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Against the grain | Lessons in frontline comms and the value of empathy

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Copper’s latest Perspectives essay was written by Bruce Hugman, International communications specialist and writer. 

Reaching hearts and minds to discover what people truly think and feel is a strenuous business. Engaging, influencing and collaborating with them is even more demanding.  

This is true in every field of public endeavour: infrastructure planning and consultation; public policy, including healthcare; education, criminal justice and much more. It is also true in our private lives: in relationships between partners and family membersparenting and in social groups.  

We do not achieve understanding, solve problems or negotiate solutions through questionnaires or tweets – we make real progress in face-to-face encounters: through asking good questions, listening with open ears, testing our understanding, finding common ground, and slowly building rapport and agreement. It takes empathy, commitment, and time. 

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, recently said: If you’re looking at a phone more than someone’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing. The reward centers in our brains have become habituated to the excitement of the next alert on our devices at the expense of the much tougher – apparently less stimulating – processes of live interaction. We react as if what is happening out there is more stimulating than what is happening right here 

This diversion from the immediacy of human relationships almost certainly affects our social skills: Yuval Noah Harari – one of the great minds of the century – believes that our social skills are being degraded through lack of face-to-face engagement.

You can see this at the highest level of political and diplomatic communication: much of this is now conducted electronically, some of it on social media channels, some of it highly assertive, all of it – always – fast and beyond retraction 

There are intense benefits and rewards from social media and internet in some aspects of our lives, but it’s a question as to whether the demotion of person-to-person interactions about great issues has led to less or more polarisation; more, or less, hostility. The same caution applies to almost all digital communication: has Twitter encouraged attentive listening, engagement, negotiation more than divisiveness and hostility?  

Corporate and governmental communications have a long history of insufficiency and failure. Arrogance, distance, belief in superior knowledge and wisdom, knowing what is best for others – these have all disrupted the path to productive relationships. Any number of corporate PR disasters have borne witness to this, not to mention bureaucratic governmental processes that alienate citizens.  

Now, the risks of failure are intensified by the assumption that facilities of digital media are, in themselves, the magical solutions to every challenge. Without fundamental change in beliefs and attitudes, accurate understanding of audience mind, establishment of credibility and trust, progressive engagement, negotiation of acceptable outcomes, no channel itself is any kind of solution to the complex demands of effective corporate PR. 

This is true within organisations, too. Emails and intranets, even staff meetings, will not necessarily liberate the creativity of staff or induce their loyalty, unless they are based on a profoundly empathetic grasp of the state of mind of the people.  

The best organisations – and those most likely to avoid disasters – have genuine channels for open, upward-communication, mastery of the processes of genuine dialogue, a blame-free culture and a sense among staff that their voice and contribution are key to success. Front-line staff, especially, know the public impact of an organisation better than anyone, and they are the first to spot when things are going wrong or about to. Their opinion and insight are neglected at peril of survival. 

So, too, with the public. If you really want to know what people are thinking and feeling, you have to knock on doors and talk with them. If you hold meetings, you must demonstrate ambitious levels of sensitivity and skill. Surveys go nowhere near reaching the intricacy and complexity of opinion and emotion; as often as not, they narrow and confine enquiry to an agenda that may not match the recipient’s at all. Binary issues (‘Do you? Don’t you?’; who you’ll vote for and so on), may be usefully explored through surveys, yet even here, we know how crude they are and how unreliable they can be. The most effective research comes from the probing, follow-up question to an opinion, and from the iterative pursuit of the truth. No survey can do that, and few meetings will ever penetrate much beyond headline feelings and intentions. 

Empathy is not some woolly, armchair concept. Empathy is the ability to think and feel like someone else, to see the world from their perspective, for however brief a period. It is not ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’, it is experiencing life as someone else would experience it in their own shoesEmpathy is not sympathy or concern or compassion; it is a strenuous intellectual and imaginative effort to move utterly outside one’s own reality and into the reality of another. It is achieved by research, engagement, imagination, observation and profound listening and patience. If there were more empathy in the world, there would be much less strife and alienation, in families and institutions, in politics and economics, and in infrastructure and healthcare.  

This highlights the communications challenge for infrastructure and all areas of professional and private life. Only strenuous, active, empathetic listening and interaction that acknowledges and embraces the exact state of another’s mind, will bring us close to reality as experienced by others. Only action, based on empathetic understanding, will lead to some measure of audience consent and satisfaction, even when the result is not in accord with expressed wishes and priorities.  

When there is disagreement about a course of action, excess hostility occurs when one party believes that their position was never rigorously explored or taken seriously. We must all live with decisions we did not approve of; what we do not have to live with is the frustration generated by a careless disregard of our precious beliefs and opinions.  While some individuals or groups may express implacable hostility, the great majority will accept that things do not always go their way, if they have been respected and not bruised or neglected along the way. 

The phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy illustrates this point. There is a minority of hardened anti-vaxxers who are not much amenable to persuasion. There is a large band of vaccine enthusiasts, some of whom argue their case carefully and patiently, some of whom assert their views in arrogant tones that are dismissive of doubters and deniers. Between them are many who are undecided, hesitant in the true sense, and amenable to persuasion. They will likely be influenced by the most finely targeted communications or the most vivid and persuasive; those that evince the greatest measure of empathy for their concerns. That analysis probably accounts for most big issues: a new infrastructure project, a new child-care policy, a new low-emissions zone. If we are distracted by the naysayers, then we may neglect to find potential support amongst those who are undecided, to say nothing of those already onside . 

There is one other major obstacle to productive communication: the great gap between people, especially those with different backgrounds in terms of socio-economic, educational, or professional status; religious or ethnic culture; identity or self-esteem. CEOs, civil engineers and project managers inhabit a highly specialised world with its own language, procedures and worldview. The same is true for local government officials and many politiciansWhile not like each othereach is not remotely like the bulk of the population. The unique territories in the Venn diagram of social organisation are large and largely exclusive: the purpose of communication is to bridge the distance, reduce the gaps, increase overlap. 

The civil engineer who does not realise just how radically different they are from the population that will be impacted by their project is going to have a very hard time.  

My career has been in school and university teaching, the Probation service, public transport, business, PR and marketing, in international healthcare. Not a day passed when I did not have to investigate the state of mind of my audience – school pupil, young delinquent, the traveling public, my staff, a government department, a country.  

If I were to be useful, my audience had to know that I took them seriously, respected them, listened, tried to understand, and that whatever project we tackled together was based on what they felt as their true best interests. Within a relationship that robust, we could agree to differ; in some circumstances I could even assert my authority against the wishes of my audience and not be despised. Above all, there was the greatest possible potential for progress and success. The principles hold good for projects of all kinds, even those an audience might oppose. 

Many of our corporate and national problems stem from separation and alienation; the challenge for communicators in all fields is to bridge gaps, heal rifts, open areas of mutual understanding and collaboration. The enterprise requires energy and grit and talent – and endless empathy. 

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