In community engagement, we talk a lot about collecting people’s ideas and feedback. We talk about the power of active listening.

But, if you really believe in community and engaging at a deeper, more meaningful level, then empathy should be the key focus throughout your planning, strategising and most importantly-engagement activity.

There is no better explanation of empathy and what is really means in practice than Mark Ruffalo on Sesame Street. This clip is an oldie but such a damn goodie. Inc. Magazine recently had a great piece on empathy and how people get it so wrong. They identified that we all have a natural tendency to try and get the other person to see our perspective, when what we should be trying to do is to see things from theirs.

Great practitioners of community engagement don’t just go out collecting information and feedback from stakeholders.

They practice empathy. They practice innately caring and understanding about how their stakeholders feel. This imagining of how they feel leads to a deeper understanding and yes, real empathy.

If you practice empathy you don’t just collect data and send it back to your client with some recommendations on the best course of action. That is just “surface” activity and comes with very little purpose for your client or their community.

Instead, you take the time required, you have a meaningful interaction, or series of interactions with the community in ways that make sense to them; in a space that allows them to be open and forthcoming.

Empathy helps us understand more than what people say. It empowers us to understand how they feel, what motivates them, why they’re angry or disappointed or fearful or hopeful.

You understand how your community lives and how this shapes the way they feel and behave. Most importantly you are understanding because you are practicing empathy. This understanding means the “data” you have collected for your client can begin to take on meaning and give it a real sense of purpose.

Empathy requires putting people at the very centre of all community engagement.

If you allow this people first perspective and put empathy at the heart of your engagement practice, then your community engagement strategy and communication activities have the power to deliver great results to your client and most importantly to the community.