of our interactions with others. Psychologist Drew Weston has studied social messaging in a political context, and how to design political ads with appeal to voters. Messaging can also involve what’s called “political correctness,” an evil phrase to many people. But I would like to focus on words and phrases that fail to show an understanding of what another person is feeling. Let’s look at some examples.

A former student once said to me that she worked with “food insecure” people. I confess that I thought she dealt with eating disorders! But, no, food insecurity refers to those without regular access to enough food to provide for adequate daily nutrition. I find the phrase “food insecure” vague and judgmental; on the other hand, I find the phrase, “I work with those without access to enough food to provide for adequate daily nutrition” quite empathetic.

How about the phrase, “unemployment compensation”? What sort of images does this phrase raise? A lazy, no-good bum? A failure in life? Someone looking for a free handout? Someone so irresponsible that he or she can’t maintain a job and gets fired a lot? These are not kind images. But what if instead of “unemployment compensation,” you said, “financial support for people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own”? This latter phrase is much more empathetic and results in a whole different class of images.

“Equal gender pay” is one of those well-intentioned phrases that also triggers all sorts of biases in some folks. “Yeh, women can’t do half the work of men but they want the same pay anyway.” “Why should someone be entitled to pay they don’t deserve just because they’re a woman?” “What about when they get all that time off for having a baby? Is that fair?” On the other hand, instead of “equal gender pay,” what if you hear, “Everyone should receive pay that reflects their dependability, effort, productivity, and accountability”? Is that a little more empathetic and less likely to raise prejudicial thoughts?

I could come up with more examples, of course, – social security, meals on wheels, immigrant dreamers, civil rights – but here’s my point: Others hear what we say with their brains; but they listen to us with their hearts. When you are able to reach others’ hearts, you are communicating with empathetic messages. And you know what will happen next? You will discover that your personal coping efforts will be greatly enhanced because you will realize you’re communicating with your own heart. That self-discovery will bring you independence and empowerment with empathy. Your independence will be without isolation and loneliness; your empowerment will be without self-absorption.

Speaking to his brain, you say to your friend, Bill: “I hear you’re having open-heart surgery next week. My dad had that a few years back and he came through it great. You’ll be fine, Bill.”

Speaking to Bill’s heart, you say: “I hear you’re having open-heart surgery next week. My dad had that a few years back. I remember he said to me, ‘Son, I’m scared out of my mind; I’m afraid I’ll die on the table and I’m not ready to go! I’ve still got a lot of living to do.’ Bill, I really understand what you’re going through. Any time you need to talk, I’m there.”

Generally, when you think of coping with stress, I bet you tend to look for strategies that take place at an individual – me – level. When you throw humility and empathy into the picture, however, you transform your coping efforts into a social enterprise, and you experience the beauty of a life that includes others.

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