Empathy: More than Feelings

At Seek, we had ourselves typed through the Enneagram, and discovered that more than half of the company fell into the 2 Category. This type scores high in expressing their feelings. It made so much sense. Every now and then, I find myself thinking I really don’t want to deal with feelings today. (Shout out to my 2s – I love you guys, I promise). I just want to get my work done, get through the day, and attempt to show up for all the people in my life that are relying on me. Sometimes, it’s hard to slow down and try to process every emotional interaction that comes my way.


And often, in early client engagements, I know that’s what people are thinking to themselves – betrayed by their skeptical looks, sighs, or even blatant expression of said feeling (I respect the feedback immensely). It’s a fair point. Feelings are messy, complicated, subjective, and exhausting. When you’re trying to keep your own life in check – mind the feelings of all your loved ones – is it really worth finding the space to explore the feelings of a consumer that you’ll meet once and probably never see again?


Yes. It totally is. And here’s why.


We spend a lot of time up front in our interviews just focusing on the life of the person we’re meeting. Who they are, how they got to that place in life, hopes, dreams, failures, accomplishments. As a curious person and aspiring novel writer (one day!), it’s like a gold mine of stories that elucidate the depth of the human experience. It amazes me every single time that we can see so many different people from varied walks of life, and find similarities. I am heartened by so many truths I’ve compiled over the years – how much people love their families, how resilient they are, how hard people work to make it, and how proud they are (and should be) of their achievements. And at the same time it makes me ache – the struggles to make ends meet, the stories of unbearable loss, the folks in the middle who are trying their best and simply just can’t get there. You sit with all of that, and sometimes the value and weight are overwhelming.


Why does this matter?


All of these things add up to create filters of perception. And perception is absolutely everything. As brands, we hold certain things to be true, to anchor our position in the marketplace, to tell the world the story that we believe to be most important about what we do and why we can serve them well. But the consumer’s perception determines whether that is seen as authentic and real, or simply a ploy to sell. And these folks are increasingly more determined to find their truths themselves.


As we all know from our own lives, perceptions are shaped by experiences. Experiences are highly emotional. Emotions are rarely logical. Each data point collected from a consumer offers you the opportunity to piece together their perceptions; to create a mosaic filter of a slew of consumers that helps you to see from the other side. Through this filter, you can look at the business you know so well through their lens, and understand the truths, the gaps, and the opportunities for you to communicate and provide better for them. To contextualize the role that your brand plays in their lives – however small or big, it’s likely you don’t know the weight of it from your desk. So get out and step over the threshold into their homes and lives. The view from there will always be eye-opening, and regularly unforgettable.


Amee Patel is the Director of Innovation Strategy here at Seek Company. If you’re interested in deepening your team’s ability to foster empathy with those they serve, we can help you. Reach out to info@seekcompany.com to discuss that, or to engage in dialogue based on this post. We are always up to continue the conversation.

When Empathy is Hard

We talk about empathy – a lot. It’s a core principle that underpins everything we do at Seek. We believe it’s the best way to connect with consumers, to draw out all that’s unsaid, and to enable yourself to be transformed – sometimes in small doses, and sometimes in massive waves.


“Empathy” has become both an answer and a question in the last few months, on the heels of a polarizing and unpredictable election cycle. It’s been cited in articles, op-eds, and common conversation as the way to unlock understanding; to bridge the divide; a tool whose apparent absence brought us to where we are, on opposing sides of the aisle, comfortably rooted in echo chambers that widen the gap considerably.


The reality is that echo chambers can make us feel safe. Within them our beliefs are validated. People understand us, and so we don’t have to be on the defense. We can let our guard down and relax, rather than worry about constantly protecting our position. The energy that’s left can be used to focus on what we think is most important. Having focus isn’t a bad thing. But the deeper we get in our focus, the more committed we are to our positions, the harder it can be to lift up and look out.


What do you do when empathy is hard? In a world where politics feel so personal, how do you cross the divide without feeling like you’re abandoning your principles? How can you listen to the other side when you want to scream just as loud?


