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Community operation Self development

Empathy: why it matters and how to use it in your online community

Why empathy matters 

Who cares? Why does empathy matter and how does it make a difference in a business setting?

Empathy isn’t a fluffy discipline but is incredibly important for effective communication and valuable to any professional communicator.

We all know what bad communication looks like – times when a message seems tone deaf, where you’ve not been listened to, they’ve missed the point or worse, patronised you.

When you feel this way, you’ll disengage, trust will be damaged and you may even walk away. In a community setting that’s bad news, particularly for the organisation you work for. 

Community is about connection – about fostering mutually beneficial relationships between people with a shared experience, and those relationships benefit the organisation as well.

Empathy drives connection.

When you feel heard and supported, you want to continue that positive relationship. When you feel understood you’re likely to feel like you belong and that encourages you to return. When you feel like you belong, you’re more likely to want to support the community, or the organisation it represents. You may even champion it.

What empathic communication involves

Empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s about considering the other person, their words, and their experiences. This means having a laser focus on what they say. This means you meet the person where they’re at.

It’s not about jumping straight to your own experience, making judgements or comparisons, or telling someone what to do in a forceful or patronising way. This leads to a person feeling like they’re not an equal or worse, that they shouldn’t have bothered saying anything. 

How to apply empathy

The best way to apply empathy is to learn to read a message as if the person is speaking to you. Tuning into someone else takes time and effort to do.

You’ll find yourself doing the following:

  • Looking at the words they use
  • Noticing the formatting of the message (bold, colours)
  • Looking for the big things they’re saying (or not saying)
  • Observing the emotions used
  • Noting any key questions.

Before replying, you’ll ask yourself ‘what’s the big thing it seems this person needs?’ and ‘what don’t they need?’

Constructing an empathic response

Your answer will consider what you’ve observed.

Book bin that says: Think before you speak. Read before you think.

You’ll avoid making judgements. You’ll summarise what the person said. If you want further clarity you might ask questions or say what it sounds like the person is saying. You might give the person options of things they could do, or ask them follow-up questions if you’re not sure.

You’ll re-read the message to be sure you’ve got it right. After all, your aim is to meet the person where they’re at, and encourage the person to keep in touch.

Setting boundaries

When we support other people as part of our jobs, we can feel that we need to solve everyone’s problems. Unmanaged, that responsibility leads to burnout.

Empathy should have two steps: we listen and show we’ve listened, and we give options of information/support or further help. 

Remember – empathy is just about understanding and connection. Keeping this clear boundary in place means you can be confident you’ve done all you can. 

graffiti message says you got this

Learning as you go

Empathy comes naturally to some people, but to others it feels uncomfortable. If you’re in the business of connecting people, it’s important to know the tools to connect with others, and empathy will definitely help you to do that.

Keep trying, and keep revisiting those key listening skills mentioned earlier. Make empathy a key skill for your team and plan to talk about how to take a supportive and listening approach to your communication. In time, empathy will become part of the way you support your community.

I’ll end with a challenge – remember the times you really felt you were listened to, you really felt like you belonged. Think of the difference it made. That’s why empathy matters.

Categories
Community advice Self development

The best way to Help other people – Part two

This is part two of a blog series discussing self-care strategies for community managers at charities. [Read part one]

Looking after yourself is a tried and true ‘best’ way to help other people. Here are five more self-care strategies that help motivate and empower you, and keep you safe from burnout.

6. Look at ways to scale support for your community

Consider whether there are options to increase support for you and your community.

Get an agreement not only about your own responsibility for ‘out of hours’ but identify who could offer support so you can take leave. You may want to delegate to others in your team to cover agreed tasks, or to agree an ‘urgent queries only’ cover with another colleague working in a service user support role. Set clear expectations and ensure they’re clear on what’s expected, by sharing your processes, FAQs or letting them shadow you.

Look at other ways where you could agree support. For example you could ask colleagues with subject knowledge to help answer hot topic queries, or even answer questions on your community. You could agree an escalation process or a knowledge sharing agreement with your Helpline on more complex or emotive queries.

If you have a staff team, make sure you can all cover your basic BAU tasks like email enquiries and moderation. If your community is growing and you have an active member base, consider inviting members to support the tasks of welcoming others, being helpful, and flagging problems. You may also want to consider giving experienced members the opportunity to help with moderation. This can radically increase the effectiveness of handling spam and urgent issues, particularly out of office hours.

picture of toy monkeys in a chain of support with the background of a blue sky

7. Take breaks

This is obvious advice but I think people in digital support roles need to hear that they have permission to step away from their community and their day job. Your community is probably open 24/7 but you shouldn’t be.

This can be as simple as setting screen breaks, or checking in with other colleagues during the day to switch perspective. There are notable benefits of stepping away from your screen, particularly in the evenings.

If you can (and it works for you) agree at least one day out of office on a regular basis particularly for planning or development tasks when you may need to get your head down and focus. Set expectations with your team or with colleagues.

Most importantly, ensure you use annual leave – you’re entitled to it! Spend that time doing the things that matter to you.

8. Learn reflective practice

Reflective practice is so important for community managers as so much of your job is about handling issues, resolving conflicts and balancing the expectations of your organisation and also your community members.

You may be faced with emotionally charged conflicts, waves of resistance or abusive responses to moderation. An avalanche of issues can lead you to question your decision making and affect your confidence.

Reflect on how you respond to issues – not only what you say but how you say it. Catch yourself doing it right, as well as assessing responses that could have gone better. Consider your own emotional response.

Look on feedback as an opportunity to improve, or a way to recognise what is already working well.

