“Empathy Is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research”
That’s a recent headline from Forbes.
“3 Reasons Why Empathy Is Good for Business”
That comes from Entrepreneur.com.
“Why Empathy Is Good for Business and How to Improve It”
From the World Economic Forum.
It’s widely recognized that empathy helps with emotional intelligence, communication, and connection. All important things, when you’re a writer.
After all, whatever goal you’re trying to achieve with your writing, it’s going to be easier to do if you have a connection with your reader.
But, what if you don’t feel like empathy comes naturally to you? All these headlines — and others like them — can leave you feeling at a disadvantage, even discouraged.
If that’s the boat you feel like you’re in, I have good news for you. Empathy is something you can develop. Through practice, mindfulness, and awareness, you can strengthen your empathy muscles… and your writing skills right along with them.
Natural Empathy vs. Developed Empathy
Some people seem to come by empathy naturally. They can look at another person and know what they’re feeling based on subtle cues in facial expressions and body language. No one taught them this exactly… they just have a knack for it.
Some people also seem to feel the emotions of others more acutely. If a friend is sad, it can generate genuine sadness within them. And, if they see happy people on the news, it can trigger their own feelings of happiness.
Studies show it’s true, some of our capacity for empathy is baked in. And it varies from individual to individual.
But, we also gain some of our empathetic abilities from our environment. And that means we can develop a greater sense of empathy through a bit of deliberate practice.
So, if you want to have more empathy, keep reading. I’m going to share three exercises you can use to increase different types of empathy.
But first, what do I mean by “different types of empathy”?
The 3 Kinds of Empathy You Can Bring to Your Writing
The first kind of empathy is cognitive empathy. That’s where you can imagine yourself in another person’s position and understand what they might be feeling and thinking in that moment. This is often called “perspective taking.”
The second kind of empathy is affective empathy. It’s the one I mentioned above, where you actually feel what another person is feeling. Affective empathy is useful in making connections and as a step toward compassionate empathy, but it can also be difficult to manage. If you get caught up in another person’s emotions — feeling what they’re feeling — it can be unhealthy for you.
I just mentioned the third kind of empathy — compassionate empathy. This is when you understand how the other person is feeling, but you move from feeling it with them to caring for them, often by providing some kind of supportive action.
So, how can you work each of these empathy muscles, and what will that look like in your writing?
Strengthen Your Cognitive Empathy
Regular practice will improve your cognitive empathy. And the easiest way to workout this empathy muscle is to imagine what another person is thinking. Take their perspective. I recommend you do this once a day.
You can do this in situations where you’re engaged in a minor conflict. For example, imagine you’re at the grocery store and someone is blocking the aisle with their cart, while reading the label on a jar of baby food.
Instead of getting irritated, you could take their perspective. They may be a new parent, which means they may be exhausted and less aware of their surroundings than usual. And, they’re concerned about getting good nutrition for the infant, so what attention they do have is going to that.
You can also do this with characters in TV shows and movies. Or, while people-watching at the park.
The more you do this, the more you’ll be able to take the perspective of your reader before you write. And, when you do that, you’ll have an easier time recognizing their challenges, questions, and goals. When that happens, you’ll be able to write to them in a way they find very empathetic — they’ll feel like you really get them.
Improving Your Affective Empathy
When we interact with people — particularly strangers — there’s always a lot we don’t know.
That person who just cut you off in traffic may have gotten a call that their child is sick at school. If that’s true, it might not excuse their rude, reckless behavior, but it makes it much easier to understand and forgive.
Like the perspective-taking exercise, once a day, think about what you might not know about a person you’re interacting with or observing on social media or in the news.
You can also do this exercise before you write. When you do, you’ll find you have more concern and care for your audience, and that will come through in your writing.
If your reader feels cared for, you’re going to make a good impression and deepen their feelings of trust.
Tap Into Your Compassionate Empathy
One of the dangers of cognitive empathy is that you leap past the part where you connect with someone and go right to trying to help them solve their problem. If you’ve ever been in a situation where someone starts trying to fix something while you’re still emotionally processing it, you know that creates friction.
One of the dangers of affective empathy is that you get overwhelmed by your shared feelings and have to withdraw from the situation. This can break the connection with that person in a lot of obvious ways.
Compassionate empathy threads the needle. When you’re feeling compassion for a person, you understand their feelings, but you direct those emotions to caring for them. And, you’re moved to help, but not to take over for them. You respect their role in solving their own problems and cast yourself in a supportive position.
Being able to get to this point involves a lot of listening.
There are a lot of things you can do to develop your listening skills, but one of the best starting points is to listen more mindfully.
That means recognizing when you go from being focusing on what someone is saying to formulating a response in your mind. (We all do it.) When you realize your attention has shifted, switch back to focusing on the speaker’s words. This takes a lot of practice, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.
And, the more you do it, the more you’ll find yourself curious about your reader’s thought processes… and the more you’ll pay attention to all the things they say through comments, support tickets, and social media. That’s one advantage to your writing. You have a deeper knowledge of your reader and their needs.
The other is that you’ll write more conversationally. You’ll mirror your reader’s language more. You’ll acknowledge potential questions and answer them in your copy. You’ll be more in tune with the change they want in their life, and you’ll be able to write about it in a genuine way.
Empathy is how we connect with people. And, connections are what drives us. They certainly drive your reader. The more connected they feel to you through your words, the more they’ll feel like they know you, the more they’ll trust you… and they might even decide they like you. When those things happen, if they want a product like yours, you’re the one they’ll buy it from.