As part of my journey into freelancing, I recently took the Clifton StrengthsFinder test.
I was simultaneously surprised and not-at-all-surprised to find that my main “strength” – according to Clifton – is empathy.
What is empathy?
From the book:
People who are especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations.
To empathise is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Not just understanding their view, but understanding how it feels for them to have that view.
Understanding someone in this way means you can use the knowledge to inform how you interact with them, because you can intuitively predict their reactions and behaviour.
It’s important to note that empathy is not the same as sympathy. You can deeply understand how someone feels (and might therefore act) without having to agree with, or feel the same as them. Someone who sympathises too much can end up taking on the world’s woes, or even excusing bad behaviour.
And, at the other end of the scale, a person with psychopathic tendencies can read others’ emotions very well but remain emotionally unmoved. This way, they can use their “understanding” to manipulate and control. Of course, this is not empathy either.
Empathy as a strength
I already knew that I tend to empathise with people, but I was surprised to see it as a strength in this context. I hadn’t really thought about the ways in which being empathic* might help my career.
In fact, “empathy” is becoming more and more sought after as a career strength. A LinkedIn article by George A even suggests it will be The Number One Job Skill in 2020.
The truth is: businesses need empathy. We hate “faceless corporations” (indeed, upon learning I was writing this blog post, a friend commented, “isn’t corporate empathy an oxymoron?”) So over the last couple of decades, marketing – especially online marketing, with the advent of social media – has been growing more and more “human”. Companies are forming quite personal relationships with their customers. Products “speak” to their consumers directly (I’m thinking not just about Facebook pages, but of the smoothies with “stop looking at my bottom” printed on the underside of the cartons). Our favourite organisations on Twitter are those who appear the most authentic.
When we interact with a business these days, we want to have as genuine and human a conversation as possible. So it’s easy to see how empathy is actually a very important trait for a copywriter or content editor to have.
How I use empathy at work
Firstly, I listen. I might come across as “quiet” initially, but I always prefer to take in as much information as possible before venturing any opinions. And I’m big on body language; I believe that you don’t always have to speak in order to communicate. Non-verbal cues are as important as what people are telling me.
It’s not something I do consciously but, by listening and observing carefully – and often trusting my instincts – I am able to understand, and so reflect, a client’s needs.
Instinctively comprehending others’ thoughts and feelings, often “reading between the lines” a bit, means I can see how situations may evolve. I can manage expectations more easily with this information, which makes for smoother client relationships.
As a copywriter, empathising with the reader means I tend to know instinctively what sort of language will resonate with an intended audience. Knowing all the ways in which a piece of writing could be interpreted is pretty important.
It also means that I get a feel for the sort of language that an organisation or brand should be using, and can build that into the creation of “tone of voice” guidelines that reflect the company’s ethos.
And as a content editor, I find that I have an instinct for web usability: the ways in which people get around websites and behave online. Predicting behaviour based on an empathic understanding of the user – and thus being able to anticipate how people will react to certain cues and types of signposting – is really useful.
In fact, the things that involve empathy are the things I like most about the sort of work I do. It’s why I love writing instructions and user guides; I loved creating the “How To” guides on the 4Homes website, and writing what has turned out to be the most popular blog post on this website: How To Clean Your Washing Machine. Rewording error messages on the National Express booking website, and seeing ticket sales go up as a result, was one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve ever done! Having the ability to “get” people is incredibly pleasing.
There are negatives to being empathic, of course. I don’t hide my feelings very well. (And I have a lot of feelings.)
I find it hard to start something without understanding everything about it. So I research everything – not just the subject areas involved in a project, but the people. I sometimes spend a bit too long worrying about how to approach someone or something instead of just being forthright and taking control of a situation myself. I often have to tell myself to JFDI.
And – of course – I’m sure I don’t always get it spot on. I’m not a mind reader, after all (although I have been accused of that in the past).
Luckily, though, the second most popular theme to arise from my assessment is adaptability: the ability to respond quickly to change and put things right.
*Empathic or empathetic? My New Oxford English dictionary tells me that both are acceptable; I prefer the former.