I’d recommend spending time coming up with a list of ‘review’ questions that you can use to support yourself or others on your team. See the reflective practice model below for an idea of what to include.

When a challenging issue comes along (particularly an upsetting one), you can reassure yourself and your team by working through those questions and checking in on what you did well and could do differently.

9. Build your support network

Community management can be tough, and it can be an isolating role.

Build a network of support for multiple reasons – for buy-in, peer support, debriefing, advice and constructive challenge.

Start with people in your team, or people who also have user-facing roles in your organisation to offload, share perspectives and build a mutually helpful approach. This will prove especially helpful when you need to take a united approach to handling a major reputational issue.

Find people in similar organisations and build connections and trust. Ask questions, seek support, share war wounds (yes, this!) and explore ideas.

There are a number of comms-focused communities of practice in the UK charity sector, including Digital Charities on Slack, Third Sector PR and Comms Network on Facebook. For those running peer support communities there’s Modbods on Facebook.

Outside of the charity sector, the CMX Hub and CR Table groups on Facebook are worth a look to connect with others working in community management.

Try to find someone who has similar – ideally greater – knowledge and experience. No one knows everything. Find a mentor if you can, and make use of their experience to grow. Finding someone who will respectfully challenge you will help you to improve.

10. Redress the balance

Finally, one of the best ways to look after yourself is to take a balanced approach.

In this job you may handle difficult issues, support people in distress and take responsibility for resolving conflict. This comes with an emotional ‘cost’.

Redress the balance of handling heavy things by spending time doing things that make you feel energised.

What is meaningful and uplifting for you?

I support people who are distressed, bereaved and feel isolated. In my spare time I gravitate towards food movies, comedy and exploring London’s history. I offload with good friends in oak timbered pubs and walk the family dog.

To finish, I’ll share a video that inspired me to think about my own HappyList:

What’s on your HappyList? by zefrank. A part of me will always love this guy.
Categories
Community advice Self development

The best way to help other people

The answer: looking after yourself.

Really? How is looking after yourself a tried and true ‘best’ way to help other people?

If you work for a charity that might sound counter-productive. Surely your focus should be on the cause, the people in need, the people you support. Putting time into focusing on your own needs can feel distinctly uncomfortable, wrong somehow.

You’re probably under-staffed, under-funded, overwhelmed and trying to meet an increasingly endless wave of need. The challenges could include service users in distress, complex moderation issues, last-minute requests for case studies, problems that apparently only you can solve, and that regular ‘ping’ of emails on the work mobile phone.

Self care? 5 minutes of yoga, a smoothie and a smug self-help quote won’t cut it.

smoothie being poured away. image from unsplash

Ten self-care strategies 

Even with a low budget and limited resources, here are ten effective and helpful self-care strategies that work well for me. They can help motivate you, empower you, and keep you safe if you’re an online community manager at a charity.

1.Be clear about your remit

Doing this will help you to know what you should focus on, and what you should say no to. This can prevent feeling like you have to be all things to all people at all times, which leads to burnout.

Define remits around time by agreeing expected work hours and the type of issue that justifies attention out of hours.

Define remits around requests by agreeing the types of requests that people can make, and how you handle them. Don’t give any external (or internal) person a carte blanche to post requests without your involvement – that way lies chaos!

Define remits around moderation by being clear what you allow, what you don’t and why. This will set your culture and ensure everyone knows what is expected (more on that another time).

2. Talk to your Helpline team

If you’re regularly in contact with people who are emotionally distressed or experiencing really difficult times, this can quickly have a big impact on your own emotional wellbeing. If you have a Helpline team, speak to them about how they handle these feelings and the tools they have in place to help them support their callers.

In my experience, online community professionals for charities should learn empathic communication techniques used by Helplines, and apply them to their processes for handling moderation, complaints and other enquiries. Empathy and community go hand in hand.

3. Set a clear debrief and escalation process

Make sure you plan ahead and know how you will handle issues. This is a great way to retain control when unexpected and urgent things happen. You’ll feel calmer and reassured when you follow your own agreed process.

This should cover:

How you respond to reputational issues – from identifying a complaint to effectively resolving or escalating.

Getting the right skills and process for safeguarding users who may be at risk of harm or abuse. This is particularly important for charities and will help you to know you’ve done all you can to help users in the greatest need.

Agreeing a consistent moderation process that will help you to be confident in handling a wide range of issues.

The other important part of this is the debrief. Do you have someone to check in with after handling a difficult situation? Find someone to support you and help you to talk things through.

4. Look out for triggers

We all have things that upset us, make us angry or unsettled.

Trauma triggers can happen at any time. This could be a series of threads about losing a parent, a news story about sexual harassment, or a user being sexually abused.

Learning to recognise your own emotional response is important. Watch out for things that keep returning to your mind, or make you lose your calm.

It’s helpful to develop your own techniques for keeping one step removed from these issues. Empathic communication and reflective practice can help you to develop good techniques that enable you to offer support and keep you at a safe distance.

This will help to guard against burnout, or vicarious trauma.

5. Log and track positive feedback – why you do what you do

Appreciation matters (see previous blog). On a tough day when you’re facing budget cuts, crazy deadlines, and a wave of issues it can be easy to wonder why you bother.

Put a little time aside each week to log positive feedback – from simple thank yous to the detailed stories that help show the tangible impact your community has.

Invite others in your team or in your organisation to keep watch for feedback.

If you have more time, share this feedback in your newsletters (anonymising details) or share with your internal contacts.

In community we spend so much time doing the job we don’t shout enough about the great value of our work!

Thank you note and a cup of coffee. Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

To be continued…

This is part one of a two part blog series discussing self-care strategies for community managers at charities. [Read part two]