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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What comes first: facts or feelings?

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Three adults looking at a computer screen in shock

When delivering communication in a crisis, what does your audience need first… an accounting of the facts, or, an expression of empathy to recognize their feelings?

If you read the post “What can we learn from the Titanic?” you know the answer… an expression of empathy is needed within the first 30 seconds. Really!!?? First??!! Aren’t facts more important?

Why is empathy needed first?

This concept intrigued me so much that I sought more information to make sense of why empathy is needed first and how to express it effectively in a crisis situation.

Pamela Walaski, in the book Risk and Crisis Communication Methods and Messages, explains the need for opening with empathy (1):

“The ability to demonstrate empathy in the earliest stage of message delivery helps to reduce the stress that is nearly universal in all risk and crisis communication events and allows an audience to improve its ability to hear, understand, and remember information that might be scary or dangerous… and until audience members know the communicator cares, they will generally be incapable of hearing, reacting, and responding to a risk or crisis communication message.”

That makes sense. Expressing empathy serves to reduce stress and enables an audience to hear the message. Empathy is often thought of as the ability to “walk in the shoes of another.” We see the crisis from their point of view. We recognize the feelings, beliefs, and values held by others. Empathy demonstrates understanding and respect.

How does one express empathy?

If I am to express empathy, demonstrating that I understand an audience’s mental and emotional state, I first must assess what their primary emotions are. Are they angry? Confused? Frightened?

To do that will require paying attention and observing their verbal and nonverbal messages. I will need to “listen” with my eyes and my ears. What words are being used? What is their tone of voice? For a remote audience, I can read comments on social media and look to other sources. I can ask good questions.

Expressing empathy also includes the communicator honestly sharing how they are feeling. Crises are scary for everyone and it doesn’t pay to sugar-coat the truth about dangers or uncertainty. Be authentic.

Mistrust is a barrier to effective communication and expressing empathy has been shown to increase trust in the communicator and open the audience to believing the message and responding appropriately to directives for taking action. (2)

What empathy is and is not

The book Empathy, Normalization and De-escalation by Massimo Biondi et al (3) provides useful guidance in what an expression of empathy is and is not. The two lists below are examples found in this book.

In the first list of phrases, you will recognize lots of nice things we often say thinking we are being kind and soothing to others in a crisis or emergency situation.

“Keep calm.” “Don’t worry.” “Everything is under control.” “I’m here for you.” “Everything will be alright.”

However, these are not expressions of empathy. Many actually discount the feelings of others. Not one conveyed an understanding of the other person’s feelings.

Instead, use phrases like these:

“From what I understand, the last few days have been really difficult.” “You might be worried about what is happening to you right now.” “With everything that happened, I think you are really angry.” “Maybe you’re a little scared now, can I help you?” “I think you don’t really want to talk to us right now.”

Empathy requires more than careful word choice

What you say is critical but just as important is how you say it. Expressions of empathy need to be given with sincerity, humility, and compassion. Your tone of voice, facial expression, and eye contact all need to convey warmth and caring. Avoid inappropriate humor, sarcasm, defensiveness, or coming across as patronizing or judgmental. (2)

Want to learn more about communicating well? Check out these resources.

“Empathy is a skill like any other human skill. If you get a chance to practice, you can get better at it.” ~ Professor Simon Baron Cohen

1. Walaski PF. Risk and Crisis Communications Methods and Messages. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. New Jersey. 2011.

2. Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) resources:

3. Biondi M, et al. Empathy, Normalization and De-escalation. Springer Nature Switzerland, 2021.

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