Slowing Down to Speed Up: Empathy in the Innovation Process

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  • by Natalie George

If you were to look up articles on empathy in business 10-15 years ago, you wouldn’t find much. Today, it’s everywhere. It’s the first step in design thinking, and it’s become quite the buzzword as we see brands utilizing basic human connection skills to build emotional intelligence.

A Word on Buzzwords

Buzzwords bring awareness. Buzzwords start the conversation. Buzzwords risk diluting the meaning. In its truest form, empathy requires vulnerability, and in turn, authenticity. But when “empathy” is being thrown around in white papers and as conference topics, how do we know what that actually looks like? And how does it compare to the empathy we engage with our friends?

The short answer: Empathy is a decision that takes practice and time, and the way we engage it in our professional lives is strikingly similar to the way we might engage it with friends or family (because at the end of the day, it’s just about human connection!). