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.

Bringing a Brand Home

I’ll wait in line for lots of things, but the opening of a retail store is not one of them. If I’m in line, it’s probably for music or food. However, recently I found myself trekking to the Noma neighborhood in northeast Washington D.C. for the opening of REI’s flagship store in the city.


I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia – an outdoor lover’s paradise with roaring rapids and winding hiking trails – but admittedly I was not what you’d term as an “outdoorsy” person. Just the opposite, in fact. I was an asthmatic voracious reader who would regularly use my affliction to fake out of gym class, whiling away that hour losing myself in a book, shuffling page after page to the sounds of my classmates shrieking as they scooted away from each other in tag. Despite the fresh mountain air that enveloped our small town, my friends and I spent most of high school indoors going to basketball games, eating at Applebee’s, and playing ping-pong in my parents’ basement, only suiting up in outdoor gear and hiking boots in the winter to survive the long, slippery parking lot walk from our cars to the school.


So my love for REI wasn’t entirely predictable, but since the early 2000s I’ve had a strong affinity for the store – in fact, the only retail affinity that has survived from that time. Somewhere in my 20s, I experienced an adult-onset love for the outdoors: realizing what all the fuss was about when it came to mountains, hikes, trails, vast star-lit skies and the gentle slap of paddle against water. I ended up at REI looking for a decent rain jacket for a trip to Seattle, and after a lengthy chat with a very knowledgeable staff member dressed like he was ready to scale a cliff, I felt smarter and more prepared for the adventure ahead. I felt like REI made it warm and inviting for someone like me to toe-dip into this vast and daunting space. Something about the high ceilings, smartly-crafted gear, eco-friendly vibes, down-to-earth staff, customer-centric return policy – all of which makes me feel good about being there, and inevitably spending a little more than I’d planned on awesome gear. Eventually I became a member of REI – the only membership to anything I possess at the moment – and proudly spend my dividends on more fleeces, waterproof backpacks, and high-impact water bottles, reinforcing my attachment to the woodsy interiors and outdoor-celebrating mission.


So, 12 years after my first REI experience – hours of hikes, paddling sessions, and one failed rock climbing experience later – when I heard they’d created a store IN the heart of my city, I felt compelled to break my wait-in-line rules for the grand opening. I figured others would also show up, lured by the promise of free gifts, coffee and breakfast, but somehow was still surprised and impressed by the slew of those who had camped out in their tents (likely purchased at REI), ready for the ribbon to be cut. What struck me as I became person 285 in line was the atmosphere. Genial, strangers making conversation with each other, wondering whether we made the cut off for the freebies; REI staff who had been up since pre-dawn, bouncing down the line handing out badges, stickers, croissants, and tips (one even counted down the line to assure my friend and I we were within the first 500); a local award-winning high school marching band parading down the street, aligning the new establishment’s vibe with the rhythm and vibrancy that is a part of DC’s roots.


Once the line started moving, the pulse of the experience quickened, with drumline beats, high fives down the line, and the deafening sounds of cowbells being shaken by all of the store staff greeting each new customer. It was fun in a way I didn’t expect, upbeat and communal in a way that made me feel a little more part of the REI family, and that much more committed to the brand. There were marks of DC all over the store: a wall of posters from the days that the building served as the Uline Arena, a prominent music venue that hosted the likes of the Beatles, Woody Guthrie, and DC’s go-go music pioneers; shirts boasting DMV (DC-MD-VA) pride; and a stunning shot of the summit at Old Rag Mountain, a popular Shenandoah National Park hike familiar to any local who gets outdoors in the area. Their theme during this election cycle has been “United Outside,” an ode to all the incredible and beautiful places begging for us to explore, get lost, and find peace.


I was in the store for all of 20 minutes but the experience had a profound impact on me as a consumer and as a person. As someone who travels a lot, maintaining a tie to the city I live in is among the challenges I contend with on a regular basis. In a very simple way, REI created an immediate connection to the place I live and the things I love to do. Seeing this big brand stake a claim in revitalizing unused spaces in the city, promoting the multiple outdoor opportunities, and bringing the heritage of this complex and beautiful national capital to life in their store has made my relationship with the brand more personal, and made me feel good about being part of their community. As a result, I open every single one of their emails, plot purchases for friends and family around their sales, and find myself wandering there when I have time to kill or adventures to plan.


We spend a lot of time at Seek talking about empathy, working to foster connections with the humans we serve in an effort to make products, experiences, and communications that have meaning. The more you practice empathy, the more you can spot the places it shows up, and the more you are affected by the intentionality of it when it’s practiced with you. It’s not just the stuff inside REI – it’s the entire space they curate around their values, and the way their people ensure that’s carried through the full customer experience. In a time when the world feels so divisive, hard to predict, and at times quite insular, when a brand embraces you with open arms and encourages you to expand your journey through this big, beautiful world, the experience is profound, meaningful, and a true breath of fresh mountain air.