All Ears


Our daily paper just ran two complementary pieces filled with advice for grads seeking jobs. I was gratified by the articles’ accent on “soft skills” and this statement: “Communication skills are ranked first among a job candidate’s ‘must have’ qualities, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.”

In defining soft skills, one of the articles noted the desirability of empathy. But how do we show empathy in our day-to-day writing, which for many of us is dominated by quick email exchanges?

Before addressing that, let’s establish that the dramatic times to express empathy are self-evident, and that those cheers about good news or consolations regarding bad news are generally delivered most effectively in person or on the phone. But subtler opportunities to express empathy abound, and I believe the key is simply showing we are “listening.”

Empathy examples

• Suppose a supervisor emails you about an event that was not wholly successful and asks you to come up with ideas for improvement in the future. It’s smart to offer a fresh idea right away, if you have one, and to pledge your commitment to ensuring success next time, but it’s also smart to acknowledge your supervisor’s feelings. So maybe you respond with this beginning: “Yes, I’m disappointed (or frustrated), too.” Then, having demonstrated empathy, proceed with the matter at hand.

• A different way to show empathy is organizing a message according to your reader’s priorities. Let’s say that, left to your own devices, you’d start an update on a multi-faceted project by discussing the aspect of the project that is nearly complete … but you’ve been listening! You have observed that your reader is anxious about the financial picture. Therefore, wouldn’t it be wise to use a subject line like “Still on budget” and offer budget details in your opening paragraph?

• Another skillful move in emailing is replaying a key word. Suppose a colleague, in evaluating a job candidate’s interview, has written that the “chemistry” was great. You could express your own interaction with words like “personable” or “enthusiastic” if you agree – or “flat” or “rehearsed” if you don’t – but why get inventive? Echoing the word “chemistry” in your response demonstrates that you are listening.

In my writing workshops I preach, “Be the reader.” Just “Identify with the reader” or “Think about the reader” isn’t emphatic enough for me. When we write – and edit – our job is role-playing that we are the reader. That helps us make sound decisions and show empathy.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at   

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