I’d like to present a case for empathy as the most important word in a writer’s vocabulary.
Empathy comes from the Greek en, which means “in”, and pathos, which means “suffering” or “experience.” When we have empathy, we enter another person’s experience. Charles Siebert, writing in a recent New York Times Magazine article about the use of birds to help trauma victims, describes it as “the source of all emotion, the one without which the others would have no register.”
What does it have to do with business writing?
Well, when we write in order to communicate something of interest and importance to our readers, if our objective is truly that and not to massage our own egos, then in some fashion we have to enter the experience of our readers.
To do that we have to understand who and what they are. The obvious considerations are demographic – how old are they, how well educated, how senior (or junior) within the organization. But if we go deeper, the considerations become environmental, emotional and psychological.
What are the worries and concerns of our readers? What is their morale, their state of mind, their attitude to the organization we belong to? Are they in a happy environment or an unhappy one? Are they enjoying their work, relating well with their co-workers, or are they deeply frustrated and disengaged (several recent, comprehensive surveys of employee attitudes in North America show that most people are not engaged with their jobs).
I would argue that a truly successful business writer has empathy for the audience – can in some way enter their experience and see things from their perspective. Otherwise, we should expect failure, like a directive from senior management that only pursues its own agenda. Or a directive from the IT department that doesn’t take into account the frustrations many employees feel with corporate technology policies and corporate technical communication (or lack thereof).
By showing empathy, we show respect. In my experience, nothing in the often complicated world of workplace relationships and interactions is as important as respect. Managers may pronounce upon it, but employees know in their gut whether respect is just a word tossed into speeches or actually part of the organization’s culture, day to day, week to week, year after year.
So try a little experiment before you write your next piece of corporate communication. Spend a moment or two thinking and feeling your way into the experience of some of your readers. After all, you know them, you work with them and possibly you work for them. And then consider what they might be thinking and feeling as they absorb the words you have written.
And see if that makes a difference in the words you choose, the tone you adopt, perhaps even the subtext riding below the obvious meaning of your message. If it does, you just might be experiencing empathy. Good for you.