How To Increase Your Empathy And Improve Your Social Media Results


EmpathyA few years ago when I started to explore social media, I assumed that my skills as a “communications professional” were all I’d need to succeed. Good writer? Check. Technically savvy? Got it. Willing to share and engage with others? Certainly.

Oddly enough, although I thought I had the bases covered, my initial efforts fell utterly flat. For months, few people followed me back on Twitter. Not much happened when I blogged or Facebooked, either.

As I sat there one day wondering what I was doing wrong, a friend of mine (a woman, no less, which will make perfect sense shortly) saw one of my frustrated tweets about my sagging efforts. Politely, she DM’ed me. “The reason you’re not connecting is because you’re just talking AT people. You’re not having a conversation.” (My eternal thanks to Lisa Hoffmann!)

Ahhh. It seemed so simple. (It’s a conversation, stupid!) But it was just the start of discovering what I now consider to be one of, if not the, essential ingredient to success using social media. And that is the ability to empathize with others.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is a little word with a lot of bigger meanings to it. It comes from the German Einfühlung, meaning to feel as one with. The best metaphor to explain the concept is “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” in order to appropriately understand that person’s perspective. Being truly empathic means connecting with another person on a relatively close emotional level.

Bill Clinton’s famous utterance, “I feel your pain,” is another example of empathy in action (never mind what he was really thinking at the time). Contrast this to being sympathetic, which is nice but keeps you and the other person more at arm’s length.

Down here in the sunny South, we have a smarmy expression for expressing sympathy that isn’t really heart- or soul-felt: “Bless your heart.” If you’re visiting and hear that, feel free to either walk away or punch the person in the mouth.

In delving into the subject of empathy, I learned that, fortunately, most human beings are hard wired to be empathic. Mirror neurons in our brain are responsible, from birth, at allowing us to learn by mimicking the behavior of others and intuiting their thoughts and intentions. The discovery of mirror neurons and subsequent research is fascinating to study, and I recommend Marco Iacoboni’s book on the subject, Mirroring People.

I say most people are hard-wired to show empathy, because it turns out some are physically incapable of “feeling others’s pain.” Those who suffer from Asberger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism, for example, appear to lack empathy and are “not pick up on social cues and may lack inborn social skills, such as being able to read others’ body language, start or maintain a conversation, and take turns talking.” (Source: WebMD)

Audrey Hepburn briefly explains empathy in Funny Face

What does this have to do with social media?

Highly empathic skills are crucial, especially given the electronic nature of much of social media, at least at this point in time. While it is difficult to discern someone’s true intent and feelings in text-only messages, that is precisely what is required of social media practitioners.

You need to make quick judgement calls on a regular basis in order to effectively decide “where someone is coming from” and respond appropriately. Video and audio messages certainly help convey more “clues” that we’re used to getting during face-to-face encounters, but often you don’t get these.

What’s more, a lot of companies seem decidedly anti-empathic these days. They let fear of open conversation get in the way of allowing people to express their true emotions (for example, by blocking any comments on Facebook or their blog). Or worse, they let people respond but ignore or delete “controversial” comments that don’t fully support the company’s position.

Increasing Your Empathy

So how can you better understand empathy and your capacity to be empathic? What are ways to improve your empathy? Here are nine action steps.

1. Take an online empathy test

While not scientific, it will give you a quick idea of whether you are above or below average.

2. Ask your close friends, family or colleagues to rate or critique you

Tell them you want their truthful assessment of how well you consider theirs and others’ feelings in your routine communications. If you hear negative feedback from more than a few people, they may be picking up on traits or practices you’re not even aware of.

3. Read books on the subject of empathy

Such as Iacoboni’s mentioned above or Jeremy Rifkin‘s excellent The Empathic Civilization.

4. Become more mindful of your surroundings, particularly in groups of people

Are you a good listener, or do you constantly “think ahead” and interrupt others? Do people seem to avoid you in social situations or send out negative, unspoken signals?

5. Re-read Kristy Bolsinger’s great post on this site

In it, she says, “The ability to empathize with your community is critical. Critical. If you cannot relate or truly empathize with them then I believe as a marketer you have bigger problems. But this is something that can slip away from us during difficult moments. We get asked the same questions over and over.

People seem to complain over the littlest things. They want everything for free. Okay, okay, I get it. We all get it. It goes with the territory. Let’s remember though – that this is only work for you. This is [usually] pleasure/play/shopping for them. This is a relationship they are not getting paid to maintain – rather they are generally paying.

Continually reinforce the feelings of empathy for your community to keep their point of view in the forefront of your mind and efforts. Remember – this may be the 487,498,745th time you have heard that question, but it is the 1st time they have asked it!”

6. Watch some sad movies

I’m serious! Pick movies that are known for eliciting strong emotional responses (for suggestions, ask a movie-going friends or post a question on Twitter or Facebook, “What’s the saddest movie you’ve ever seen?”

If you can consistently watch sad movies without showing any personal emotion, chances are your empathy levels are low. Try to isolate yourself while watching and truly immerse yourself in the story. Let yourself “go” as much as possible and allow yourself to experience whatever feelings rise to the surface. You may have been drilled since childhood not to show emotion, which could be holding you back from fully empathizing with others.

7. “Listen” to others in your social media stream and practice writing responses

Jot down some quickly, and take time to more carefully craft other messages. Show the original message from someone and your response(s) to a trusted friend or colleague and ask them to “grade” you on your response. Was it unfeeling? Too blunt? Or appropriate in tone and feeling?

8. Create a private “empathy testing” group with select friends or colleagues

Use a private Facebook Group, for example, or a service like for business associates. Explain that you are conducting an experiment for a certain period, and you would like people to post messages about what they are happy, sad or frustrated about, so others can respond (within a private environment, of course).

Make it clear that the objective is to give each other the ability to read and “critique” responses without fear of recrimination. Naturally, you may need to clear this with your HR or PR departments before running a simulation like this! Be certain people understand not to take anything personally as you “experiment” behind your firewall.

9. Watch what some of the social media pros do, like Gary Vaynerchuk and Chris Brogan

Their dialogue and openness are highly instructive on what resonates with others online.

I’d love to hear what others think about empathy, and any suggestions you have for refining these skills. In your opinion, who’s really good at being empathic?


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