Communicating with empathy in an era of disruption

Change—relentless, fearsome, hopeful, exciting, anxiety-provoking change—is part of the zeitgeist of our time. One of today’s few certainties is that our very near future will look significantly different from our present. What does that have to do with public communications? Everything.

At its heart, our work is about people; it’s about relationships and connections. We spend a lot of time thinking about the people our clients want to engage: What gets them moving in the morning? What keeps them up at night? What are their values, beliefs and interests?

What we do less often, however, is consider the mega-trends shaping their world and ours.

“Because of the sort of explosive nature of exponential progressions, we’ll make 20,000 years of progress in the 21st century,” said the famous futurist Ray Kurzweil back in 2005. At that time, Facebook was barely a year old. The first Tesla wouldn’t hit the road for another 3 years. And Netflix was still mailing out DVDs.

A decade later, Klaus Schwab said that we are on the brink of a technological revolution that “in its scale, scope, and complexity” will transform our world in a way humankind has never experienced before. His words were less of a boast, and much more of a warning.

Along with rapid technological changes, we are also in the midst of a cultural maelstrom that is shifting our social, personal, and professional relationships, and arguably, our identities. From #MeToo to #MAGA – we’re in a wrestling match between radically different and coexisting belief systems about what a great society looks like.

Collectively, we are experiencing a moment when the world seems to be spinning fast and strange. As public relations professionals, if we’re not thinking about what all of this means in terms of how we communicate with our audiences, chances are we’re missing something.

What communicators can learn from organizational change experts
To what extent does the experience of change colour the way people engage with and consume messages? How do you communicate most effectively with people who are facing, or in the midst of, big transitions? Those are questions organizational change experts have been grappling with for years.

In business, mastering the art of changing quickly has become a critical competitive advantage, but also a considerable challenge. According to McKinsey, 70% of organizational change efforts fail, not because they are bad strategies, but because of human resistance. It is no wonder that there is a wealth of research and expertise in this sector not only about how to communicate change, but also how to communicate with people who are experiencing change.

Torben Rick, the German change management guru and prolific blogger, outlines 12 reasons why people may resist or respond negatively to change. Though Rick’s context is business, many issues he cites apply to people’s experience with major societal changes. What’s striking is his language: it’s personal and intimate. It’s about how change makes people feel about themselves and their relationships with others.

Organizational change expert Carsten Tams takes this idea even further by applying the principles of needs-based motivation. How people respond to change, he says, has everything to do with how it corresponds with and affects their three basic psychological needs:


    • the need to feel control of your own life


    • the need to feel equipped to thrive in the world


    the need to feel cared for, valued, and to belong

From theory to practice
All of this is very interesting, but it’s also practical. At Argyle, we started thinking about it through our work with organizations trying to better communicate the need for a low-carbon transition. We recognized that the messaging often used to advocate this shift might undermine people’s psychological needs, rather than support them.

For example, “jobs of the future” may sound like an exciting idea, but in the context of all the technological and societal change that people are already struggling with, it may be terrifying and alienating. We decided to add a new message-selection criterion: will this message make people feel more or less competent about their ability to thrive in a low-carbon world?

The same question helped a client wrestling with how to communicate a major business transition. For the company, it was an exciting change filled with opportunity; but its clients felt confused, angry, and even betrayed. When we brought our research about autonomy, competence, and relatedness to a team workshop, one participant gasped: “We hurt all those things!” The key to winning back the trust and support of their clients would be by working to restore those needs.

The empathy imperative
Ultimately, thinking about how big societal changes impact our audiences and their basic psychological needs is really about deepening and expanding our empathy for them. And empathy makes us better communicators. It helps tune our ears to how our messages actually sound and, more important, how they’ll be received.

In a world where so many of us are reeling from uncertainty, more understanding and compassion for the human experience of change can only be a good thing.

About the Author

Jessie Sitnick

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