Excerpted and edited for ISHN by Dave Johnson

Everybody agrees that empathy is crucial to risk communication. Vincent Covello, for example, argues that caring/empathy accounts for 50 percent of trust; the other 50 percent, he says, is shared about equally by dedication/commitment, honesty/openness, and competence/expertise. He often quotes an old saying to the effect that people (especially people who are upset) don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

So if you do care, showing you care is obviously crucial. What isn’t so obvious is how to show you care, how to express your empathy.

Simplistic advice from a risk communication expert to “be empathic” or “show you care” is of limited value. Too often it leaves you thinking you’re supposed to check off some kind of empathy box — say something like “we are all so sorry for your loss” or “we don’t blame you for being upset” and then move on to the crisis or contentious issue at hand. Or it just leaves employees or other stakeholders wondering what exactly they are supposed to do.

Nor is the advice to “just use your intuition” very helpful (or very empathic). Our intuition about empathy is often wrong. We need guidelines.

Beware proprietary pain

And the guidelines can be profoundly counterintuitive.

When a stakeholder (an employee, neighbor, community leader, investor, regulator, reporter, board member, etc.) is recounting how upset he or she is about something your company has done or plans to do, it might be tempting to murmur sympathetically, “I know how you feel.” That sounds like it should be an empathic thing to say. Yet every risk communication practitioner soon discovers that it doesn’t feel the least bit empathic to the recipient. The invariable response is an angry, “No you don’t!”

Paradoxically, “I can’t imagine how that must feel” makes people feel more understood than “I know how you feel.”

Clearly, expressing empathy involves more than just telling others you feel their pain. It turns out people are often very proprietary about their pain. They don’t take well to strangers who claim to feel it. It’s theirs.

And yet they don’t take well to strangers who seem oblivious to their pain either, or who deny that they’re feeling it, or who tell them they shouldn’t be feeling it.

The dilemma of empathic communication is finding a middle path between two mistakes:
  1. being oblivious to your stakeholders’ feelings, and
  2. intruding on your stakeholders’ feelings.
Much of what has been written about empathy focuses on not being oblivious. So novice risk communicators are likely to think obliviousness is the only problem. They’re likely to suppose that the vague admonition to “Be empathic!” means they should keep pointing out what their stakeholders are feeling (“You’re upset”), that they know what their stakeholders are feeling (“I can tell you’re upset”), and that they appreciate how their stakeholders came to feel that way (“I understand why you’re so upset”).

There are worse ways of intruding (“You’re stupid to be upset,” for example) — but this is still intruding, and it thus falls short of the empathic ideal.

So before you go any further in this article, please reconsider your anchoring frame, your mental model of what “being empathic” means. It’s not enough to pay attention to feelings. It’s not enough to show we’re paying attention. We have to find ways to do it respectfully and gently.

In this article I propose five methods or action steps for “operationalizing” the concept of empathy.

1. The “sort-of acknowledgment”

The essence of empathic risk communication is understanding what your stakeholders are feeling, and then finding a way to “sort-of acknowledge” what they’re feeling — without trespassing on their emotional property.

I wrote “sort-of acknowledge” instead of just “acknowledge” because you’re dealing with emotional dynamite here. Your acknowledgments must be gentle, non-intrusive.

In fact, your acknowledgments may have to be deniable, especially by your stakeholders themselves. People who show you how they feel may really want you to show them that you get it (that you “get them”) — and still need to deny their feelings. For instance, people who are frightened may not want to admit it, and therefore may not want you to notice it too overtly.

It isn’t kind, or wise, or empathic to push your stakeholders to acknowledge the feelings you’re sort-of acknowledging, or even to acknowledge your sort-of acknowledgments.

Take-away: Empathic risk communication aims to get your stakeholders’ feelings “into the room” without making your stakeholders feel exposed or pinned down.

You find a way to signal what you think they might be feeling, and to validate that it’s a pretty understandable way to feel. If you’re reading them right, they will feel more understood, better able to bear their feelings, and thus better able to cope with the situation.

They may or may not tell you you’re right. They may even tell you you’re wrong, and insist that you back off — which of course you should do. If you were reading them right in the first place, they will nonetheless feel more understood, better able to bear their feelings, and thus better able to cope with the situation.

2. Candor and humanity: being real

When you personally feel hostile about your stakeholders’ feelings, you’re not going to be able to act like an empathic risk communicator. When your feelings are mixed, when empathy and hostility coexist, consider the possibility that you should let some of your negative emotions show.

I have occasionally advised clients to go ahead and express some of their anger at their stakeholders. Maybe they’re questioning your competence and your integrity; maybe they’re costing your company or your agency hundreds of hours and millions of dollars. Of course you’re upset. You may very well be as outraged as they are.

