Hugh Lashbrooke

Community builder by day, tabletop game designer by night.

Empathy and the Feelings Box

Community management is often a catch-all role for a hundred different skills that need to be employed on a regular basis. Encompassing all of that in a single post is unrealistic of course, but after being asked about it during the Q&A of a recent webinar that I presented where I gave a short on-the-spot answer, I thought it would be worth revisiting the topic to look at it in more depth.

With that in mind, I thought I’d work on a few posts outlining skillsets that I feel are valuable for community managers to develop. This is the first of those posts.


You could say empathy is a skill that everyone should develop regardless of their daily work, and even argue that it isn’t even a “skill” at all. I would agree when talking about empathy in general – it’s a deeply human trait that we must all develop – but the way you employ your empathy is definitely a skill that people working with communities need to work on in order to be successful.

Communities, whether social or business-related, always represent something personal to their members. As a result, people will more often than not feel deeply connected to the topic or cause that a community is based around. This is a good thing, of course, as it means that community members will be interested and engaged. The flip side of it, however, is that people will struggle to accept systemic changes that they don’t immediately agree with, and they will push back on decisions that they feel will take the community in a direction they dislike. This is natural and positive – it provides an opportunity for your community to grow deeper and more invested in the structure and network you are managing.

Invested community members are your greatest asset, and as such will be involved in the areas where you’ll spend most of your time working. If you can cultivate a culture of empathy in your work, then you can bring people deeper into your community processes where they can have a far greater impact on the direction your community takes.

That culture of empathy is incredibly important, but often difficult to work out in practice. As a way to help you grow in this area, allow me to introduce the feelings box:

The Feelings Box

It takes a lot of empathy to recognise how someone is feeling and to help them through those feelings to a point where they can be a productive member of the community once more. On our team, we use the idea of a “feelings box” as a metaphor for how people can get trapped by their feelings about a specific situation and lose sight of the bigger picture. Being trapped in a feelings box often causes confusion and misinterpretation of otherwise well-meaning gestures.

As an example to illustrate what I mean, we had a situation a short while ago where an event organised by one of the local communities in our program was not able to happen in the way the organising team hoped. We, as a central team, suggested an alternative way of holding the event, but received surprisingly strong protests from the local team even though we felt we were offering a good solution to alleviate the disappointment of having to change the event format.

What we later learned was that the format we were proposing had been previously suggested to this same community some years before, but at that time it was taken as a statement telling them they weren’t capable of organising a “real” event. So, when we suggested it, they immediately felt like we were telling them they weren’t reliable enough to do things properly and that we didn’t trust them. That obviously wasn’t our intention, but they still felt that way. It took a while for us to realise this effect that our suggestion was having, but once we got there we could work with the local community, show them our true intentions, and help them out of their feelings box so they could move on productively.

People could be trapped in their feelings box for any number of reasons and, in most cases, it won’t necessarily be your fault. It often comes down to cross-cultural misunderstandings, or even simply that they are going through an unrelated personal issue that is clouding their judgement in other areas of their life too. Your job as a community manager is to understand where these feelings are coming from and help people push their way out of the box so they can see the situation objectively and be productive once more.

This is where a highly developed skill of empathy becomes very useful – it allows you to understand what someone is feeling, figure out how you can guide them through those feelings, and even help them use their own context to contribute to the broader community.

Our Current Context

Let’s look at our own context here for a minute and make this discussion more current. At the time of writing this it is March 2020 and the world is suffering from COVID-19 – a global pandemic that is affecting the health, economy, and social connections of every person in every country around the world. People are feeling combinations of fear, uncertainty, helplessness, anger, and frustration with very little hope for things to improve anytime soon. No one knows quite how things will develop over the next few weeks and months, but what we do know is that it will only get worse before it improves.

Anyone involved in community work will know exactly why this is relevant here – events are being cancelled all over the world, community organisers are being forced to rethink their strategies, and community members are not attending events out of fear for their own safety. Not only is this affecting the ability for people to connect, it is also affecting the livelihoods of organisers as they struggle to recoup costs. It’s a tough situation, not made any better by the lack of certainty and direction.

This is a prime example of where people will, rightfully, be trapped in their feelings box and unable to see a good way forward. Even though this is an incredibly difficult situation for all of us, as a community manager, you need to help your community members through their feelings about it all. In many cases they will need to take practical steps, whether that’s shifting their events to online platforms, or just cancelling all their events for a time, and they will likely be struggling to do that. Your job is to help them through these steps and steadily guide them out of their feelings box so they can move forward.

You might need to write some documentation for them to follow, maybe meet with them regularly to offer guidance, or even take over some of their responsibilities for a while – whatever you need to do to help them be and feel productive within their community. This will take deep empathy and a real understanding of how people are feeling – it’s not an easy job, but no one ever claimed it would be.

How does this resonate with you? Do you find the feelings box to be a helpful metaphor? Does your team use a different framework for this kind of thing? Please share your thoughts!

One response to “Empathy and the Feelings Box”

  1. Jenny Avatar

    I enjoyed this article – thanks

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