For many, the last few months have highlighted challenges with roots that go beyond simple government politics to deeper issues about community, belonging, what it means to be an American, and what it means to be a human. Empathy as it pertains to questions of survival can take us to particularly murky places where we’re forced to play Tetris with our truths – and trying to make them all fit together can feel impossible.


At Seek, our work is focused on the whole human, deepening category understanding by exploring the context of a real person’s life. We spend a good portion of our research interviews learning about their motivations, dreams, challenges, and concerns. Many clients have asked us if we notice a change in our work post-election. I’ve seen the shift manifest in a host of ways: As we got closer to the election last year, it became nearly impossible to have a conversation without touching on politics, and I’ve noted a heightened focus on values on both sides – especially how the values they’re committed to impact the way they’re choosing to engage and spend within categories.


Another change I’ve noted is that more so than any other time, it’s hard not to take things personally, and to want to back away from the connection as a result. Practicing empathy requires courage: courage to put yourself into the midst of someone else’s emotional space, and to sit with their truth and respect how real it is to them, regardless of how that resonates with your own truth. Shutting down in the face of that isn’t an option. While one or two empathic conversations won’t solve the problems of the world, they pave the path to understanding the root at the heart of the issues. And those roots spread only as long as they’re watered.


So whatever side of the aisle you sit on, here are six tips on how to practice empathy when the connections aren’t so clear, direct from the consultants who apply them regularly in their work.


  1. Remember our common human bond. You don’t have to agree on policies and politics to connect to the base desires and needs that we all seek to thrive. The person sitting across from you is a human, first and foremost. Start there.
  2. Every now and then, you just have to admit to yourself that you might not like this person very much. And that’s okay. Empathy is not about liking someone. Empathy is about getting to the core of what they’re feeling, and following your curiosity to that end. Acknowledging it in your mind, or even going so far as to scribble it down to get it out of your brain, goes a long way to clearing the path for a constructive conversation.
  3. Listen as if you’ve never heard anything about the topic before. Remember that there’s a reason they stand by their views, as much as there’s a reason you stand by yours. Put your biases aside to fully receive their logic and understand the roots that feed into them.
  4. Try to inhabit the stories they tell you. Stories are a primary tool in fostering empathy. Grounding an experience in the people, places, and events that surround that recollection can help provide breakthrough understanding.
  5. Humans are messy. Don’t expect anything less. Allow them – and yourself – grace in the process.  
  6. Reflect. When you’ve worked hard to foster an empathic connection – in work and in your personal life – it can take time and energy to unpack it all. Be sure to give yourself quiet time after to reflect on what you learned, away from others, so you’re processing all you learned through your own archives.


Empathy isn’t a route to agreement. It’s a tool that supports us when we muster the courage to go in deep. To listen. To learn. To reflect on what things must feel like over there, and think about how they feel over here. To find the space in between where humanity wants to live.


Amee Patel is the Director of Innovation Strategy here at Seek Company. If you’re interested in deepening your team’s ability to foster empathy with those they serve, we can help you. Reach out to info@seekcompany.com to discuss that, or to engage in dialogue based on this post. We are always up to continue the conversation.

Bringing a Brand Home

I’ll wait in line for lots of things, but the opening of a retail store is not one of them. If I’m in line, it’s probably for music or food. However, recently I found myself trekking to the Noma neighborhood in northeast Washington D.C. for the opening of REI’s flagship store in the city.


I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia – an outdoor lover’s paradise with roaring rapids and winding hiking trails – but admittedly I was not what you’d term as an “outdoorsy” person. Just the opposite, in fact. I was an asthmatic voracious reader who would regularly use my affliction to fake out of gym class, whiling away that hour losing myself in a book, shuffling page after page to the sounds of my classmates shrieking as they scooted away from each other in tag. Despite the fresh mountain air that enveloped our small town, my friends and I spent most of high school indoors going to basketball games, eating at Applebee’s, and playing ping-pong in my parents’ basement, only suiting up in outdoor gear and hiking boots in the winter to survive the long, slippery parking lot walk from our cars to the school.


