I have been finding lately that a conversation about empathy is a good starting point for workshops on any kind of business writing. It breaks the ice and gets people talking together about something of which everyone has some kind of experience.
I start by showing a short video and then give people a few minutes to discuss in pairs what they’ve seen. This often provokes wide-ranging discussion which in turn throws up many of the fundamental points we go on to explore in the course of the workshop – the most basic of all being that you can’t expect to make a good connection with your reader, no matter what you’re writing about, if you can’t imagine how they will receive what you write.
One thing that’s surprisingly difficult, though, is to make clear the distinction between empathy and sympathy. ‘Understanding’ is usually the closest we get to a definition for empathy, although one could argue that you can’t be sympathetic without the capacity to understand, either. The etymology helps a bit, empathy literally meaning ‘suffering in’ as opposed to ‘suffering with’ for sympathy, although that can end up sounding a bit abstruse. So what’s lacking is a really good illustration.
I discussed the problem with my wife after a recent workshop. Sarah is a counsellor who also trains counsellors and empathy is a big topic in the early stages of all the courses she runs. I was relieved to hear that she finds the definition can be challenging for people too.
She gave the example of meeting someone whose grandmother had recently died. A sympathetic response might be, ‘I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. I remember just how I felt when mine died.’ The empathetic response, on the other hand, might be, ‘I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. How are you feeling?’ A simple version of the distinction might therefore be that you put yourself into sympathy but take yourself out of empathy.
This should be a particularly useful mantra for organisations, because of the tendency in so much business writing for the corporate trumpet to ring out with little or no awareness of how dull it sounds to the reader. In this context empathy is very often a simple matter of understanding that in place of all the usual trumpet-blowing, a simple story will do the work if you let it. The story will make the human connection, leaving room for an emotional reaction, a rational interpretation, and all the behavioural responses that may result from those. In other words, a story will persuade in a way that statements of fact, let alone assertions of corporate excellence, never can.
A different though not dissimilar distinction was drawn today by Nick Barley, the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, at our Spring board meeting. Nick was presenting the new programme – and a thrilling festival it’s going to be in this year of the World War I centenary, the Scottish Independence referendum and the Commonwealth Games, among other things.
He pointed out that according to Google chairman Eric Schmidt, the equivalent of all the information created in the world since the dawn of time up until the year 2003, is now generated every two days. In this machine age, enabled by technology yet overwhelmed by data, we tend towards a reductive view of things. Enormously complex ideas are reduced to symbols, for example E=mc2. One of the reasons for holding literary festivals is that stories are the antidote to this. They do precisely the opposite. An apparently simple story can contain and explain many enormously complex ideas. A literary example might be Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, widely regarded as the holy grail for anyone who wishes to understand what cities are and how they work.
And so through literature we come full circle, back to empathy – because great writers know that what they say has to resonate with their readers on many different levels at once, and only by fully understanding what it is to be human can they accomplish that. So while my business writers may not be great writers, they can at least take steps in the right direction by recognising that their readers will always, without exception, be other humans just like them.