The first 7 years of my life were happy. I was confident, enjoyed school and had plenty of friends. Then one day, almost a year into a new school, I was diagnosed with Immune Thrombocytopenia (ITP).
The average human has 80,000 platelets: tiny cells that let your blood clot. One day I woke up with ITP, a disorder that left me 80,000 platelets short. Black blotches appeared all over my body. I was hurried into the emergency room, doctors frantically figuring out what was wrong with me. I was scared, yet I had no idea just how serious my situation was.
After this episode 3 things happened:
1. I became anxious about my health. “I could go back to the hospital any time couldn’t I Mum?”
2. I felt the need to prove myself. As one of the youngest in my year I already thought I was behind, and ITP made this even worse. I started using my intelligence as a tool to keep up. “I might be younger than you, but I’m just as smart.” (I have since learned this doesn’t make great conversation.)
3. I had “special treatment” status. This meant daily trips to the school hospital and missing sports.
Three juicy reasons for my peers to socially isolate me.
This chapter triggered an emotional downturn. I vividly remember dozens of laughing kids running away from me, all playing the same game: Don’t catch "Ben B germs". I became a scapegoat, my friends seeming to turn against me. I began feeling like a leper.
For the next 12 years I struggled building relationships. Despite a new school at 13 I found it hard to trust people. I worried my new classmates would discover “Ben B germs”, my past tormenting me once again. As I learned, without trust, friendships can never be truly meaningful. I sabotaged relationships with inner anxiety, my only real obstacle staring at me in the mirror.
A few weeks into my University second year something snapped. For the last 12 years I genuinely believed the world was rigged against me. Every bridge of friendship always seemed to burn. But in one powerful moment, standing in my bedroom, a thought out of nowhere brought everything into sharp focus:
"Ben, the world isn’t rigged. A large part of your misfortune has been—and will always be—down to you."
In that singular moment, I felt truly understood for the first time. I saw my situation clearly: I was the problem AND the solution.
Understanding myself empowered me to start changing my life. After this epiphany, the people-related anxiety that bubbled up in social situations transformed into a deep curiosity. Why did some relationships thrive while others crumbled? I began a 6 year journey learning how powerful relationships are built. Today I’ve lived across 3 continents, and while I have plenty to learn now am fortunate to have a global group of personal and professional relationships.
I discovered a difference between those who successfully build relationships and those who fail. This one vital lesson is a savvy business leader’s secret weapon. It’s used to ignite connection with customers and fuel business growth.
Empathetic communication means messages that move past people’s heads and connect with their hearts too. It’s one of the best techniques to acquire customers, hire talent or close investment. The last time a speech, pitch, book or conversation made you feel something, that was empathetic communication. And if you’re still reading, it just worked on you too.
Science explains how empathetic communication works. The limbic system—our innermost brain in charge of learning, emotion and memory—existed long before homo-sapiens developed rational brains: the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system has no capacity for language: It’s governed by feelings. Before we could speak we probably communicated by channelling our emotions into energetic gestures and grunts. Most of what we hear today tries to persuade with facts and logic. Empathy is like Cupid’s arrow, aiming at your emotions. Empathetic communication triggers our primitive limbic system. It taps into the right emotion, making us feel something and making us respond with action.
Communicating with empathy is a business leader’s superpower. It lets them speak to something bigger than themselves, relating to both powerful ideals and the person across the table. This article is a step-by-step guide to leverage that superpower for your business.
I've felt how hard it is when people don’t “get” you, especially when you know how valuable your product or service can be to them. This article compresses nearly 20 years of hard-earned communication lessons into a proven process. That’s why I’m sharing my story: So you can benefit from lessons that make your journey less painful.
When you start using empathetic communication, you unlock the ability to build powerful relationships. By the end of this piece you will be able to harness this superpower in your content, emails, landing pages and more. This will let you create connection with powerful relationships, ultimately helping your business succeed.
There’s one big problem that holds people back from unlocking empathetic communication: The fear of leaving their comfort zone.