So my love for REI wasn’t entirely predictable, but since the early 2000s I’ve had a strong affinity for the store – in fact, the only retail affinity that has survived from that time. Somewhere in my 20s, I experienced an adult-onset love for the outdoors: realizing what all the fuss was about when it came to mountains, hikes, trails, vast star-lit skies and the gentle slap of paddle against water. I ended up at REI looking for a decent rain jacket for a trip to Seattle, and after a lengthy chat with a very knowledgeable staff member dressed like he was ready to scale a cliff, I felt smarter and more prepared for the adventure ahead. I felt like REI made it warm and inviting for someone like me to toe-dip into this vast and daunting space. Something about the high ceilings, smartly-crafted gear, eco-friendly vibes, down-to-earth staff, customer-centric return policy – all of which makes me feel good about being there, and inevitably spending a little more than I’d planned on awesome gear. Eventually I became a member of REI – the only membership to anything I possess at the moment – and proudly spend my dividends on more fleeces, waterproof backpacks, and high-impact water bottles, reinforcing my attachment to the woodsy interiors and outdoor-celebrating mission.


So, 12 years after my first REI experience – hours of hikes, paddling sessions, and one failed rock climbing experience later – when I heard they’d created a store IN the heart of my city, I felt compelled to break my wait-in-line rules for the grand opening. I figured others would also show up, lured by the promise of free gifts, coffee and breakfast, but somehow was still surprised and impressed by the slew of those who had camped out in their tents (likely purchased at REI), ready for the ribbon to be cut. What struck me as I became person 285 in line was the atmosphere. Genial, strangers making conversation with each other, wondering whether we made the cut off for the freebies; REI staff who had been up since pre-dawn, bouncing down the line handing out badges, stickers, croissants, and tips (one even counted down the line to assure my friend and I we were within the first 500); a local award-winning high school marching band parading down the street, aligning the new establishment’s vibe with the rhythm and vibrancy that is a part of DC’s roots.


Once the line started moving, the pulse of the experience quickened, with drumline beats, high fives down the line, and the deafening sounds of cowbells being shaken by all of the store staff greeting each new customer. It was fun in a way I didn’t expect, upbeat and communal in a way that made me feel a little more part of the REI family, and that much more committed to the brand. There were marks of DC all over the store: a wall of posters from the days that the building served as the Uline Arena, a prominent music venue that hosted the likes of the Beatles, Woody Guthrie, and DC’s go-go music pioneers; shirts boasting DMV (DC-MD-VA) pride; and a stunning shot of the summit at Old Rag Mountain, a popular Shenandoah National Park hike familiar to any local who gets outdoors in the area. Their theme during this election cycle has been “United Outside,” an ode to all the incredible and beautiful places begging for us to explore, get lost, and find peace.


I was in the store for all of 20 minutes but the experience had a profound impact on me as a consumer and as a person. As someone who travels a lot, maintaining a tie to the city I live in is among the challenges I contend with on a regular basis. In a very simple way, REI created an immediate connection to the place I live and the things I love to do. Seeing this big brand stake a claim in revitalizing unused spaces in the city, promoting the multiple outdoor opportunities, and bringing the heritage of this complex and beautiful national capital to life in their store has made my relationship with the brand more personal, and made me feel good about being part of their community. As a result, I open every single one of their emails, plot purchases for friends and family around their sales, and find myself wandering there when I have time to kill or adventures to plan.


We spend a lot of time at Seek talking about empathy, working to foster connections with the humans we serve in an effort to make products, experiences, and communications that have meaning. The more you practice empathy, the more you can spot the places it shows up, and the more you are affected by the intentionality of it when it’s practiced with you. It’s not just the stuff inside REI – it’s the entire space they curate around their values, and the way their people ensure that’s carried through the full customer experience. In a time when the world feels so divisive, hard to predict, and at times quite insular, when a brand embraces you with open arms and encourages you to expand your journey through this big, beautiful world, the experience is profound, meaningful, and a true breath of fresh mountain air.



The Market Research Event 2016 Highlights

Seek Company attended The Market Research Event in October, the first time since 2013. The 3-day conference took place in Boca Raton, Florida at the Waldorf Astoria from October 18th-20th. We were a sponsor for the event and had our newly re-designed booth in the conference’s Exhibit Hall. At the booth, we were able to connect with attendees and The Inspiration Board was a hub to engage with them on a more personal level. Here’s what some visitors had to say about our booth:


“Your booth is so thoughtful and feels authentic to who Seek is.”