But while they’re freely expressing their outrage, you’re struggling to suppress yours, to hide it even from yourself. Almost inevitably it leaks out — usually in the form of cold courtesy. You may tell yourself you’re acting professionally, but to your stakeholders you’re probably coming across as uncaring or even passive-aggressive, certainly not empathic. Letting some of your anger show is very likely an improvement over converting it into frigid, obviously hostile courtesy.

It’s possible to carry “being real” too far — and end up being really unprofessional. But most professionals are overly preoccupied with looking professional, and insufficiently attentive to looking human. It’s rare for the public to end up thinking some risk communicator or crisis manager was too emotional, too involved, too personal. It’s quite common for people to think he or she was too controlled, too calm, too uncaring. So while “too emotional” certainly exists, “too controlled” is by far the likelier problem. And that kind of robotic control is incompatible with empathic risk communication.

Anger may be the hardest emotion to express empathically. That’s why marriage counselors spend so much time working on how to fight fair. Other emotions are less fraught.

But some of my clients have trouble getting themselves to express any emotions.

Take-away: You shouldn’t have to choose between candor and empathy, between being yourself and showing you care.

Quite the contrary. Even though candid statements about how things seem to you are obviously distinct from empathic statements about how things might seem to your stakeholders, the essence of risk communication is to find ways to combine the two.

Your goal as a communicator is very often to change your stakeholders’ minds about something. So empathy alone won’t accomplish your goal; at some point you’re going to need to tell them what you think and why. But candor alone probably won’t accomplish your goal either. If you’re not attuned to their perspectives, they’re profoundly unlikely to accept yours.

A core task for risk communicators is to learn how to disagree empathically.

3. Deflection: You — I — They — Some People — It

One key way to make your acknowledgments less intrusive, to convert them into empathic sort-of acknowledgments, is to deflect what you say away from the stakeholders you’re actually talking to. Deflection is what you’re doing when you say, “A lot of people might get angry” instead of “You’re angry.”

Years ago, my wife and colleague Dr. Jody Lanard taught me what she called the “I — you — it — some people” framework to control the extent of the deflection. Thinking the framework through for this article, I revised it to “you — I — they — some people — it,” in order from most to least intrusive.

Suppose for example you’re in the middle of a controversy over groundwater contamination from your factory. Although the evidence shows a very low probability of any health effects, some of your neighbors insist the contamination is deadly. You suspect that part of what’s going on is an unacknowledged worry about property values, which may be fueling people’s resistance to the reassuring health data. (Of course other things are fueling it too: mistrust of your company, scientific uncertainty, etc.)

You want to raise the property values issue without being too intrusive. Here are some of your options:

Undeflected: (You)
“You’re not really worried about health. You’re afraid your property values might be affected.”

Deflected: (I)
“I was in a situation like this when I lived near an industrial park. What worried me even more than the health effects was the possibility that my property values might be affected.”

More deflected: (They)
“One of your neighbors was talking with me last week about this situation, and the thing that worried him the most was the possibility of an effect on his property values.”

Still more deflected:
“Some people in a situation

(Some people)
like this would probably be worried about their property values.”

Most deflected: (It)
“It’s possible there could be some concern about property values here.”

Lots of variations and combinations are possible. Consider this example: “I wonder if some people here tonight might also be worried about their property values.” Talking about what “people here tonight” are thinking is pretty intrusive for a public meeting. But making it “some people” reduces the intrusiveness; “I wonder if” and “might also” deflect it further.

Deflection serves two empathic purposes:

First, the more you deflect what you say, the less likely it is to provoke denial.

People can more easily accept that it’s possible there could be some concern about property values than that they themselves are actually more worried about property values than health.

Second, deflection makes it easier to keep the issue on the table (or at least in the room) even in the face of denial.

If you tell me I’m worried about property values and I tell you I’m not, we’re at loggerheads. It’s hard to go on to talk about property values.

But if you say only that there could be some concern about property values, I can say “not for me there isn’t” (or perhaps just say it to myself) and the property values topic is still on the table.

It’s best to avoid provoking stakeholders to express their denial. So if you decide to say that some people in a situation like this would probably be worried about their property values, you should just let the statement hang there. Don’t add “What about you?” — which might easily force the response, “No, not me.”

4. Questioning: “How does that make you feel?”

Questions aren’t always empathic. Sometimes they can feel too intrusive, more like an interrogation than a conversation among equals. The most intrusive questions don’t even feel like questions, but rather like patronizing or disdainful accusations: “Aren’t you really more worried about property values than about health?”

But at a very fundamental level asking people how they feel is more empathic than not caring how they feel or telling them how you think they feel.