The comfort zone is where great potential comes to die. It stops people from achieving all that they’re capable of.
It’s easy to think stepping outside the comfort zone is scary. It could lead to even greater discomfort than your current situation, no matter how frustrated you might be. But in truth, staying inside your comfort zone means things can’t change. On the other hand, if we can overcome our fear by taking small, regular steps outside our comfort zone, we can start down the path towards communicating with empathy.
In second year of University, after understanding I was in my own way, I started leaning into my fear and began leaving my comfort zone. I took a small step and joined the Lacrosse club having never played before. My teammates are dear friends to this day. I started dating the woman who became my girlfriend for 5 wonderful years. By taking small steps outside of my comfort zone I began building meaningful relationships.
This doesn’t mean we need to be uncomfortable all the time. The goal is to create bursts of discomfort that push your perspective. Bursts of discomfort push our identities beyond the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves. No one leaves their comfort zone for good in one move. But the more you lean into your fear by answering uncomfortable questions and having challenging conversations, the more steady progress you can make.
I can’t promise this 5 step process will always be easy. But I can promise it will be worth it.
Before you can be understood by your target audience you have to understand yourself. After all, if you don’t feel understood, how can your target audience?
The ROI of empathetic communication is unlocked when your audience understands how you can improve their lives. This ultimate goal is the final step in our process. We can think of it as creating mutual understanding: Your audience is ready to listen, clearly sees how your product or service can help them and wants to work with you.
Like any useful process we need to measure success. Before continuing define what metric will make your empathetic communication successful. Is it generating leads? Closing sales? Hiring talent? It’s important to quantify your desired result with a metric. We’ll be coming back to it in our fifth and final step.
These measurements don’t have to be purely quantitative; often the most valuable insights come from talking to your customer. Asking questions like “Do you think we’re empathetic to your needs? Do you feel connected to our brand?” Could unearth the nuggets that make your communication hit home.
One final note before we dive in. The 5 step process isn’t linear, it’s cyclical. Building powerful relationships is a long term game. The more cycles we get completing the 5 step process, the stronger our communication becomes.
Clearly understanding yourself—the first step to empathetic communication—happens when you identify the subtlety hidden in your story.
A subtlety makes your message unique. They’re simple but powerful truths that shape how you communicate. And because we all take ourselves for granted, most of us miss the golden subtlety right in front of our noses.
Empathetic communication takes time, yet I don’t believe subtleties are gradual discoveries. They are words or phrases that, once heard, instantly make you feel understood. You’ll wonder how you existed without them for so long.
I learned this lesson when I understood myself for the first time. From aged 7 until I turned 20, I was convinced the world was out to get me. Anxiety consistently sabotaged my relationships. Then one day, standing in my bedroom I suddenly realised:
Ben, YOU have caused much of your misfortune.
Subtleties are hidden in the language we use. The moment I could put my feelings into the right words I finally felt understood. Since my emotional downturn aged 7 I had thought my struggle building relationships was some sickening twist of fate. Someone had it in for me. I started breaking through this barrier by identifying the subtlety in my story: a victim mentality hidden in plain sight. For the first time in 12 years I saw my situation clearly: I was playing the victim, and I needed to change that. This understanding forced me to take responsibility for my relationships and start moving my life forward.
Identifying your subtlety takes time. You have to dig. But with enough work to find it, the right subtlety can unlock your story’s latent potential all at once. To see this principle in action let’s turn to one of history’s empathetic leaders: Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was a trained lawyer, and believed the art of communication was a lawyer’s avenue to the public. Yet he warned lawyers not to rely on persuasiveness alone. What is well spoken must be well thought through. And great thoughts come from fundamentally understanding our stories.
In 1854 Congress passed the controversial Kansas-Nebraska act. Under the pretense of free movement it gave slavery a path to aggressively spread across the US. Lincoln was by no means perfect; his solution to slavery was far from complete. But he saw this new law for the disguised horror it was. If he was to reduce slavery he would have to fight it. Before speaking out he had to understand the story at hand - he had to identify the subtlety.
