Image for Issue Managers as Empathy Machines

As he accepted his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the late film critic Roger Ebert popularized the phrase “empathy machine.” While Ebert was referring to movies, managing a contentious issue could benefit from ginning up an empathy machine.

“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” Ebert said. “When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes.”

Walking in somebody else’s shoes is critical to understanding how an issue is perceived and how it can affect people differently. Walking in somebody else’s shoes can radically alter your approach to presenting and talking about an issue. As the rest of Ebert’s quote about empathy machines reveals, “I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”

Too often issue management efforts get fouled in their own nets. Arguments and perspectives may make sense to the issue managers who created them, but they crash and burn when heard or seen by the intended audience. They don’t pass the empathy test.

Virtual reality is being used by real estate companies to allow buyers to “tour” homes without stepping through the front door. Excedrin uses VR videos to allow viewers to “experience” the paralyzing symptoms of migraines. Tom’s VR videos transport viewers to the far-away countries that receive its donated shoes, allowing shoe buyers to “share” the impact of their purchases.

Creating VR opportunities isn’t practical or affordable for most issues. The empathy-machine alternative is taking the time to learn how your audience views your issue, whether it’s a large new development, significant revision to a popular service or fee increase to pay for an infrastructure improvement. Research can take the form of a survey. However, one-on-one interviews or small group conversations are a more empathetic approach.

Personal interviews and informal conversations can yield flesh-and-blood perspective, not just cold statistics. In addition to getting a first-hand reality check about the pain points caused by an issue, interviews and conversations can point out possible painkilling compromises.

Even face-to-face contact can be rote without active listening and a good dose of empathy. Hearing someone’s concerns isn’t the same as trying to feel their concerns, to walk in their shoes. The empathy machine needs to be you.

Appreciating why opponents have concerns can be an eye-opening window into what it takes to make those concerns disappear. This level of empathetic inquiry and engagement can be painstaking, but its rewards can be worth the toil. Knowing how to frame an issue empathetically may not resolve concerns, but it can avoid alienating your audience. Most important, standing in their shoes is a tried-and-true way to build trust, which, in turn, can lead to pathways for resolution.

A key to successful issue management could be turning issue managers into empathy machines.

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm’s PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.