Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be practiced

Earlier this week, I conducted a workshop for community managers or those with community management responsibilities to practice empathy. The flash of the social media / digital command center or the structure of a playbook can only go so far in improving the community conversation. What really matters is what happens human to human. Can the person on the receiving end of the conversation distinguish between human and robot?

A week before the workshop, I gave the community managers eight scenarios that have actually occurred across their social media / community outposts. Each person was asked to answer the following questions for each scenario and come prepared to discuss the scenarios during the virtual workshop:

  • How is the other person feeling? Why?
  • What would the other person like to do?
  • What would the other person like to say and to whom?
  • What is the other person’s biggest fear / makes them most happy?
  • How will you provide the other person your undivided attention; be non-judgmental; read the speaker; and assess your understanding?

Empathy is about stepping into another person’s shoes. It is easy for community managers to get caught up in the timeliness of response that they forget to pause and think about what the other person might be feeling or how they may react to any engagement. These things cannot be mapped out for every single scenario in your playbook. Empathy is not a black and white formula to be ingested and regurgitated. Each person will need to figure out how to infuse their own personality into each situation. This takes practice. A lot of practice.

Stephen Covey defines empathetic listening as “reflecting what a person feels and says in your own words to their satisfaction so they feel listened to and understood.” There are only so many characters to get across that you empathize with the other person. The FranklinCovey Blog uses these Empathetic Listening starters to help make the other person the focus of your dialogue:

  • So, if I am understanding you correctly you are saying…
  • What I’m hearing is…
  • You seem…
  • You must have felt…
  • You feel…about…

For each scenario or dialogue, the community manager not only needs to pause and place himself / herself into the shoes of the other person, but also place the words into proper context. What is driving this person to speak out? Look at the person’s online dialogue history. Is this a genuine concern or a rant being directed to your organization and others similar? Context is key into knowing how or if to acknowledge another person’s frustration.

Here are two Ted Talks I have used as empathy training resources:


Being exposed to interactions and social experience in which empathy or the opportunity for empathy to be demonstrated is the best way to become a better empathetic listener. All the structure of a playbook or the glitz and glamour of a command center will not teach or make someone more empathetic.

How do you practice empathetic listening? How do you encourage others in your organization to be better empathetic listeners?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1411510404 Hillary Boucher

    This is a great post, thanks Lauren. I agree that empathetic listening is a practice. It’s omething you need to be mindful about again and again. I have a bit of a mental trigger that goes off when I’m listening to someone and I find myself preparing a response or my mind is wandering a bit — I try to bring myself back to awareness of the present moment and clear my mental space and really try to hear what people are saying. Thich Nhat Hanh was influential in my early twenties around cultivating compassion and learning how to be with people in the present moment. Also, during my study of intentional communities I was able to witness community members actively practicing using non-violent communication strategies which emphasize self-empathy, empathy and honest self-expression. Seeing this in practice had a real effect on me as a young adult. Luckily, my team members are very good at empathetic listening. -Hillary

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