​​Cultivating Empathy in Online Communities

by Philomena Smillie May 30, 2024

Empathy, defined as the ability to understand the feelings or emotions of another; often described as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, can be incredibly helpful in online community management, both for team leaders and for moderators on the frontline. Not only does empathy help community leaders to better understand their team and provide effective guidance, (creating an environment of communication and trust – the foundations of a productive and thriving team), it also plays an important role in successful online community management.

Online communities can encompass a seemingly infinite number of topics and, reflective of life itself, can home no shortage of differing opinions. 

With this in mind, how do we ensure that our online communities are places of respectful dialogue, open sharing, trust and safety? By setting essential expectations through guidelines, values, behaviour modelling and, of course, empathy. 

Responding to community members with empathy and encouraging members to extend empathy to each other, goes a long way towards fostering connection and belonging within your community. 

A good community manager is an alchemist of empathy and has the ability to accept, if not agree with, ideas that can be at odds with not only popular opinion but indeed their own personal opinion. A good community manager also knows how to create a space where an undercurrent of empathy permeates through the community itself.

How is empathy cultivated in online communities?

  • Active listening and responding – your replies set the tone, so be sure to pause and reflect before responding. Without visual cues online, we rely on written tactics to demonstrate empathy, such as paraphrasing and reflecting language back, using supportive language and acknowledging where someone is at. 
  • The sharing of personal experiences – acknowledge someone’s lived experience and be sure to have helplines available as needed.
  • Inclusivity – encourage all voices to be heard and make space for differing communication styles. Perhaps some community members are neurodivergent, perhaps English is their second language. Is generational language, colloquialism or slang being used? Consider all of these factors while cultivating a response.
  • Encourage organisations to create emotionally resonant content – where possible if you are in a position to do so! Collect examples and the type of responses they generate. Some recent examples of effective yet emotionally responsible content include Nike’s Olympics campaign, featuring the Refugee Olympic Team exploring the theme that ‘It’s not about where you’re from. It’s about what you do.’ And, closer to home, Clothing the Gaps ‘Keep The Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud’ content, a remarkably empowering campaign at a time of deep heartache for many Australians following the outcome of the recent Voice Referendum.
  • Enact and respect boundaries – adhere to and reference the group guidelines which those in the community have agreed to. It’s this reason why community guidelines are so essential, as is a risk matrix (read more about why you should have a risk management matrix here)
  • Practice self-care – to lean on a common phrase, you can’t pour from an empty cup! Take regular breaks and if you manage a team of community managers, consider undertaking resilience training to help you and your team create and maintain positive mental health habits. Quip’s Resilience Training Workshop for Social Media and Community Managers can be done online and provides bespoke training for team wellbeing, reducing stress and staff burn-out. Find out more here.

Empathy is an incredible tool for community managers to wield, allowing space for trust and understanding to foster, in turn creating connection and a sense of belonging in online communities. It’s not always an easy tool to wield and you may be met with challenges from the community, or from leadership. But while prioritising care and safety isn’t always the easiest path, it is one that is necessary for thriving, productive and healthy communities, the flow on effect of which, cannot be overstated.

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