“This feels warm and inviting.”


On the second day, CEO Tim Urmston presented his highly popular talk The Science Behind Empathy & Storytelling to 100+ people. Seek Company had an amazing experience at TMRE and can’t wait for 2017!


Click through the photos below to see some highlights from the conference:


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Dare to Choose Empathy

When it comes to increasing your capacity for empathy, the journey can be a lot like chasing happiness or love or any other elusive, fleeting emotion. Empathy might find you, but sometimes you just have to choose it.


Science tells us that, in any given moment, we either feel empathy or we don’t—and that we’re even able to recognize when we’re not feeling empathy in instances when we should and autocorrect. That’s because the brain’s capacity for empathy is elastic and when we believe we can be more empathetic, we can be.


Magali Charmot, Research & Innovation Team Leader at Seek Company, knows a lot about this. Charmot has traveled worldwide with Seek Company over the past 3 years, going into the field to interview people, ideate with brands and to give hands-on empathy training. Everything Seek Company does is rooted in extensive research into empathic human connection and Charmot herself is a jack-of-all-trades whose warmth and sense of humor is palpable the second you meet her.


Here she explains what Seek does—and how empathy can unlock better ideas, better products, better service, and better relationships in your world.


Q: Seek Company is dedicated to empathic research—in a nutshell, what have you learned about empathy?


A:  It would take more than a nutshell to acknowledge what we’ve sourced and learned in order to develop our methods and practice of empathy, which are rooted in neuroscience, behavioral science, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. But I can say that we’ve learned this: empathy takes practice,  empathy can be improved, and if you’re willing, it can transform all of us—both professionally and personally.


In our work, we talk a lot about two kinds of empathy: contagious and cognitive. The first, contagious empathy, doesn’t require us to think about it. It’s the kind of thing where if you see a picture of a spider crawling on someone’s arm, you have a reaction as though the spider were crawling on your arm. It’s what makes us lurch toward a child crossing a road when we perceive them to be in danger.


By contrast, cognitive empathy is a conscious choice. If you were to react contagiously all the time, you’d be a mess. Your brain would hit saturation and you’d never get anything done. So our brain shuts it down and cognitive empathy becomes something that takes some energy. If I’m doing research in someone’s home, for example, that’s a time where I prepare myself mentally to be there, to be a vessel for whatever it is they’re going to share with me. We like to say that empathy is a loop. It’s a planet you never get to land on, but you’re constantly orbiting and you’re constantly trying to understand and to connect.


Q: What types of problems can empathy help solve, and what is the relationship between empathy and innovation?


A:  Problem-solving begins with empathy because empathy allows us to truly understand the creative problems we should be solving for. It enables us to identify the needs that we can innovate against, and we’ve proven over and over again that the process of empathy only slows us down in the beginning so that we can speed up down the road.


Q:  At what point in the ideation process is empathy research most impactful?


A:  We often participate in the creative brief process. Empathy becomes a transformational tool at that time to ensure that all parties involved are aligned and solving for the same tension. This allows us to speed up the process and act from our gut because we all have an unquestionable sense of what is needed once we can convey it to others, often through storytelling.


Empathy as a Business Initiative


Q:  As a result, how do you prepare companies for what might be a seismic shift in the culture of their company?


A:  We often have to evaluate the openness of a person or an organization to this type of approach. Some people, or some companies, aren’t ready, and thus we’re not always a match. You can potentially ease teams in by providing tangible examples of results, and by providing scientific and academic backing to our ideas, but you can’t force the process because it has to be intentional. Empathy, at least cognitive empathy, requires you to consciously engage.


Q:  Empathy is often a job requirement in service-oriented roles, but it can be tough for companies to truly be empathic with consumers. What is the best way for disparate groups of people to connect?


A:  We’ve developed a step-by-step cyclical process for the practice of empathy. The first step is to “Acknowledge.” For each of us to try and build an empathic connection with someone, we have to recognize that we’re different: we’re 95% the same, but we have different life stories and experiences. By acknowledging that, we’re freed up to differentiate how we feel versus how the other group may feel. If you can remove assumptions and judgment, you can be more open to learning about someone else, and know how to take care of their needs.


