Responding with empathy online

I have recently been working on a project to help program a chat-bot’s auto-responses. A common concern about using artificial intelligence is whether their responses lack empathy in comparison to human responses and whether this will impact customer service. (I should say at this juncture that the sophistication and nuance of conversation that some chat bots have is truly excellent)

This project made me reflect on whether as humans we put enough thought into responding with empathy when we interact online. It’s so easy to forget the people behind the screens or be distracted by our own feelings or agendas. It can also be hard to respond appropriately when we feel awkward or ill-equipped to do so. I hope this guide will help you if you have ever felt this way.

  1. Are you minimising, comparing, arguing with or dismissing what people say?
    Try not to feel too defensive here, it’s such a common response to say – “oh I know how you feel…” which often segues into an anecdote about a similar experience that you or someone you know may have had.

Why is this so problematic?
The act of conversation is to listen and respond and what better way to respond than by making your response relevant to what they have said, right? Well… before you do this, please remember that unless you have had the exact same lived experience as that person, you probably don’t know exactly how they feel. Let me just say that a bit louder for those in the back. UNLESS YOU HAVE HAD THE SAME LIVED EXPERIENCE AS THAT PERSON, YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW HOW THEY FEEL.

Another side effect of responding with your own experience is that it may come across as invalidating or minimising their feelings – particularly if your experience seems worse by comparison. Even if you are tactful enough not to try to one-up them, please remember it is important that they know their feelings are valid, and relative.

How to respond with empathy instead
When somebody shares something with you, before you share something with them in return, please take the time to acknowledge what they have said, to thank them for sharing it with you, to encourage and support them. Good responses that make people feel heard are:
“That must be really hard”
“I’m sorry you are feeling this way”
“I can’t imagine how this feels for you”
“I wish this wasn’t happening.”

  1. Are you trying to help? Is it actually helping?
    Whether you are a person who is enthusiastic to share their knowledge, or just kindhearted enough to want to make a positive difference in someone’s life, chances are when someone tells you a problem, you focus more on trying to solve it than actually listening to them. I am this person. I have to work really hard to overcome my natural impulses and to remember that one of the absolute best ways to help someone is to just be there for them in that moment to listen, to allow them to be vulnerable and to help process their feelings and that if I am to have the honour of being able to help, this really does not need to be my first response.

How to respond with empathy instead
Don’t jump straight in to offer advice or talk about your own experience. Hold some space for them if they need it.

“My heart aches for you.”
“I feel so sad that you’re going through this.”

allow them time to respond before asking

“what would help to make you feel better?”
“I’m here for you whenever you want to talk about this and if you would like any suggestions, I’d be happy to try to help”

  1. Daring to distract or deflect
    Sometimes it does help to joke about it. Sometimes it does help to put a problem into perspective. If you choose either of these paths, it would be best to acknowledge that it might not be the right response.

How to do it if you are going to do it
“Oh dear, you just told me something really intense and the first place my mind went was this inappropriate joke…”

“thank you for telling me. This reminds me of something similar that happened, would you like to hear about it?”

They might ask to hear your joke or your anecdote. They might tell you that it might help.

Or it might give them the space to say “that’s not what I really need right now” without it being awkward for them.

  1. Do you still feel awkward in this situation and just don’t know what to say?
    It’s actually OK to say that. It’s OK to say “thank you for telling me. I really don’t know what to say.”

    There is a wonderful children’s book called The Rabbit Listened which reassures us that when you are in the room when someone is upset, the best response is often to just be there. To listen. To sit with the person so they know you are there and that perhaps it even lends a greater validation to their feelings if you don’t know what to do.

How to replicate this online?
Obviously just not responding isn’t going to work here! Try encouraging them. Repeat what they have told you back to them so they know they are heard

“I want to make sure I understand… is that right?”

“what I hear is you are feeling… is that right?”

I hope you find this helpful.

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