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