Q:  In business we talk about big data and about making data-driven decisions. But how do our feelings and gut instincts factor into business decision-making?


A:  Data is important, but it can be hard to make sense of big data if we don’t know how to formulate the right questions or design the right problems. Building “gut” is critically important because neuroscience, or the science of decision-making, shows that most of our decisions are more emotional than rational. Many behavioral scientists, like Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (and authored Thinking, Fast and Slow), go into great depth about this very topic. That’s because decision-making is always context-dependent and based on personal experience.


In difficult or threatening situations, we react to stress differently, and sometimes irrationally or based on our pasts, regardless of context. So in order for us to make the right decision on behalf of the people we serve, we need to build that gut instinct or that memory, if you will, of their emotional experience.


Q:  Is there such a thing as a return on empathy? In terms of measurement, what should a more empathetic organization look like in 6 months? In a year?


A:  For us, success is when we can tangibly see the impact in a team’s day-to-day. We see changes in the way teams or companies talk about their customers in meetings, by name, and a sense of responsibility they feel to solve for the people they serve. When this happens, the end result is mind-blowing. When people feel a sense of purpose and accountability to both do their job and go beyond, it always ends up impacting a business positively, whether it’s through brand differentiation and relevance, improved product concepts, or the financial gains as a whole.


Empathy: The Take-Home Test


Q:  To wrap things up, for companies without the tools or means to engage at this level, can they still hope to build the kind of empathetic bonds we’re talking about?


A:  Yes, of course. We can all build empathetic bonds even without understanding the neuroscience behind them. After all, empathy is the practice of being human, humble, and vulnerable. That alone is not easy, but brands who dare to be tend to be some of the most successful and inspiring companies out there.


Another powerful tool that may help trigger empathy within an organization is storytelling. Storytelling engages contagious empathy. If you can make people emote, then they’re inhabiting someone else’s story and emotions.

By: Magali Charmot, Account Director


Re-Training the Elephant

Imagine that you are an explorer atop a mighty elephant trying to steer it into the wild grass of unexplored territory. You tug on the elephant’s ears and frantically yell directions at it, but the elephant simply continues down its familiar path, stopping for small bites and myriad distractions along the way. The elephant doesn’t take well to being steered.


Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider deftly encapsulates what psychological theorists have posited for decades and what burgeoning neuroscience confirms: your unconscious mind is your most powerful decision-driving mechanism, and it is more influenced than steered.  This means your conscious mind is far more often informed of your decisions than in charge of them.


Your unconscious problem-solving process is built through your lifetime of experiences cemented into your gut by emotional markers. It is a remarkable evolutionary feature that is much older than the conscious mind itself, and it is meant to drive smart choices. If you were in a car accident on a dark street after leaving the movies, your unconscious encodes markers of aversion, fear, and hypervigilance tied to the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience: dark streets, the scent of popcorn, and blue trucks like the one that hit you. If you fell in love at college in the fall, your unconscious encodes markers of attraction, connection, and fulfillment to fallen leaves, the smell of the library, and the taste of cider. It starts in utero, continues until the day you die, and you are never aware of it while it’s happening. You spend your entire life unconsciously training the elephant.


For those of us in the business of innovation (read: helping others improve their lives), we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity: how do we leverage the heft of the mighty elephant to serve the needs of others? The trick, as it turns out, is not to steer the elephant but to consciously train it.


This is where cognitive empathy comes in. Empathy is an innate mechanism for solving the problems of others by encoding their emotions as our own experience. Once we have been inscribed with their experience, our natural problem-solving process kicks in to solve the problem as if it were our own. Empathy is natural (and virtually unpreventable) for those most salient to us: our family, our friends, our icons and heroes. When someone we are close with needs help, we automatically snap into action and get working on finding novel solutions to their problems. For those we aren’t as naturally connected with, such as our customers, our patients, our colleagues, etc., we must engage a cognitive process of building empathy in order to get their experiences encoded into our own guts. By doing so, we are using the rider of conscious cognition to train the elephant of the unconscious.


