The Language of Empathy

As a consultancy focused on purpose-driven organizations, Additive partners with nonprofits, NGOs and social enterprises with critical missions and compelling causes — from educational access to health equity to community mobilization. As we strive to clarify their stories and amplify their impact, demonstrating relevancy of the issue and urgency of action is critical.  However, articulating this in a way that respects and reflects beneficiaries’ perspectives can be a balancing act.  In other words, how to speak about people and places in need without sounding paternalistic or patronizing.

At Additive, we know that language matters — and that a word has the power to drive or deter interest and action.

That’s why we help organizations convey empathy rather than pity. Pity may motivate people to give out of feelings of guilt, sorrow or obligation. But there’s an imbalance inherent in pity:  it’s the haves giving to the have-nots. It can also exacerbate beneficiaries’ concerns about being seen and treated as “others.”

Empathy, on the other hand, brings people together – connecting people with diverse experiences around our shared humanity and sense of responsibility.

Building empathy starts with language that appeals to what audiences and beneficiaries share, leveling hierarchies and making the case person-to-person. Here are four key principles to communicate about sensitive subjects thoughtfully and effectively:

  1. Advocate for and appeal to real people, not abstractions
  2. Frame issues in terms that everyone can relate to
  3. Convey authenticity by encouraging beneficiaries to speak for themselves
  4. When in doubt, validate messages with audiences and beneficiaries to communicate clearly and with urgency while respecting sensitivities

Finding the right word isn’t always a straightforward process, and this shift in mindset takes practice.  But done right, the language of empathy has the power to elevate organizations from “charity” to  “cause.”


Image via Unsplash user Patrick Tomasso