Lincoln spent weeks investigating slavery debates from when the Constitution was created. He devoured documents, relentlessly researching until finally, he identified the subtlety he needed: the word “slavery” was omitted from the Constitution.
From this kernel of truth Lincoln grew a mighty argument. During a rousing speech he claimed the Constitution’s writers deliberately concealed slavery “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death."
People asked one another: “When had [Lincoln] mastered the history of the slavery questions so completely?” By taking the time to identify the subtlety. What was well spoken was well thought: one key subtlety—slavery’s omission from the Constitution—unlocked the potential of Lincoln’s story.
As a business leader, your professional story—whether yours personally or your company’s—will be unlocked by a subtlety. Remember, these are hidden in the language we use. For Lincoln it was one missing word in the constitution that strengthened his argument: “slavery”. For you, it’s a word or phrase relating to your story that you could be overlooking.
So how can you identify that key subtlety?
Subtleties combine our passions, what makes us different and our audience’s desires. They’re usually found at the intersection of:
If you could find that key subtlety alone odds are you already would have. Your perspective is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, no-one knows yourself quite like you do. Yet on the other hand, your brain is also clouded with everything else filling it! That’s why you need a sounding board.
The sounding board is someone who has your best interests at heart. They cure your curse of knowledge by only paying attention to the information that matters. As an objective observer they help you see clearly, cut through noisy thoughts and pick up on the subtlety you might be overlooking.
It’s time to outline your personal story as it currently stands today. The process is answering a set of thought-provoking questions and reflecting with your sounding board. Prepare them with two prompts:
The subtlety will most likely be found in the language used when you answer the following questions:
Share your answers with your sounding board. Listen to the words and phrases they pay attention to. What resonates with them? What captures their imagination? The details matter here.
To evaluate the potential of the subtlety you identify, ask yourself:
My favourite 3 words to hear when speaking to my clients are “You get me”. That’s when the client wins: When we’ve identified the subtlety that makes their story worth listening to. They have a platform to start expressing their ideas clearly into the world. That’s the first step to unlocking empathetic communication.
Communication is two-way. Empathetic communication means building a dialogue with our audience. The stronger the dialogue, the more you’ll understand what your audience cares about. For that reason we cannot only speak - we must listen.
Listening isn’t simply paying attention. If we’re not careful we might stay in “problem-solving mode”: matching what we hear to preconceived solutions. We do this to save our busy brains time. But if we want to communicate with empathy, speedy responses have little use. Instead, we need to engage in empathetic listening.
Empathetic listening means pausing your perspective. We must become a blank slate. That means only responding to what we hear in the present, not sharing any preconceived ideas. More importantly, it means trying to step into the other person's shoes, and understand what they’re experiencing.
Empathetic communication took me several years to figure out. For 4 years after my epiphany I used my subtlety to make steady progress: I had a victim mentality, and it was up to me to change that. I learned this next step—the need for empathetic listening—attending a community meetup in New York City.
I was paired with someone I'd never met before. The premise was simple: one person would speak, and the other listened and asked questions. There was one crucial catch. Every question had to start with the same three words:
"What's it like?"
“Ben, what’s it like moving to New York City for the first time and not knowing anybody? What’s it like finding a community that finally understands you?”
Our conversation lasted six minutes, yet I felt I had known this stranger for a lifetime. I was stunned: How could we go so deep so quickly? Because we listened with empathy.
This highlights the difference between open and closed questions. If I had been asked questions like “How long have you been at your job? What industry do you work in?” I would have had a limited—or “closed”—set of possible answers. Data-gathering closed questions are limiting, and they rarely stimulate connection.
That’s why “What’s it like?” questions are so powerful. They’re open ended and allow us to respond freely. When you’re in data gathering mode, you listen for information. But when you’re empathetic, you listen for understanding. You can step into the other person’s shoes, seeing their perspective and pausing your own.