By acknowledging that our experience is distinct from that person’s, deciding to bridge that distance by allowing their experience to affect us, recognizing their feelings and emotions in ourselves, and owning our response while allowing it to encode in us, we are building that repertoire of intuition according to their needs. We are no longer making jerking pulls and tugs to try to sway the massive unconscious against its training. We are re-training the unconscious to take us somewhere new, and this becomes the core mechanism of our ongoing innovation on their behalf.

By: Justin Masterson, Master Consultant


Blind to a Blind Spot

There was an old lady who lived next to me when I was in my early twenties. Betty was in her mid 70’s. She was wrinkled and tiny and sat on her porch most of the time. Night and day. Spring, summer, fall, and deep into Kansas winters. Our landlord, Martin, had converted a single family home into apartments. Right down the middle of the porch Martin had built an astonishingly ugly lattice wall to create what he called, “separate and somewhat private” entrances.  There was no privacy; and it didn’t matter. I sat on my side of the porch smoking Gauloise tobacco because Camus and Picasso smoked Gauloise. I was looking for connection with them, but it was a connection with Betty that made a difference. We talked through the lattice. We got to know each other, and the people we saw passing by. Betty saw all of them, she saw me and she was blind.


Betty didn’t talk much; but she’d laugh. Loved to laugh. Laugh at me-a cocky college kid who thought he knew people. I still remember the first time she laughed at me. I’m walking home from work at night. The house is still out of sight when I hear her yelling my name at the top of her lungs. I start running thinking she’s hurt or fallen or someone has robbed her. I get closer to the house, she’s still yelling my name. And then she starts laughing. Cackling. She can hardly breathe she’s laughing so hard. I can hardly breathe because I’m out of shape from making so many “connections” with Camus and Picasso-smoking all those Gauloise. Her laugh breaks off as I climb the steps to her side of the porch:


“What the hell you running for Sonny?” She calls me Sonny.


“What the hell you laughing for?” I nearly scream.


“I saw you coming,” she says.


“What?” In my mind I can’t believe a blind lady just said she saw me coming. And then the reality of it starts to settle.


“Yep. I always do. Always can.”


And that is the start of how we came to be known as the “dueling porches.”


The next day, I see landlord Martin at the grocery. I tell him all about what happened.  “She knows what’s going on. Almost before it goes on,” Martin says.


“Well, she sure as hell can’t see me coming. She is blind, you know,” I reply, kind of irritated with Martin.


“You two are always out on that porch, right? I got a bet for you. For the next two weeks, you and the old lady have a competition. As you sit on your porches, first one to identify who’s coming down the street gets a point. You keep score. After two weeks, the highest score wins.  I’ll bet you a month’s rent Betty wins.”


“She’s blind,” I nearly laugh. “And if I lose?” I say, knowing I wouldn’t.


“If you lose, you take me and Betty to Sal’s. For drinks and dinner.”


My mind races. Sal’s is an upscale steakhouse. You don’t get out the door for less than $30 a person, and with drinks… Then I think to myself she’s blind, take the $350 in free rent.  “Hell yeah, I’ll bet you.”


We shake on it. “Explain the game to Betty, tonight. Start the game tomorrow,” he says.


“I’m all over it.”


On a Thursday night, two and a half weeks later, I’m drinking cocktails and eating buffalo steaks with Martin and Betty at Sal’s. It had pretty much been a shutout. I think she let me win a point or two, just to keep me from complete and total humiliation. Everybody passing by got in on it. They’d hear her laughing, ask us what was going on and we told them of the game. After the two weeks were up, they begged us to keep playing. I got an old chalkboard from the thrift store. Martin mounted it on my side of the porch (he thought it looked good but he also thought a lattice wall looked good). Somewhere along the line, somebody started referring to our house as the “dueling porches.” Strangers would walk down our street for no other reason but to come meet the old blind lady and the smoker. To see if we could see.


What I realized was that Betty was highly aware of not only her surroundings, but also of  herself. Of her own senses. She paid careful attention to what she heard. To what she smelled. Maybe not having the use of one her senses caused her to be more attune to the others.
We are learning that for our work, for our research, and for our dive into empathic connectivity, we are required to have an acute awareness of our ‘selves.’ It is important that we are able to identify where we end and another begins. As we allow ourselves to be affected by the emotions of someone else, it is imperative that we are aware of our own emotions. That we open ourselves up to ourselves. That we see like Betty.

