Recommendation: Convey and encourage empathy in your audience. Activating empathy will raise compliance with your directives, and demonstrating an understanding of your audience's situation will help build trust and adherence.

The how

Chances are your social media feeds are full of people performing random acts of kindness, and you’ve noted some leaders being lauded for their compassionate communications. Below, we'll delve into why it is that empathy is particularly important right now - but first, the how:

Encourage empathy

  • Emphasize the need for solidarity - it is a strong motivator for adherence to guidance
  • Root your directives, and their consequences, in real life stories, not just facts and figures
  • Focus people on why the directives are necessary, not just that they are
  • Acknowledge positive examples and initiatives, and indicate they should be emulated

Communicate with empathy

  • Thank people for their sacrifices and encourage them to continue
  • Acknowledge hardships or fears - including those you yourself are facing. This solidarity and recognition makes people feel more motivated and less alone
  • Consider people’s motivations, don’t simply demonize their actions. Not only is this better for morale but if you can understand the driver behind a negative action, you can address and alleviate these fears or misconceptions

The why

Turning empathy into action
Prosocial behaviors such as physical distancing often come at a tangible cost to the individual (like potential loss of income and reduced social contact with others) but help to keep others safe.

We need to motivate people to take such actions - and empathy for others (or ‘active solidarity’) is a powerful motivator, particularly when people don’t feel vulnerable themselves. One study compared signs saying "Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases" and "Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases". It found health care professionals are overconfident about personal immunity, and so signs highlighting consequences for others were more effective.

Similarly, a recent (not yet peer reviewed) study found providing individuals with mere background information about why it is important to adhere to physical distancing was not enough to significantly increase motivation; only if empathy was added did the motivation for physical distancing increase.

Good for you, good for me
Empathy during COVID-19 is not only a motivator for rule following, it can also help combat people’s fears of social isolation by making them feel more connected with others.

As this article explores, engaging in empathy draws on the same skills that help us handle stress. By thinking and acting empathetically, we strength our emotional regulation abilities.

Being empathetic provides people the opportunity to act with agency. Being able to provide a small kindness to someone or show solidarity through one’s actions can provide a small sense of control and validity in largely uncontrollable, overwhelming circumstances - hence the outpouring of acts of kindness shared on social media and the emergence of thousands of COVID-19 assistance groups around the world.

Demonstrate how your instructions will help others, and encourage people to see their actions as prosocial; it will benefit both your audience and your own instruction compliance aims.

A leaflet being distributed to vulnerable people in London during the coronavirus outbreak

Communicate empathy

Ensure you are communicating with empathy, not solely about it. Being transparent, considerate and non-judgmental, you are able to build trust and respect with your audience.

Consider the Singaporean leadership’s communication strategy during the SARS outbreak. Singapore intentionally took a middle ground between peoples fears on one side and tentative medical reassurance on the other. The Prime Minister Goh Tok Cheng was photographed having his temperature checked to model good behavior, and while other countries’ officials ridiculed those wanting to wear masks, he told Singaporeans about the Japanese custom of wearing masks if they have a cold, to protect others from them -- pivoting on their fears instead of ridiculing them:

By sharing the public’s fears, these leaders are building trust and credibility; they are professional, but not hiding their humanity. It is easier for the public to emulate a leader who is bearing his fears than one who appears fearless.

If you are able to emphasize with your audience by putting yourself in their shoes you will be able to convey your understanding of their anxiety and go some way towards addressing it. You will be more able to frame your directives in a way that speaks to their fears - such as when Scotland’s Professor Jason Leitch explained why people shouldn't hoard hand sanitizers.

The last word

The good news is that empathy is instinctive: a recent article by political scientist Michael Bang Peterson cites numerous studies showing that the primary consequence of a crisis is increased solidarity, and this research into using social and behavioral science to support COVID-19 pandemic response found:

...[an] emerging sense of shared identity and concern for others, which arises from the shared experience of being in a disaster. This feeling can be harnessed by addressing the public in collective terms and by urging ‘us’ to act for the common good.

Ensure that your communications root directives in real human stories, acknowledge people’s sacrifices and achievements, and are written with a healthy understanding of your audience’s fears and motivations.