So think about revising your question to make it more empathic. Here are some guidelines for empathic questioning:
  1. Make sure the question doesn’t presuppose a particular answer. “Aren’t you worried about property values?” presupposes that you are. “Are you worried about property values?” leaves the question open.
  2. Try deflecting the question. “Do you think some people are worried about property values?” is a less intrusive question than “Are you worried about property values?”

    By asking your stakeholders what they think others might be feeling, rather than what they themselves are feeling, you’re making it safer to give an honest answer. You’re inviting your stakeholders to project their feelings onto others so they can express them without acknowledging them.
  3. Try putting the question in the form of a statement (“I wonder if you’re worried about property values”) or even a deflected statement (“Some people might be worried about property values”). By asking the question indirectly rather than directly, you’re making it both easier to answer (your stakeholders feel less under scrutiny, less on-the-spot) and easier not to answer (your stakeholders can let it slide without giving a false answer or explicitly refusing to answer).

    Indirect questioning also allows people to use your statement as a jumping-off point for what is really on their minds, if they choose to. If you are close to correct, they might start out, “Well, it’s not property values, exactly, but let me tell you about....” A series of indirect questions feels more like a conversation and less like an inquisition than a series of direct questions; through successive approximations it takes you closer and closer to your stakeholders’ actual concerns.
  4. Try to ask open-ended questions, which usually feel less intrusive than specific questions, and therefore tend to elicit more (and more honest) information.

     “How does that make you feel?” is almost a burlesque of a typical psychotherapist’s question — but it’s actually a pretty good question in some situations, a lot less intrusive than “Are you angry about that?”. If your open-ended question might be too vague, you can combine it with deflection: “A lot of people might be angry about that. I wonder how it makes you feel.” (If you stick to the first half, you’re back to putting the question in the form of a statement.)

5. Listening and echoing: “I hear you.”

If you’re going to ask questions, you should shut up and listen to the answers. Obvious as that is, it’s not always done. In fact, I don’t always do it myself. Far too often I ask a good question, then become impatient with the response I’m getting and interrupt to answer my own question. Pretty dumb. And certainly not empathic.

(Editor’s note: Physicians also have a tendency to do this. In his book, How Doctors Think, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007, Jerome Groopman, M.D., says physicians on average interrupt patients after just 18 seconds of describing their symptoms.)

I urge my clients to structure most public meetings around listening to what stakeholders want to say.

Take-away: A strange thing happens when you go into a meeting determined to listen to outraged stakeholders. They start wanting to listen to you.

That wasn’t their goal on their way in the door, but after an hour or two of telling you how they feel and what they think, they begin to wonder how you feel and what you think about everything they’ve been telling you. (This is what I call a risk communication “seesaw.” If you weren’t listening so well, they wouldn’t want you to talk.) “Well!” someone is likely to pronounce. “What’s your reaction to all this?”

(For more details on the concept of the risk communication seesaw, visit www.psandman.com/col/westwing.htm.)

The first time you’re asked to talk, it’s probably wise to demur: “There are people who haven’t spoken yet, and I’m learning so much tonight.” (You can’t say this last phrase unless you really mean it; it’ll come out sounding sarcastic and obnoxious.) But eventually there’s a consensus that it’s your turn. Now what do you say?

You echo. As I pointed out at the start of this article, “I know just how you feel” isn’t an empathic echo. It sounds more like a claim to omniscience than an effort to learn. And it’s intrusive, virtually guaranteeing that your stakeholders will respond by pushing you further away: “You can’t possibly know how we feel.” Even “I hear you” claims too much (and it sounds so Sixties).

A far better way to transition from listening to responding is something like this: “Let me see if I’ve heard you right. I’ve been listening hard this evening, and it seems to me that most of the people who have talked are focusing on three main issues. A lot of people really want us to do X, they’re very worried about Y, and they think we were wrong to do Z.”

Why is this a better echo than “I know how you feel”? For one thing, it deflects the echo from “you” to “a lot of people.” But even more important than that, it’s tentative, provisional. It tests whether you “get it” instead of claiming you do. That makes it easy for stakeholders to correct any misimpressions. It also makes it easy for stakeholders to revise or reinterpret their earlier comments. They don’t have to say they changed their minds; they can just say you’re a little off. Echoes should almost always have some kind of conditional language.

Echoing is very empathic, but it’s not as empathic as listening. Don’t interrupt to echo. (I make that mistake a lot.)

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted and edited with permission from Peter Sandman’s Web site column, “Empathy in Risk Communication” — on the Web at http://www.psandman.com/col/empathy.htm.    

The original column has more detail on the topics covered here. It also covers additional topics, delving into a number of complex aspects of empathy based on the work of psychiatrist Leston Havens.