By: David Strasser, Program Designer



Something as simple as a hammer can have an important story behind it. Empathy for your consumers comes from learning their stories. You build a connection that allows you to understand how your product really fits into their lives. Empathy allows brands to transform themselves into “human” brands and create meaningful relationships with the people they serve, developing life-long advocates.


By: David True, Art Director


Boundaries In Research

When you hear the word “boundary,” what is your immediate thought?  Personally, when I hear the word, I immediately get tense and shrink back. I begin to question why the boundary is being put into effect? Was it something I’ve done? Something I’ve said?


Merriam-Webster defines boundary as “a point or limit that indicates where two things become different.” Rather than focus on it as a bad thing, I’m beginning to understand that boundaries are respectful and connecting – not dividing or fake.


Brené Brown is a researcher, a college professor and a storyteller. More importantly, she is a human being who wants to live in a society where love and compassion are at the forefront. I came across an interview she did with TheWorkOfThePeople.com entitled “Boundaries,” and it changed my viewpoint.


We live in a society where we are told to drop our walls and be open with the people in our surroundings. Brown completely turns this viewpoint on its head and shows that boundaries are not restrictive, but instead open the door for us to connect with people. They allow for us to be real, honest and upfront with people rather than getting in too deep and hurting someone in the process. “Boundaries are not fake walls, separation, or division,” Brown says. “They are respect. They are ‘here’s what’s okay with me and here’s what’s not.’”


As researchers, we need to be able to connect with our consumers on a more emotional level while also maintaining the integrity of one’s self. Moreover, we need to maintain the integrity of the brand we’re representing. The video brings into focus one major idea: Boundaries are good— like, really good. Putting boundaries in place allows us to be more generous and build relationships with people that go beyond the surface.


Boundaries create respect and an empathic connection. We can assume the best in people and actually feel for them rather than simply wanting to feel for them. Instead of saying, “that’s awful,” initializing boundaries allows for a mutual understanding that we are separate people. Yet we can connect on an emotional level and say “this must feel awful.” Brown says, “to assume the best about people is almost an inherently selfish act because the life you change first is your own.” As researchers, the inherent boundaries we put in place allows us to not only change our own lives, but perhaps also the lives of the people we serve.


See below to watch the powerful Brené Brown interview in its entirety.


A Lesson In Empathy

Jodi Halpern M.D., Ph.D, is Professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Joint Medical Program and the School of Public Health.  Seek’s R&D team has spent time learning from Jodi.  Her expertise has informed our understanding of empathy and how we apply it in our work.  


Jodi spent a couple of days with the entire Seek team at our January staff meeting. She shared her expertise, helped us practice applied empathy with each other and graciously told us about her personal  journey with empathy. It began with Mrs. G, a patient she met with while working as a trainee on the psychiatry service for a hospital. I am still haunted by the story of Mrs. G. and inspired by how Jodi uses her experience to teach others about empathy.  Jodi’s presentation provided me with a deeper understanding of how empathy can be better utilized in marketing and innovation, but she also made me think about how I apply empathy in  my own life. How often do  I slow down and empathically connect with people? Am I truly curious?  Who are the Mrs. G’s in my life?


After our staff meeting, we followed up with Jodi to ask a few questions. You can visit Jodi’s website Here and we highly recommend her book, From Detached Concern To Empathy, available on Amazon.


Seek:  In your book From Detached Concern To Empathy, you demonstrate that patients actually have more trust in empathic doctors and communicate more openly and honestly. In your opinion, why is empathy so powerful?


Jodi: Empathy is so powerful in building trust because people need to feel like another person really “gets it” before they can trust their advice. Experience shows that patients don’t trust doctors who are aloof or superficially friendly. If a patient feels heard and seen by their doctor, their chances of healing increase. Studies show that because patients trust empathic doctors more, they communicate much more honestly with them about their physical and emotional issues. Oftentimes, a person in distress or pain communicates non-verbally. As a result, empathic doctors recognize health problems that others might miss. An emotionally disengaged listener is perceived to not really care or understand. So even if the doctor can make intellectually accurate statements, the patient is less likely to trust their opinion and the patient’s healing is compromised.