Lincoln demonstrated empathetic listening at a debate. Lincoln’s foremost rival—and chief defendant of the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act—was Stephan Douglas. When Lincoln delivered the powerful argument mentioned in step 1 Douglas was his opponent.
Douglas’s opening speech lasted 3 hours. When Lincoln’s turn came the day was late. Instead of launching into his retaliation he listened to the restless crowd. They were hungry and needed a break. Lincoln suggested pausing for everyone to enjoy dinner, picking up again in a few hours. He turned to the audience, ending his request with “What do you say?”, to which the audience exploded with cheer.
Lincoln established an intimacy with his audience before even starting his speech. By listening to the audience’s needs—shown through their language and body language alike—he began winning them over.
First, realise that just as your sounding board helped you identify your story’s subtlety, you are a sounding board for your target audience too.
Listening to your audience’s needs means creating a dialogue with them. The goal is getting a clear picture of how they see your business, and the value they get.
Brands create sustainable success when they build relationships first, and then scale. Talking 1-to-1 will give you the best chance of unearthing insights on your audience. Where meeting in-person isn’t possible, speak to them over the phone, email, social media or surveys. These insights create the context needed to make communication effective.
Just like your sounding board, pay attention to the language your audience uses. What do you think it’s like to live their story? How do you think they feel? Keep peeling back emotional layers—asking “What’s it like?” and “Tell me more about that?”—until you can clearly articulate two things: 1) The burning problems they face and 2) How they feel about your business.
By the end of this process, aim to have a list of no more than 5 audience insights. These form one half of the dialogue we’re about to create in the next step.
Too many companies make the mistake of building a product nobody wants. Why? They didn’t listen to what their customer needed. We have 2 ears and 1 mouth. Let’s use them in proportion.
Once we’ve listened to our target audience and understood their problems, we’re ready to combine our subtlety (step 1) with our listening insights (step 2). It’s time to create a dialogue.
I learned this lesson speaking on a panel in Nashville. A fellow panelist told me about a fabled speaking bootcamp that peeled back the curtain on getting more gigs and raising your speaking fee. As an eager speaker I was hooked. There was one small problem: A nearly $5,000 price tag.
Time to respond. I had identified a subtlety: the bootcamp’s goal was attracting high quality speakers. I emailed their team offering to generate interest with other speakers in my network. More importantly, I made it clear how much this meant to me. This bootcamp wasn’t just about becoming a better speaker, it was about unlocking an ability to share ideas that will impact thousands of lives. My pitch aimed for the heart and the head.
An hour later I received a reply from the bootcamp leader. “Ben! I like your initiative. You remind me a lot of myself at a younger age. We can offer you a half-price ticket. How does that sound?”
2 months later I sat in the front row, waiting for the bootcamp to begin.
Walter Benjamin once wrote “A great storyteller will always be rooted in the people.” Ultimately, your audience are the heroes and heroines. If they succeed, you succeed.
We can apply this with a simple principle: Put your heroes (or heroines) first. Does your communication make your target audience look great? Will it solve a real problem for them? How can you make the message less about your needs, and more about theirs? Empathetic communication should always put the hero’s needs first, yours second.
Not all empathy is created equal. Before continuing we need to distinguish between two types of empathy: emotional and cognitive.
Emotional empathy is simply putting yourself in someone’s shoes. That creates a serious problem. Why? Emotional empathy imitates feelings. Let’s imagine you need to give a friend a tough reality check. If they’re incredibly upset and you use emotional empathy, you’ll simply become upset too! If you’re happy I’m happy. If you suffer I suffer. You can’t be helpful if you’re stuck imitating someone else.
Cognitive empathy is far more useful. Imagine you’re giving your friend a tough reality check again, but this time there’s a pane of glass between you both. That pane of glass is cognitive empathy: you can still observe someone’s emotional state and “put yourself in their shoes”, but crucially you stay in a separate mental “room”. Rather than mimicking their emotions, you retain your independent perspective. You’re free to respond with what you think is best for the situation. That could be sitting with them and showing you understand their pain. But it could also be some tough advice, or something else entirely. Emotional empathy is imitation, cognitive empathy is independent.
