Communicating with Empathy

“Thoughts and prayers.”

This may be one of the most cliche phrases in modern times. In a 2018 article about this phrase, journalist AJ Willingham referred to its use as “semantic satiation,” a phenomenon in which a phrase is used so often that it loses its meaning. The phrase now even has its own hashtag, #ThoughtsAndPrayers.

In a world of all-too-common tragedies, and with expectation that leaders of all stripes ensure they provide comments and social media posts to provide condolences in real time for the victims of these tragedies, some version of “thoughts and prayers” seems to find its way onto posts and messaging from leaders and first responders. 

Although the phrase itself is cliche, that doesn’t mean it isn’t warranted. That’s because expressing compassion for others is wired into both humans and animals. We are saddened by tragic news and want to express our feelings in a way that shows compassion for those affected. Sometimes we offer sympathy, which is a way of showing care to someone in need. Empathy is tied to sympathy, but goes a step further and describes when one can feel or understand the plight of those suffering. In other words, the person offering empathy has most likely walked in the victim’s shoes in some form or fashion.

We most often find empathetic statements attached to some disaster, whether man-made or natural … any situation that affects people’s health, safety, family, community, etc. The point is not that it’s cliche to employ empathetic communication; rather, it is necessary, especially in high concern/low trust situations where people are angry, outraged, upset, etc. The use of empathetic messaging should not be something an organization or leader says to check the box; rather, it’s expressed because it’s what people who are upset need to hear. When those we trust to provide solace and comfort show a lack of concern for our values and feelings (e.g. put profits over people, hide behind complex or technical information), we almost automatically discount what they have to say and search for answers elsewhere.

Here’s a brief model that will help you communicate with empathy and break through the mental noise of those suffering from tragedy:

  1. Write down an empathy, caring or commitment statement. This always comes first so your stakeholders know you care about them. For example, “We are saddened by today’s events and for its victims. We feel the way they would. Our number one priority now is taking care of the victims and providing any needed support to their family members.”
  2. Write down three key messages that demonstrate future action and commitment. Be concise and concentrate only on those messages that are most important to your stakeholders. You can use empathetic brainstorming for this – simply put yourself in their shoes.
  3. Repeat your key messages. Repetition is crucial here, especially in situations where people are highly stressed. 
  4. Write down your future actions. This is where you reiterate your commitment to making things right, providing support, or resolving an issue. People want to know that you’re dedicated to seeing the situation through. Just note that if you make any promises here, you should be ready to back them up.

If you need guidance on how to best use empathetic messaging, please reach out to us, and we’ll be happy to help:, 804-510-0039.

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