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.

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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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


Continuous Learning

We know that building a relationship with consumers is important to a brand. However, we also understand that staying engaged in their lives is often easier said than done. We have developed a monthly continuous learning program that gives companies the opportunity to keep consumers top of mind and foster an on-going relationship with them. Our in-house Studio team can even brand the program specifically for your business to help drive cohesion of the program and make it your own.


We think it’s a great program but rather than asking you to take our word for it, we reached out to Allie Engelhart who has spearheaded a successful continuous learning program for her team. She worked hand-in-hand with Seek to create their customized monthly program now known as Atlas.

Allie joined P&G as a Consumer Market and Knowledge Intern within Family Care.  She is now a full-time member of the North American Baby Care team and her primary focus is Luvs, Pants and Wipes.  


Seek: Tell us a bit about the continuous learning program designed for your team.

Atlas was designed to be a first of its kind, engaging program that enables our multi-functional business team to develop a deep gut level understanding of our consumers. The program was built in two parts: activations and immersions. In an activation, 40 physical boxes show up in the office once a month and they are filled with activities and data that bring certain business related topics to life.  Immersions occur twice a year and they allow our 40 person team to leave the building for a day to spend time with the people we serve.


Seek: How has this helped you and the team to better understand your consumer target?

It was extremely encouraging to see how quickly our business embraced the program! The Baby Care team loves the hands on learning style as well as the layer of competition included in each activation. Members have reported using the insights found in boxes to fuel their work plans.  The leadership team noted that our first immersion was extremely beneficial and the findings were used to drive large business decisions.


Seek: What is it that makes you most proud of this program?

I am proud of the Seek/P&G team for not being afraid to bring the consumer’s voice to life in a new way. I love how iterative the process has been. By monitoring how the content is received and interacted with, we are able to get better at serving the multifunctional team with each and every box.


Seek: In what ways has the program benefited you personally?

I have had a blast working on Atlas. Being new to the Baby Care family, it has been a great opportunity for me to dig into and reorganize data from all around our business.  This provides me with a more holistic view of our portfolio and consumers. Atlas has also been an excellent creative outlet in my work plan. Brainstorming sessions with the Seek team are energizing and practicing how to bring concepts to life in an engaging format will be very beneficial as I progress through my career.

Behind The Lens

As a Senior Creative at Seek, I’ve created over two dozen videos for our clients. Most of these videos feature consumer insights that were developed from empathic research. Sometimes the videos feature interviews of the actual consumers. The challenge for me has always been to capture who the consumer actually is versus lumping them into a perceived category. So how is Alicia different from other single Millennial Moms? What really motivates Harold when he is shopping? Why are their lives as important as the insights they share?


I came across this video by Canon. The setup: six photographers take pictures of the same man. Each photographer is given different background information about the man. One photographer is told he’s a prisoner, another that he’s a fisherman. What’s fascinating is how their perspectives are influenced by the information they’re given and it changes the way they take photos of the man.


I love the message of this video. It’s about how we project our knowledge, style and experiences onto others. In this case, the “other” is the subject of a photo shoot. In my case, it’s the consumers of a brand. I constantly ask myself: Am I telling their story as authentically as possible? Am I biased to how I am presenting them? How do I balance my personal style as a storyteller with how I perceive someone?


At the end of the day there will never be a perfect balance to this, but as I gain self-awareness through the practice of empathy, I can learn to recognize my own bias and focus on the truth of the consumer. It’s this act of constantly checking myself and the choices I make as a director and editor that keeps me satisfied.


Why Storytelling Works

Today’s the day that you give your big presentation. You and your team have done some great research. The research revealed something unexpected and you’re excited about the possibilities. You’ve spent hours working on your powerpoint presentation. You have 40 slides filled with bullet points, graphs and charts that demonstrate the findings from your hard work. You have the data and you want your organization to do something great with it.


But they don’t seem to care. You get some mild applause at the conclusion of your talk and the insights you uncovered are headed to innovation purgatory, just waiting for someone to use them. So where is the passionate response you were expecting? Why don’t they get it? Well, you probably lost them at slide number two. Be honest. Would you want to sit through your presentation?


Next time, consider sharing the story of your consumer rather than just their data. Stories have power. They inspire us, haunt us, engage us and help us to understand and empathize with people. Stories speak to our humanity and compel us to act. Storytelling is a powerful form of communication that has existed since the beginning of time. So why does it work?


Stories Elicit Emotion
When listening to a presentation with a lot of facts and figures, it sends us into analytical mode. We naturally start to process the facts and question their validity rather than care about what the speaker is sharing. When listening to a story, we begin to feel something. Stories elicit an emotional response.  They are authentic human experiences that engage our imagination and help us to connect with one another. Data only begins to means something to us when it’s being used in support of a real person’s story.


“A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.” Harrison Monarth


Our Brains Are Wired For Stories
When we are given facts and figures, only the language processing part of our brain is engaged. Scientists call this the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area. Basically we process the words, give them meaning and that’s all. Game over.


On the other hand, when we hear a story, our whole brain goes to work creating images and emotional responses. When we hear about the experiences of others, we naturally want to relate it to our own life. Scientists have been observing brain scans as their subjects hear stories. They have found that when we hear a story it engages any other part of our brain that we would use when experiencing the events taking place in the story. For example, if the story is about chocolate cake or the smell of sea air, it will light up our sensory cortex and if it’s about swimming in the ocean it will light up our motor cortex. If we are hearing about a person’s joy or pain, it will activate our insular cortex which plays a big role in our emotions. Emotional stimulation is the foundation for empathy and our ability to connect and build relationships. Because so many parts of the brain are engaged, an experience is created when we hear stories and this experience elicits a response.


“Stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative. We can step out of our own shoes, see differently, and increase our empathy for others. Through imagination, we tap into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.” Dr. Pamela Rutledge


Storytelling is what makes Seek different. We connect you with the people you serve to learn more than just the facts about them. We want you to know them on a personal level because their stories are the foundation for your new innovation. Meet Bob. As he ages, little things like a cold become more frightening to him and what helps him most is having someone to love him. And there’s Mary who lost self confidence when she entered puberty.  Bob’s story speaks for the 1 in 2 Americans over the age of 65 who have unexpected emergency room visits. Mary represents the 70% of women worldwide who suffer from menstruation symptoms. No one had much to say about the 1 in 2 Americans or 70% of women worldwide, but when connected with the stories of Bob and Mary, those facts inspired new innovation.


We have a creative team of writers and designers who bring your research findings to life through a variety of mediums to richly inform and motivate your organization. We can help you get your insights out of purgatory and into the marketplace.