Seek: Most market researchers are curious by nature.  Can you tell us why you think curiosity is critical to creating an empathic connection with another person?


Jodi: Curiosity about what it’s like to live in another person’s world is vital for building an empathic connection, because we can’t really ever truly understand another person’s situation. Curiosity engages our imagination and allows us to get out of our own perspective. Otherwise you run the risk of just labeling their experiences as an outside observer. No one wants someone to merely typify them the way some marketing researchers do: in terms of demographics, etc. You want someone to “get” you, and curiosity by means of an imaginative effort is the closest we can get to understanding someone’s specific experience.


Seek: You’ve done extensive work investigating how emotions and imagination shape the healthcare decisions of clinicians and patients.  Do you believe emotions and imagination can play a significant role in decision making for brands and consumers in the marketplace and if so, how?


Jodi:  As a consumer, my purchases are reflective of my emotional needs as well as my objective needs.  I’m attracted to brands that make me feel more secure about my decisions and that I’m doing what’s good for my family etc… It’s hard for me to see how empathic imagination could not be a big influence in consumer decisions. One of the most important ways we all construct our own agency and express our personal values is through the products we choose to consume.



Insight Buzz Kill

How many times have you heard the words “deep” and “rich” to describe the insights a research company provides for you?  You’ll find these words on our website because they give us a quick and accurate way to differentiate our insight work.  Without context, they can appear to be just buzzwords that we like to throw around instead of providing an understanding of how our research methods can benefit you. We don’t speak for all companies doing qualitative research, but here’s what a rich or deep insight means to Seek.


It’s like pulling water from a deep well rather than dipping a cup into a puddle.

Traditional insights tend to skim along the top of the consumer’s life paying attention to the topical parts of his or her life. They often give us obvious and probably one-time solutions. An empathic insight is informed by going deep into the consumer’s experience to uncover the tensions and motivators that reside in the subconscious mind. It’s from this place of depth and connection that we find multiple opportunities to engage with and serve this consumer. A “deep” or “rich” insight is the well from which you can continually draw ideas.


For example, a specialty retailer wants to attract a specific group of people. The obvious approach is to research which brands are important to them and carry those brands in-store. Using an empathic approach and immersive research, we discover that the brands themselves are actually not enough to attract this consumer. This consumer wants authenticity. Expertise in the category is of primary importance to them.  Digging deeper, we define what authenticity and expertise means to them. As we synthesize the research and identify patterns, many opportunities such as staff training, services, marketing communication and community involvement are revealed. The retailer can continue to come back to this rich insight to generate ideas for long-term and meaningful engagement with this consumer.


It tells you why.

Quantitative data is important. We know that you also need to go further in your research to uncover the why behind the data. It is good to know that 70% of your target consumers aren’t responding to an ad concept or a product feature, but if you don’t know why, it will take longer to innovate for them. The “why” can often be found in the subconscious mind. Our methods are designed to identify non-verbal cues and emotional content that add depth to your insights.


It reminds you that your consumer is a real person & changes behavior.

When you have a more complete picture of your consumer, they are no longer a statistic like 35% of people or the 50 year old white male demographic. They are humans with real lives. They have feelings and thoughts that you can relate to because the insight activated your empathy and imagination. The insight becomes inspiration for you to advocate for your consumers and share their stories. It serves as motivation for Innovators to create something significant. The marketing team is excited to develop communication that resonates. Your organization can begin to move from the traditional brand-to-buyer mentality to a human-to-human relationship. Innovating from this “deep” and “rich” understanding of your consumers leads to meaningful engagement that makes your brand more relevant.

Expert Thinking

Human understanding is at the core of our work. We choose to use empathy as a way to connect brands with their consumers. We believe that empathic connections provide our clients with a more holistic understanding of the people they serve and reveal opportunities for meaningful engagement.


Dr. Jamil Zaki, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University has published a series of articles regarding empathy as a choice. Check out this Reality Club Discussion in Edge featuring Dr. Zaki along with leading experts in psychology, philosophy and neuroscience.


Reality Club Discussion: Edge.Org


To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”