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


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.


Inspired Thinking

There are people with great minds and then there are those with great minds who use their wisdom to strengthen, encourage and inspire their fellow humans. We’re drawn to the brilliant mind of Dr. Brené Brown. She’s a great storyteller with thought-provoking insight into human behavior.


Check out two of our favorite videos.



What We’re Reading

At Seek, we’re passionate about understanding humans and what makes us tick. Our Justin Masterson is always reading up on the latest in neuroscience and human behavior. Here’s a peek at five books he recommends if you want to take a progressive plunge into the fascinating world of behavioral economics.


1. How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer
A highly accessible primer on how our emotional and rational minds play together in decision-making.  Fast-paced, intriguing, and chock full of rich storytelling, it is an ideal entrance-point into the role of the unconscious in driving behavior. Learn More>>


2. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
A breakthrough book from a preemptive thought leader that brought behavioral economics into the popular frame.  If
How We Decide catches your interest in behavioral science, this book will absolutely cement it.  Ariely is a brave, candid and unabashedly committed to the science of understanding why we do what we do.  Learn More >>


3. Thinking, Fast & Slow – Daniel Kahneman
The definitive text on the unique roles of the “fast” unconscious and “slow” conscious mind from a Nobel laureate. Kahenman and his long-time partner, Amos Tversky, virtually defined the field of behavioral economics, and this book serves as the culmination of their storied careers…if you have heard terms from behavioral economics floating around, they were probably coined here. Learn More>>


4. Incognito – David Eagleman
A thrilling look at the impact of the hidden brain on both the individual and society.  Eagleman is a daring neuroscientist who ties insight and invention together brilliantly, and who moves deftly between microcosmic examples of the individual influence of the subconscious, and implications for societal reform as a whole.  Learn More >>


5. Subliminal – Leonard Mlodinow
A depth look into the subconscious mind from, of all places, a quantum physicist.  Mlodinow takes us into the deepest recesses of the subconscious mind and draws remarkable connections between the neurological and physical structures in our heads/bodies and the choices we make that change our lives.  Learn More >>

Justin Masterson is Seek’s Account Strategy Director and resident neuroscience geek.