Empathy is valuable, but using it as a corporate message point is a bad idea.
The Inappropriate Sentence
As a professional communicator for more than two decades, I can’t discuss the confidential work I do for clients, but I can share this excerpt from a message I received. I’d already heard about the company’s decision through other channels such as news outlets and social media, so my strong negative reaction to seven words in its September 2017 letter surprised me.
“Candace, we know change can be hard.”
No one meant to amplify the stress of finding a new health insurance company and new doctors with that single line. Empathy just doesn’t translate well in messages like that one, a formal announcement that an insurer decided to stop offering certain policies to thousands of customers like me.
While I respect the collaboration and good intentions that may have generated that message point, I believe deleting that line would have made the company’s announcement stronger.
Imagine any business delivering the news of company layoffs with a similar sentence, or introducing the details of office consolidation and relocation plans with “We know moving can be inconvenient.”
No Perfect Message Point
Words cannot fix everything. The “perfect message point” is a myth. But, while no magical combination of words will transform bad news into good news, some messages may amplify negative emotions in the recipient. In my opinion, the letter violated a basic tenet of change management and crisis communication: Be direct.
Don’t try to soften the blow of bad news with something YOU feel or “know” about the recipient’s internal experience, particularly when you are not among those directly impacted.
The best approach to difficult personal or professional messages is often the same. Keep the empathy; let go of the words.