How can you use cognitive empathy? By staying true to your story’s subtlety. Your message becomes relevant when you put your heroes first. But by weaving your subtlety into your response you ensure your message is uniquely relevant.
Push yourself to routinely channel cognitive empathy. When you’re speaking to someone, can you dig deeper into their situation and visualise their pain points? But more importantly, can you respond using your independent perspective?
To begin measuring the tangible impact of your communication record the number of assets you plan to share with your target audience. It could be organic content posts, internal emails, pitch decks, online adverts or something else. In our final step, we will measure the effectiveness of your efforts by comparing your total shared number of assets against your result.
This doesn’t mean you need to count every single piece of communication you’ve ever delivered up until now. Instead, going forward we can view our efforts as a series of cycles. Cyclical campaigns are finite, creating regular breaks to test, learn and improve. (Bad campaigns are infinite with no defined ending, creating no clear windows for improvement.)
When you’re ready to respond follow our 3 step process:
Let’s see all 3 steps in action by examining Abraham Lincoln again.
Lincoln’s argument was built around his story’s key subtlety: “slavery” being omitted from the constitution. In his speech at Peoria he argued that while slavery seemed to be declining across the country, now thanks to this new act slavery was “transformed into a ‘sacred right’”, placed “on the high road to extension and perpetuity.” Lincoln’s subtlety was one missing word, and the idea penetrated deep into his listener’s hearts.
Lincoln put his heroes first. He didn’t appeal directly to slaves, he needed to win the hearts of the free audiences who watched him speak. True to his legal roots, when Lincoln argued against the Kansas-Nebraska Act he believed his audience were a jury: “they—and not he—were trying the case."
Finally, Lincoln responded with cognitive empathy over emotional empathy. He closed the gap between southern and northern enemies, stating he had “no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.” Lincoln created the perception of an independent mediator to show northerners and southerners were more alike than they thought. Lincoln responded with cognitive empathy at his core. He began building a bridge between the two parties, making steady progress towards the emancipation of slavery.
Messages that inspire action are empathetic. Because when we feel something, we act.
If you’ve played frisbee you’ll know that no matter how good your throw is, it only counts if the other person catches it. Like a good frisbee throw, empathetic communication has to connect with your audience to matter. When your message connects with your audience it forms a bond between you. The glue securing your relationship gets stickier. We must make it simple to see if our messages are connecting or not.
Emotional connection is measured by your audience’s engagement. Are they responding to your emails? Booking sales demos? Commenting on posts? Retweeting you? Remember, we’re building a relationship. It’s not enough to communicate - your audience must respond. Measuring engagement shows whether our messages are driving action or not.
I learned this stepping off a crowded London Underground tube. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a man hunched over an iPad, playing Candy Crush. I’m all for properly relaxing, but to me that day Candy Crush was nothing more than a horrendous waste of time. I furiously pulled out my phone - the world needed to know this injustice.
For the first time I posted on LinkedIn. “Having seen the millionth person play Candy Crush on the tube, here’s 5 apps you can use to make your commute more productive…” You can imagine my surprise when a week later the post reached over 100,000 people. That’s the power of engagement: My idea connected, my audience responded. I could measure their engagement through dozens of comments and hundreds of likes.
Treat audience engagement as a feedback loop. Feedback is fuel. The more we collect and act on feedback, the stronger our relationship becomes. No feedback, and your target audience moves on.
It’s up to you to find out how often your target audience wants to engage. For some businesses weekly engagement will be overwhelming, for others not enough. Whatever frequency you choose, commit to engaging with your audience. Consistency is the most important part.
As a rule, always invite your audience to reach out at the end of your communication. For my content, at the end of every Subject Matter Podcast episode I ask my audience what they thought of the show, and always ask for feedback on Twitter.
