Understanding Empathy. Its Value & Challenges

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Why Now?

Ever since the pandemic struck, empathy has been bubbling up to become part of our current zeitgeist. Service, Sales, CX, Marketing and leadership in general are all being persuaded of its importance. An online search of recent evangelising reflects new-found popularity:

  1. Guide to Empathy in Customer Service
  2. How to Use Customer Empathy To Get Repeat Business
  3. Create a Customer Empathy Map in 6 Easy Steps!
  4. Consumer Empathy: The New Black for Marketers?
  5. Leaders Who Lacked Empathy Struggled in 2020

Forbes recently declared “the word for 2021 will be empathy.

One of my motivations for writing this is to explore why empathy has become such a trending topic. Because to my mind, it would be pretty damning if we had only just figured out empathy is important!

So why now?

Was it an assumed competence which now needs to be explicitly called out? Maybe the collective trauma of the pandemic has re-sensitised us to what kindred spirits are going through? As empathy author Mimi Nicklin recently observed:

In order to continue to offer the resilience and endurance to face another year of challenge, people subconsciously demand a far higher level of mutual connectivity.

I know as a CCMA and Customer Engage awards judge, many organisations kickstarted or extended community outreach last year. Has a focus on directly experiencing and contributing to other people’s lives flowed into greater organisational consciousness? And the word settled on to describe this new awareness is empathy?

Its new-found popularity could also be the crescendo of another trend that has been building over the last few years. The so called digital first agenda: now catalysed by changing customer behaviour in response to lockdown restrictions.

In this context, empathy becomes a watchword reminding us that cloning the subtleties of human interaction remains deeply challenging as automation and self service extend their reach. 

The feeling of being understood is beyond the digital orchestration of intent, utterances, and sentiment tracking. Something else needs to happen.

Whatever the reasons, empathy keeps popping up as new medicine for today’s woes. And doubling down on my reason to question why this is, I find it very strange in a world awash with customer obsession, sophisticated CX-EX closed loop feedback, grandiose CX maturity models and accredited experts galore, it appears to have slipped everyone’s attention that the capacity to live in the slippers of another person’s world is core to all else.

Why else would we need to point out that empathy suddenly matters?

What is Empathy?

Back in the day when empathy was more of a backseat competency, you were only expected to know that ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ were different and not to be confused. These days it’s best to have an informed view and a personal definition in your purse. So, here’s a rapid 101 based on an empathy workshop I was commissioned to create early last year.

During the initial effort to educate myself, I started with a session of online search, ended up with umpteen open tabs and boiled down what I found into the definitions that most floated my boat. Here’s the output that became the first discussion point for delegates.

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Each definition has its strengths. If you feel something is missing have a go at shortlisting for yourself. I’ve personally settled on a mash-up definition:

Imagining another person’s reality and being moved to respond to their needs

The emphasis for me is how deep I dived and how vividly I imagined their perspective. The consequence of then being moved to act (compassion) seems a natural reflex from experiencing another person’s world.

If you are less keen on definitions and prefer to recognise empathy or its absence when you see it, here is an instance of customer feedback that should trigger it. 

After advising your call agent that I can’t change a fluorescent tube as I’m in a wheelchair she then went on to say… “have you not got a step ladder YOU CAN USE”

And lest we condemn that anonymous agent too readily, I can assure you either of us are perfectly capable of being that insensitive. It all depends on how deep we choose to dive and how vividly we imagine another’s predicament.

If recent events have taught us anything it is that shared realities are increasingly rare. Consider the tribal world of politics and the way it can encourage people to loathe each other’s perspectives. The same dynamics can be at play within the organisations we work for and lead.

Shared and Subjective Reality Exist. Objective Reality Does Not.

Brain scanning has allowed neuroscientists to piece together an interpretation of how we generate reality. While the need to collaborate as social beings certainly nurtures shared reality, it is unfortunately untrue to conclude everyone reality is therefore identical.

Lisa Barret Feldman argues that emotive expression significantly varies amongst people and is part of how our brains constantly generate predictions about the way the physical world will look, sound, feel, and smell like in the next instant. Professor Anil Seth vividly describes this process in a celebrated 2017 TED talk called ‘Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality’. More recently at the start of 2021, the same core insight was voiced by a German team of neuroscientists based on a research paper entitled ‘We Hear What We Expect To Hear’.

This new generation of evidence is yet to enter mainstream organisational awareness. As it does, I am sure our ability to understand the root causes of human behaviour and perceptions will take a huge leap forward.

