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



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


Tech & A Human Touch

A common challenge for research teams is finding the best way to use social media to collect and analyze data. They often face resistance within their organization because the data is messy and finding nuggets of useful information is time-consuming. Interpreting the data and determining how to best use it is a daunting task. As a result, many companies are missing out on potential opportunities to better serve their consumers and save time and money in the process. We think there’s a winning formula to help brands tap into the unfiltered stream of online data and use it to move them forward.


Natural language processing software is a popular tool used for social media analysis because the data is created by consumers and reports are quickly generated. These reports are generally used to measure sentiment around a brand, campaign, a service initiative or a new product launch. But software can only go so far and often misses part of the story. Sentiment is a useful starting point and provides direction for further analysis, but we think you also need the context and insight that comes from a human being to build an effective strategy.


We think the best approach combines automated software with a qualitative researcher who reads the data, hand-codes the commentary, discovers the meaning behind the commentary and provides human insight.


Getting social data is easy. There is plenty of software available and after plugging in a few keywords, you receive pages and pages of data. The hard part is trying to navigate the overwhelming amount of data to find something that pertains to your objectives. Where do you start? A qualitatively trained researcher gets you started by selecting the right keywords to find the data you really need. They read through all of the commentary, hand-code it and identify key themes. Once they’ve identified the themes that are most relevant to you, they can organize the the commentary to support each theme.


Software can’t divide commentary into different parts to understand relationship and meaning. It cannot pick up on sarcasm and contradiction. It will completely miss the emotion expressed behind an expletive or emoji because most software filters them out and in some cases, it will even kick out comments with a misspelled word. Adding a human researcher to the mix will give you a more accurate picture. They read through and include all commentary generated by the software and then dig a little deeper into a stream of content that is relevant to your objectives to provide context and clarify meaning.


So, you’ve used the best software and it generated a report that gives you a lot of data and statistics. According to the report, the joy people feel when interacting with your brand is down 23% from last year. What do you do with this information? The report doesn’t provide any details regarding why joy is down 23%. And how did the software identify joy in the comments? What would increase your joy metric? A human researcher will understand why you want to measure joy and how it fits with your overall strategy. They will understand that joy means more to you than just its basic definition. Our researchers read through the commentary and code it based on what is relevant to you and your definition of joy. They find overarching themes regarding how people are experiencing your brand and combine it with the supporting data to give you a complete story to clearly direct your next steps.


Our researchers are trained in empathy and it’s at the core of everything we do. When our team is reading and coding social media commentary, they understand that behind every comment is a real person who is more than just that online post. Our researchers dig deeper to try and discover more about the people behind the posts.They work to identify habits & practices, pain points and un-met needs that will infuse rich human insight into your software-generated data.


If you’re interested in learning more about our approach to social media analysis you can learn more HERE.

A Human Brand

Today’s marketing directors, strategic planners, and insight managers find themselves in a tough position: pitting the brand’s authentic voice against everyday strategic business decisions. These needn’t be opposing forces. In fact, they should be strongly supporting each other. Here’s a look at what’s behind that tension, and how to go about solving for it.


On Being A Human Brand

A great brand is a human brand. It is a collection of stories, experiences, and symbols that breathe and grow inside the people who interact with it. Being human is easy for us, so why is it difficult to build and maintain a great brand? In short, it’s because of a secret wish.

On Fulfilling The Secret Wish

A human brand recognizes the deeper transaction. Think about it. When we pay money for a product or service, there is always a secret wish reflected in that exchange. A need to see our personal story unfold before our very eyes. The brands we buy help us make sense of – and personally relate to – life’s quirks, joys, and hardships. Consider your own purchases lately. Beneath its apparent functionality, isn’t that purchase about reaching for control, or searching for answers? Pining for love, craving glory, or grieving loss? These are universally fundamental human stories. We invite brands into our lives to help realize and fulfill these secret, or unconscious wishes.

On A Man in a Hat

Consider this sequence:
1. A Toyota FJ Cruiser is parked in front of an upscale grocery store.
2. A 63-year old man wearing a tan shirt, safari hat and khaki pants gets out of this car.
3. He removes the cigar from his mouth and slowly – carefully – sets it atop his front left tire before heading into the store.

Can you sense his secret wish? Had he spoken it, you might’ve heard, “I’ve had a successful career. I have some money. I know some things. I’m going to let the world know that I’m in no rush. I’m not going to lay down, I’m still discovering this world.” Conscious or not, he gravitates to brands that fulfill his secret wish and aid his personal journey. This secret wish is an archetypal expression, and many brands have tried incorporating this into their own development. That’s good. But the approach is wrong.

On The Limitations of a Single Archetype

So, if great brands are human brands, why would a brand choose one archetype across all contexts? The industry answer, of course, is consistency, but try to imagine a human with this kind of “consistency.” You’d think he was crazy. We are able to recognize that static inauthenticity almost immediately. Humans are social creatures, attracted to people and environments we know will help us grow.

On Becoming More Human

A human brand is aware that the relationship the consumer has with the brand evolves across all touch points: at shelf; in use; online; repurchasing; etc. It is a dynamic relationship that requires a strategic portfolio of archetypes.Most archetype brand models put too much focus on characterizing a single archetype through the brand. If a brand is insensitive to the fluid experience of the consumer, it loses relevance. It loses its humanity.

Much like how we understand people,there is depth to a complete Archetype Portfolio for a brand. We initially meet someone, and have an impression of who they are. We interact with them, again deepening our impression and discovering something new. And we remember them in a certain way, a third dimension to the archetypes. Now, with a more dimensional picture, a brand can strategically show up in different but consistent ways to create sustained advocacy over time.

Back to the Man in the Hat

If a brand only acknowledges that man’s Adventurer archetype, it misses the full story playing out in his life. It overlooks his deeper desire to tell the world what he knows. The Luminary Archetype. Discounting his slow and deliberate demeanor, it misses his desire to draw others into his world. The Magnetist Archetype.


Imagine having an ocean of inspiration and guidance from which your brand can draw for years. Now, add the dynamics of a complete Archetype Portfolio. Strategically applying your portfolio across all consumer touch points (ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, etc) can move the consumer from empty transactions to sustained advocacy for your brand.

If you’d like to learn more about the program we’ve developed to build long-term consumer advocacy, please feel free to reach out to us. We’re ready to help brands innovate with meaning and purpose.

By: Ben Doepke, Senior Program Designer
Contributors: Greg Hewitt, Innovation Director & Jonathan Hyland, Program Designer