Demonstrate Empathy in Action to Your Members, Attendees and Colleagues

Words represent ideas. When a word become overused and cliché, a good idea is easily dismissed. Lately, “empathy” is showing up everywhere—conference sessions, articles and podcasts—which means we risk glossing over how essential it is to association management.

Empathy has never been more needed. In times of change, you must understand what members, customers, attendees and prospects are going through so you can meet their evolving needs and desires.

Empathy is essential for dealing with the disruption and uncertainty caused by the pandemic

At the digitalNow conference in December, keynoter Brian Solis shared these findings from the State of the Connected Customer study from Salesforce.

•    64% of study participants are worried about the pandemic’s impact on their job security.
•    88% are worried about the pandemic’s impact on the economy.
•    64% are fearful of their own health.
•    82% are fearful of the health of others.

The pandemic is taking a mental toll as people deal with stress, anxiety, frustration with social isolation, and worries about the economy, their jobs and financial security. But this devastating event also has permanent implications. Solis said it takes 66 days on average for new behaviors to become automatic, which means behaviors have already changed.

Values are changing too, as well as definitions of success and aspirations. Associations must reconnect their goals and strategies with whom members are becoming, not who they were nine months ago.  

You might have always understood the need to be empathetic. But now, you must live it. You have to relearn who your members and customers are. You must see the people behind the segments, personas and profiles so you can understand their new needs, interests and aspirations.

When you communicate empathy through your actions, members feel heard and understood. Curiosity demonstrates empathy. Ask questions, listen and learn. Be humble enough to unlearn what you thought you knew and accept that you may not know the whole picture now.


Practice data-driven empathy

Historical data can’t guide you through this unknown territory. What you learned during the 2008 recession is of no use now—it’s a completely different situation. There are no case studies or best practices to lean on. Making assumptions based on conventional wisdom is a perilous pursuit.

Old data won’t help. The best insight, per Brian Solis, are the “signals and inputs customers willfully share with those who are willing to pay attention.” You need a real-time, 360-degree view of your members and customers’ behavior and an understanding of the different member or customer journeys they take.

Unless all your member and customer data lives in one place, you must rely on system integration and/or data warehousing to provide the business intelligence you need to fully understand how member and customer behavior has changed and continues to change.

Journey mapping, also called empathy mapping, is an essential exercise for understanding how the member, attendee or customer experience.

•    What do they think as they go through a process?
•    How do they feel?
•    What questions do they have?
•    What problems do they encounter? What frustrates or confuses them?
•    What delights them?

As circumstances, expectations, needs and preferences evolve in the months ahead, data-driven empathy can help your association deliver meaningful experiences to members and customers.

Empathy in action: program and content planning

Data-driven empathy helps you understand how life has changed for your members, audience and market, for example:

•    What a typical day looks like now for them.
•    How they want to connect with others.
•    What they want from those connections.
•    How long they can realistically stay engaged in a virtual event experience.
•    What’s most essential to that event experience.

You may learn they prefer shorter sessions—30 minutes instead of 50 minutes—and shorter days—three hours, not seven hours.

You can then adapt the virtual conference and online course experience in light of the changes in people’s lives, such as:

•    Virtual fatigue
•    Stressful conditions at home and/or work
•    Heightened levels of anxiety
•    Social isolation
•    Longings for comfort and tradition

Figure out how to add value to or remove friction from those experiences. This is especially important when everyone feels overwhelmed and anxious by the pandemic’s impact on their personal and professional lives. How can you be more helpful during their attendee journey? How can your program be more helpful to members?


Empathy in action: new projects and change management

Overnight, everyone had to become digital-first, not only your members and customers, but your staff and volunteer leaders too. The switch to virtual conferences wasn’t the only major change faced by associations. You’ve had to rethink many programs, and decide whether they’re still worth pursuing or if resources are better spent elsewhere.

The Salesforce study found that 88% of participants expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to COVID-19. 78% of them say this year’s crises should be a catalyst for business improvement.

Your members and customers likely expect the same. To meet these new expectations, a culture of innovation is required. You must continually experiment to see what works, and understand that what works now may not work six months from now.

Change is expected, but that doesn’t make it any easier, especially when people are already stressed.

New projects and initiatives require asking staff and volunteer leaders to step out of their comfort zone—the one place they felt like they had a handle on things. Change threatens their sense of competence and mastery. It rocks the boat, and upsets budgets, hierarchies and protocol.

Put yourself in their shoes, even if you don’t know what they’re dealing with at home or, in the case of volunteer leaders, at work. Help volunteer leaders overcome the fear of failure on their watch and worries about their legacy. Help them see the big picture beyond their egos. It’s okay to not get it right all the time, but, together, you can own and learn from your mistakes.

You need empathy to overcome resistance to change. Project and team leaders must take their blinders off and look beyond their own perspectives so they can understand the concerns and fears of colleagues, employees, and volunteer leaders. Listen and take these concerns seriously. Attempt to understand the situation through their eyes. Try to avoid judgment.

The discomfort of change isn’t limited to new projects. It’s also an issue when initiatives are terminated. Find out who’s invested in programs and projects up for review and understand how sunsetting decisions will affect them.

Empathy in action: work relationships

You never know what’s going on with someone unless you ask and they’re comfortable enough to share. Employees and colleagues may be anxious about getting sick or seeing their loved ones get sick. They may be dealing with financial hardships if their household has been affected by COVID-related economic turmoil. They may feel uncertain about their future.

Check in regularly with people and let them know how they’re valued and appreciated. Maybe this isn’t your usual management or communication style but it’s the best approach to relationships right now. Set your discomfort aside and demonstrate your empathy. It’s the right thing to do for your team and co-workers, and maybe even for your boss. Saying you care is one thing. Showing you care by asking, listening and learning is empathy in action.

change management
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