How to practice empathy through technology?

A group of executives standing in line and looking at their smartphones
A group of executives standing in line and looking at their smartphones

The question was, “When communicating through technology, how do you practice empathy?” I was a guest speaker at a communication studies class at Creighton University and had spent an hour talking about the art of conversation, contemporary cultural trends affecting how connectedness as people, and the role of technology in meaningful communication. One student had pondered that interaction between the intrinsic attitude of empathy, which conversation can be informed by and can contribute to, and technology’s distancing or dehumanizing effects.

I admitted I did not have an easy answer. Initially, I offered that there was a hierarchy of conversational engagement. The preferable first choice is in-person dialogue, where we can fully take in all of the cues offered to aid our understanding and empathy. Then, through technology, those platforms where you could see each other, such as Skype, followed by aural/oral platforms, like the phone, each of which allow us to attune to visual or audio cues. Beyond that, we are left with deliberate and diligent attention to the language we use, ensuring that our meaning can be accurately interpreted in our texts, emails or letters. Finally, I confessed that emoticons were not my favorite semantic tool, but they clearly had a rapid, short-hand utility to get a point across.

As we discussed this question, it occurred to me that I had the perspective backwards. I had been considering the question from the point of view of communicating to someone, as opposed to responding empathetically to communications we receive. It is likely more productive if each of us focuses on what someone else is trying to tell us. Perhaps we should start by accepting that our interpretations may be awry, that we carry our own biases and blind spots, and that we should first interrogate our own reactions. The answer is to look to ourselves first. What do you think?

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I believe that conversation helps us to live better and work well.

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