Turning the tap back on: creating empathy through online services

Published on
May 14, 2020
in
How Tos
Joe Roberson
Online services are amazing but they can't provide all the things face-to-face services do. We're losing some of the empathy that comes from the flow of human connection - what we call relational wellbeing.

...Imagine: all the smiles, all the chit chat, all the cups of tea and all the biscuits... all the relational wellbeing developed everyday by almost 200,000 UK charities. Well, the tap has been turned off. 

Deepr, a Catalyst partner, are working out how to turn it back on, online. And they’ve some early ideas to share. This article explains what relational wellbeing is, and the conditions needed to create it.

Digital services are amazing, but...

In the last seven weeks, thousands of traditional face-to-face services have gone digital. 

Rapidly. 

This has generated immense innovation and learning for the sector. But there’s been a cost: most services have lost their relational wellbeing benefits.

Deepr argue that, long before COVID-19, these benefits were already disappearing across society. Disappearing with the replacement of banks, shops and libraries with their digital equivalents. Convenient and accessible - yes. Connecting and beneficial for our relational wellbeing - no. 

When we have empathic interactions with others it creates relational wellbeing.

So they’ve started Optimising for Human Connection. It’s a project to design Empathic Interactions (or Ei) into digital services. To weave human connection into our zoom calls, online transactions, webchats and websites. Their brief is to be bold and help the UK charity sector lead the way. 

What is relational wellbeing?

Empathic interactions create human connection, which improves relational wellbeing. 

It’s a concept grounded in the work of Dr Susan Pinker. Her research (and that of many others) shows that human connection is essential for physical and mental wellbeing. That it leads to longer and healthier lives. 

“The more we reduce difference and separation between us, the more we come into connection. When we truly come into connection, we experience relational wellbeing outcomes. Simple, not easy.” - Matthew McStravick, Deepr 

Relational wellbeing is also influenced by the number of empathic interactions we have within our ‘weak tie’ relationships. Weak tie relationships are those we have with people we often exchange only a few words with. Like a neighbour, at the cornershop, or with the receptionist at a charity. These are as important as the one we have with our key worker or therapist. And the more weak tie relationships we have the stronger our sense of belonging and relational wellbeing.

Relational wellbeing through digital services is a solvable problem

We were always going to have to find a way to make digital service interactions more real. It was just never as urgent.

The UK social sector is well placed to solve the problem. We have the right values and creativity to do so. It’s likely that some charities are already exploring the problem. Let the Deepr team know if you are already trying anything. 

Optimising for Human Connection

Deepr are focused on this question:

How can we rapidly ensure charities’ digital services are optimised for relational wellbeing?

They are exploring it across two service types:

  • Services that focus on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of their beneficiaries. For example, counselling, therapy, emotional wellbeing groups etc
  • Services that indirectly influence the wellbeing of their beneficiaries. For example, housing, legal advice services, charity shops and many others. For some people these charities are their main source of connection and interaction.

The project’s process between April - June 2020 is to:

  • Design in public - with real charities and people, in view of others
  • Share learning and listen to responses - they’ve run two online workshops already
  • Understand the relational wellbeing challenges charities are facing right now
  • Create tools charities can try now, then grow them

This work is emergent (Deepr have just finished their initial research) but they’ve made some early findings. These take the form of conditions for creating relational wellbeing. 

Conditions for relational wellbeing you can try at home and in your services

“These are the qualities that are present in interactions online where human connection, and therefore relational wellbeing, are likely. We don’t yet know if they all need to be there all the time or how they need to be weighted. We don’t know what the recipe is but we know what the ingredients are because they consistently show up in our research” - Matt McStravick

Think about which you might be able to start creating first. We’ll be along with more help in Part Two. 

1. Acknowledged equality 

Building and acknowledging equality is a key condition for connection. This applies whether we are filling in a form together, using simple, inclusive language on our website or weaving reciprocity into our interactions. 

2. Presence and attention

So much of how we interact is automatic - but automatic behaviours don’t foster connection. Maintaining attention does though. Two ways of maintaining attention are:

  • finding ways to keep interactions fresh
  • applying deep listening skills.

3. Autonomy and agency

How do you enable the people receiving your services to have a clear choice? A choice not only on ‘what’ you do together but also ‘how’ you do it. More choice leads to more meaningful connection which leads to more relational wellbeing. 

4. Responsibility and accountability

Connection is a two way street. Anonymity is only appropriate for a limited number of online interactions. So in the main, we should all use real names and photos to create the right conditions for connection. 

5. Whole self

The more we bring our whole selves to digital interactions (as both provider and receiver), the more likely we are to build trust, then connection, then relational wellbeing.  The safest, most clearly boundaried way to do this is what we call a ‘whole person check in’

Gateway to connection

All these practices are gateways to equality and connection. Holding a hot mug together at the start of each online counselling session creates equality (and trust). Filling in a document together creates equality between advisor and user. Being vulnerable in your website’s content creates equality in what would otherwise be a top-down relationship. 

Interested? Here’s what is coming next...

In Part Two you’ll be able to:

  • Read more examples of how to create connection and increase relational wellbeing with your beneficiaries online
  • Get three tools to try out with them

Sign up to make sure you hear about it.

Photo by Imani on Unsplash