Mutual understanding is the ultimate result of empathetic communication. People take action when they feel understood. It gives them the confidence to work with you because you finally get them. At this final step your target audience understands how you can help them, and want to act. This is how empathetic communication positively impacts your bottom line.
I learned this final step ghostwriting for a thought leader. I had identified the subtlety in her story. I’d listened to what her audience wanted. I’d communicated on her behalf, and created engagement with her audience. One day I receive a message:
“I’m working on an exciting project. Would love to bring you in.”
Through ghostwriting LinkedIn content, I made this thought leader feel understood to the point where she was ready to act. I “got” her. This mutual understanding led to me executing the content campaign for an upcoming book launch (Shortcut Your Startup, Simon & Schuster). When it became an Amazon best-seller I saw a powerful principle: empathetic communication can drive tangible business results.
Mutual understanding is measured through the success metric you defined right at the beginning. What result did your communication create? Did it generate leads? New customers? Job applications? The better the result, the better your communication.
To evaluate your empathetic communication’s effectiveness, compare your results with the assets you shared to achieve them. How many pieces of communication did you need to achieve your goal? Or how did you fall short?
It’s important to take your objectives into account too. A client of ours used 4 long-form thought leadership articles to help drive 7,000 attendees at an online conference. Another client used 12 pieces of short-form content to help make 4 new hires. Does that make the 7,000 attendees hundreds of times more successful? Of course not. Measuring effectiveness is contextual to your objective.
To see mutual understanding in action let’s return to Abraham Lincoln one final time. On the first day of 1863 Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. It legally freed more than 3.5 million African American slaves living in the Confederacy. If they could escape across Union lines, they were free forever. While the last slaves wouldn’t be freed for another 2 years, this marked a bold step forward in the fight against slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a result of driving empathetic communication through mutual understanding. Lincoln acted as a bridge between African Americans and Union leaders, and helped his fellow revolutionaries see that slavery needed to be abolished. He could measure his success by the number of slaves that were liberated. By the civil war’s end nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors were fighting for the Union.
Lincoln wielded empathetic communication with unyielding zeal. It allowed him to form mighty arguments, touch hearts and heads in bold new ways, and make a significant contribution towards the eventual emancipation of slavery on June 19th, 1865.
Empathetic communication is the savvy leader’s secret weapon. By repeatedly applying this 5 step process you’ll have a powerful tool to build relationships, whether you’re acquiring customers, hiring talent or simply shaking the hand of a stranger.
Embracing the power of empathetic communication changed my Relationship²: My relationship to my relationships forever. By overcoming my fear of leaving the comfort zone I identified the subtlety hidden in my story, started feeling understood, and ultimately began building a life I’m proud of.
As media evolves in the coming years our attention will become increasingly stretched. In this new landscape understanding yourself is a competitive advantage. Leaders leveraging empathetic communication will connect with their audience's hearts AND heads, and reap the richest rewards.
Outlining the process I’ve intuitively figured out over the last 6 years is just the beginning. I’m excited to be building Astutely: A marketing agency that empowers business leaders with empathetic communication. Feeling understood forever changed my ability to build meaningful relationships. I’m honoured to be achieving the same for our clients. If you’re interested in identifying your subtlety and unlocking your own empathetic communication, you can get in touch here.
Every movement that shaped the world was first put into words. If you’re a change maker, language is your superpower. Speak to your sounding board. Answer uncomfortable questions. Keep digging until you find the golden subtlety hidden in your story, forging your future in the furnace of empathy.
Your empathetic communication will never be the same again.
This essay could never have been written alone. Thank you to everyone who provided feedback: Adrien Behn, Rich Keller, James Holland, Abel Tedros, Hayden Humphrey, Erich Rickens, Zowie Langdon, Karl Janisse, Luke Fortmann, Conor Payten, David Bradbury, Sid Efromovich, Jen Vermet, Kane Powley, Bosley StFort, Bryan Wish, Joe Boag, Kenny Dundorf and most importantly, to my Mum Barbara Bradbury for helping me embrace my story.