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

 

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.

 

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

 
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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.”

Empathy Skill Building

A formal definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We view empathy as a tool that can lead to meaningful and long-term solutions. It helps us to create a connection with people and gain insight into what is truly driving their decisions. We believe that when you empathically connect with the people you serve, you will be motivated to act on their behalf and create a new message, product or service that truly serves your consumers. We call it “humanizing innovation”.

 

Empathy Workshop Outline

 

    • Understanding Empathy
      The training begins with a discussion that defines empathy and the impact it can have on your organization.
    • What Isn’t Being Said
      Sometimes what is said is not what is meant. We’ll help you and your team understand the importance of active listening, non-verbal cues and the power of unspoken communication.
    • Practice With Purpose
      Using your new tools and skills, your team heads to a relevant landscape to observe and
      interact and connect with people.
    • Reflection
      Reunite at HQ to reflect on what you’ve learned and discuss how you can change your approach to research moving forward.
    •  

Output

Participants leave united as a team with a better understanding of empathy, the impact empathy can have on your organization and the skills and tools to help them connect with people on a deeper level.

 

If you are interested in learning more about how empathy training can benefit your team, contact Lara Hawketts at lara@seekcompany.com.