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.

I rarely update my blog, and I’m fine with that

It’s 5:30 in the morning on a Monday and I am reading my second book of the night (Leonard Cohen’s The Flame, followed by City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert in case you were wondering) with a nagging thought in the back of my head. “You love writing, why do you never update your own blog?”

And it’s a valid question. I spend the majority of my working life here at Butterflump promoting my glorious clients, but I very rarely do any self-promotion for Butterflump. I spent some time today thinking about why that is.

It’s not because I don’t have the confidence to promote myself; I’m very effective at what I do and I have plenty of experience doing it.

It’s a little because I already give away 25% of my time for free to charities like Beechtree Steiner Initiative and Leeds Dads, so when I think of advice that would help a business, rather than write a blog about it and give it away for free, I give that advice to my clients who pay me for the privilege of having access to my knowledge.

It’s not because I don’t have the time – I rarely sleep after all and that combined with being very organised, loving what I do and having a strong work ethic means I can absolutely factor in the time to knock out a blog or update Instagram or Facebook or *gulp* my Google My Business which is looking very unloved right now…

It’s a little because I don’t really need to do it to attract clients – I get great referrals and by the time I come to the end of my current projects I usually find that I have plenty of enquiries lined up to take their place. I tell my clients to do things because it makes sense for their business, not for the sake of it and I do take my own advice too!

It’s not because I don’t have anything to say, I am the voice for most of my clients and as such, I weigh in on all kinds of issues. I did a swift French Exit on my business and personal Twitter accounts a couple of years ago because the quality content was so padded with bots and trolls that I no longer saw the value in joining the discussion.

It’s a little because at the end of the day I would rather elevate the voice of others than hear the sound of my own voice, and that’s exactly why I work in marketing!

If you would like me to help you champion your business, get in touch.

A data nerd’s perspective on Website Design

Recently I was working on a CRM data verification project which involved visiting close to two thousand websites over the period of a few days and it absolutely blew my mind. Not the scope and scale of the project itself, but what I learned about the value of good web design.

You had one job!
When it comes to designing your website, all of the fabulous plug ins, branding, corporate videos, advertising and search engine optimisation in the world are utterly wasted efforts if you have not considered the basic function of your website, which is to allow your customers to find out information about your company.
Whilst it is important to consider the journey of your customer to your site (via a tweet, a blog you shared on Facebook or LinkedIn, by Googling your business name – measuring the source of the visit empowers you to tailor your marketing activity accordingly) it is equally important to remember why they are there.

Are they there to find out what you do? Where you are? Are they there to find your contact information so they can call you with an enquiry? Look at your own website, are you meeting these basic requirements? Out of 1800 websites that I visited in order to check what the business did, find the postcode and phone number and their links to social media accounts only 22% of the websites allowed me to find this information easily. Seriously, 22%. That’s mind boggling.

We scrumpleswish your flibberts to provide value added burbleglumpfts and deliver visionglitter
So many of the companies had admittedly beautiful websites, but my experience was made so frustrating as a result of having to trawl through web copy which did not make it clear what the function of the business was. Jargon does not impress your audience, it alienates and frustrates them.

For the benefit of those who have learned from sales and marketing seminars or business books to “sell the benefits, not the features” (or rather to sell the sizzle not the steak…) your customers are not googling “I want to increase my business value proposition via the application of collaborative media integrations” they are googling a product or service in plain terms.

Navigation is key
However you choose to structure your site, it doesn’t matter whether the contact details are at the bottom, top, side of a page or whether they can be found via the menu – as long as they can easily be found. You should also consider the merits of a contact form versus giving your customer the option to call or email you directly.
Want an honest assessment of your website and constructive advice about how to make it more user friendly?
I offer a free hour of consultancy for small businesses so get in touch.

Be the solution, not the problem

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther Party

Last year I wrote an article on LinkedIn called “It’s time to tackle the isms.” It’s an inarguable fact that we live in a world with many problems. So from the state of the environment to the state of society, how can your business make a positive difference?

Consider how you might be contributing to the problem.
Does your business make or sell products that perpetuate a harmful stereotype?
Your instinct may be to say no, but take a closer look. It may not be as obviously problematic as a range of products for him and her branded in pink and blue.

I find my clients are often surprised that the language and imagery that they use on their websites or via social media doesn’t necessarily reflect how liberal and inclusive that they are. If your pictures feature families for examples, are they really reflective of our society which has mixed race couples, same gender couples, couples with age gaps, single parents or adoptive or foster parents?

People buy from people and if your pictures are not representative of your audience, then your promotions will be less effective than those which your audience can identify with. It works the same when you’re recruiting – saying you’re an equal opportunities employer is one thing, but if every picture on your website is of a white, able man in his thirties wearing a suit, then consider how this may subconsciously alienate women, people of colour, older people or those with disabilities.

It may not seem like a big deal (and it may even be due to limited resources on stock image sites rather than your own photography choices) but unless you promote your business using imagery and language that seeks to normalise and celebrate existing differences in gender, age, race, ability, sexuality, belief and socioeconomic status, you are contributing to the drip feed of information that collectively creates harmful climates such as everyday sexism, toxic masculinity and even rape culture.

Make a change.
Whether you discover that you need to stop perpetuating harmful stereotypes, stop advertising in publications which are funding hatred or whether you begin a mission to reduce the waste produced by your business, be the change you want to see in the world. And if you’re really not sure where to start, here’s a gift to you my essential reading list for the intersectional feminist. Or get in touch for a consultation.