In the context of this discussion on empathy it already provides fresh depth to our understanding as to why individuals and organisations can so easily blank realities different to their own. This reaction is not the product of wilful avoidance of a truth. It is the consequence of being incapable of recognising that an alternate reality even exists! Even though reality can end up being shared, it should not be assumed it is objective, and therefore universal and commonly accessible to everyone.

CX and EX strategists have yet to fully embrace the implications of this. You might personally see a certain reality generated from a series of customer or employee insights and assume it is obviously shared by everyone else exposed to that data. But your executive team might conjure something entirely different given their collective mindset and memory. 

To me, this justifies why we still need to double down on empathy as a gateway to escape the limitations of our own view of the world. Right now, we lack a sufficiently sophisticated view of how individual and organisational reality is influenced by prior experience and the beliefs formed as a result.    

This is how one of the authors of the German study, Dr Alejandro Tabas, summarised their findings.

Our subjective beliefs on the physical world have a decisive role on how we perceive reality. Decades of research in neuroscience had already shown that the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is most developed in humans and apes, scans the sensory world by testing these beliefs against the actual sensory information. We have now shown that this process also dominates the most primitive and evolutionary conserved parts of the brain. All that we perceive might be deeply contaminated by our subjective beliefs on the physical world.”

Incidentally, I find it no coincidence that increasing self-awareness around how unconscious bias works is often part of the roadmap to greater Diversity, Inclusion and Equality. How often do we blank what we do not understand or fear?

Does Unconscious Bias Towards Customers Exist?

This makes me wonder what typical unconscious bias organisations hold about their customers? Exploring this could become a useful way to surface gaps between publicly expressed attitudes and unconsciously held beliefs about customers.

How is their value really perceived? Can we inhabit their experience of vying for our attention? Trying to gain respect for what really matters to them as opposed to what we assume is important from the comfort and logic of an organisational world view?

The fact there is a constant stream of ‘outrage’ for tone deaf employee and customer experiences right across social media platforms (explored LinkedIn recently?) evidences this unresolved gap.

Maybe empathy really is needed. I’m reminded of a Zen koan which instructs on the challenge of getting to the essence or nature of something. Is the heart of an orange revealed by cutting it in half? Or does that act simply reveal another surface and so we remain on the outside however many times we try to penetrate its core with this approach?

Is there an equivalent in the way we engage customers? Always on the outside however often we dissect their behaviour and feedback? 

The ability to empathise is a transformation of perspective. From mine to yours. It requires humility and the courage to see the world differently. This requires conscious choice and deliberate attention. In much the same way listening is the high-octane version of simply hearing, empathy is the high octane version of passively observing.

One of my favourite empathy quotes comes from Alex Allwood who also delivers a cracking weekly newsletter themed on empathy. 

Implications and Uses

So having explored why empathy matters in today’s world and dipped our toe into the latest research on how we experience our worlds, its time to look at what this all means in the context of organisational life.

Empathy is a personal skill and develops into an organisational competency when scaled. The good news is that most people have the capacity to learn and practice it. As I indicated a new generation of understanding is being readied to educate even experienced practitioners. However, this does require expert facilitation based on experiential learning techniques rather than just cognitive assimilation based on slide eye candy. So, ensure your coaches qualify to meet that challenge.

Since empathy is a lived experience, you need competent people before anything else can transform. Here are a few priority areas.

In terms of people management, empathy is now crucial to help address the mental health and well-being challenge we commonly face. Displaying vulnerability to encourage others to speak out and seek help begins with the imagination to see work life through someone else eyes rather than assume everyone feels as fired up as you are as their leader.

This is not the leadership model you have been taught and can reference for guidance. It ia new behaviour and intensively personal. How is this fast tracked and explored in a psychologically safe way?   

The same applies for customers. Especially the most vulnerable. How well do you really understand their circumstances? How has the pandemic affected them? Are your customer personas figments of a previous age or still contemporary? Have you unearthed what they really need? If so have you the compassion as an organisation to offer it?  

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For organisations moving beyond customer focus to obsession as defined here by Gibson Biddle, former VP Netflix, the implication of mastering this approach is that you need a mindset deeply immersed in customer reality. In much the same way that method actors sink into the role of their character to the point of becoming that person

To encourage you, I’ll sign off with a quotable statistic. In 2015, the top 10 companies on the Global Empathy Index increased in value twice as much as those companies at the bottom. Six years later I can only imagine that correlation is even stronger.

Let’s Talk

Thank you for reading. If you are on a mission to boost your organisational empathy I’m available to design, advise, facilitate or train. Call me on 07816915845. Or if you prefer an asynchronous next action, please email me.

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