Illustration of two women talking to each other with a city street in the background

Illustrations by Jamie Bennett

Want to really make a difference? Communicate with empathy

Empathetic communication means listening first—and creating a connection. Here are five ways to make it work for you

Everything I know about effective communication, I learned from the sidelines of a soccer pitch. When I agreed to coach a girls’ soccer team, I thought the bulk of the job would be setting drills and teaching ball control. But our 12 teens were a mix of expressive, enthusiastic and timid individuals, and as I observed their interactions on the field, I started to understand they all needed to be spoken with in different ways, if they were to grow and gel as a team. Big personalities were receptive to direct feedback from the sidelines, while sensitive ones responded better to a thoughtful one-on-one conversation. I adapted my communication style accordingly, and the girls soared.

It’s a lesson that has meaning off the soccer field, too. How we communicate with others in our communities influences the quality of everyone’s lives—and our effectiveness in getting results. Empathetic communication is all about listening with your full attention to understand another person’s feelings and perspective. When you make someone feel seen, heard and respected, an emotional connection forms. And once that bond is there, your words have far more impact.

Whether mentoring youth, building support for a petition or facilitating collaborative projects, community organizations and leaders rely on empathic communication to mobilize people. Here are some of their top strategies. (Tip: These tools are effective in the workplace and with your kids and partner at home, too.)

Illustration of a woman with a speech bubble on a green background featuring toronto's city hall

1Set a positive tone for dialogue

When the City of Toronto’s UrbanHensTO Pilot Program launched in March 2018, it meant that residents in four wards were allowed to keep chickens in their backyards. While this created an opportunity for urban homesteaders to have a hyper-local and humane source of fresh eggs, it also opened the the door to neighbours’ complaints about excessive clucking, poopy coop smells and vermin, if chicken owners got lax about the care and keeping of their birds.

Toronto Animal Services wanted people to respect the bylaw voluntarily, rather than in response to warnings and fines. To achieve this, they were proactive in sharing advice with chicken owners, giving them the chance to voice their own concerns and ask questions about their challenges, so they could get useful information on everything from noise control to coop and yard cleaning to veterinary care. “If you can be empathetic with the resident,” says Mary Lou Leiher, the program manager, “then you help them comply.”

2Make space for opposing views

When Skylar Jackson started gathering signatures on a petition against the Dufferin Grove Northwest Corner Revitalization Program, she was confident in her ability to succeed. Why? A resident of the Toronto neighbourhood for more than 40 years, she was prepared to engage with people’s concerns when she approached neighbours for support, rather than to lead with her own strong views.

Jackson’s mindset was to make plenty of space for divergent perspectives as she knocked on doors. “When people had opposing views, I’d listen and answer their questions,” says Jackson, who ended up collecting more than 1,000 signatures. “I’d also ask follow-up questions—‘how do you feel, if we lose the basketball court for a couple of summers?’—so we could understand and relate to each other.”

3Put yourself in the other person’s shoes

It’s important to recognize that everyone has their own story and life journey, says Tarah Clark, partner and COO of Building Up, a social enterprise that helps under-employed young people get their start in trades like carpentry, plumbing and painting.

“A lot of our clients don’t have much trust in employers and in the system,” Clark adds. To help combat that lack of trust, staff listen to what clients say about where negative feelings are coming from. In ongoing conversations, they demonstrate that they believe stories about past experiences and that they also believe in their clients’ capabilities and their ability to create more positive experiences going forward.

Illustration of a man with two speech bubbles in front of a city scape

4Remember what people tell you

“We make an effort to recognize the challenges and experiences of the youth and families that we serve,” says Tara Hartley, youth programs specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto, a United Way-supported organization.

New volunteers receive training to help them relate to the child they’ll be mentoring. A big part of that is learning to express care by asking questions, and—very importantly— remembering what a mentee shares.

For example, says Hartley, “If a mentee mentions an assignment they have coming up in school, then a mentor could express care by following up the next time they meet.” This demonstration of thoughtfulness makes the mentee feels valued, motivated and listened to.

5Practice presence

Community Living Toronto helps people with an intellectual disability get involved in their communities in meaningful ways. That might mean helping clients find a job, setting them up in a volunteer opportunity, or inviting them to participate in leisure activities such as drama or arts and crafts.

Too often, people with cognitive disabilities have the negative experience of being spoken for or spoken down to—or even ignored—in their daily lives. When others take the time to check in with their wants and needs and to value them as individuals, it makes them feel empowered and more willing to participate in something new and unknown. James Janeiro, director of community engagement and policy, suggests saying good morning with a smile, making eye contact, and checking in with an email or phone call. Sounds basic, but these simple actions are often overlooked—and are the building blocks of any relationship.

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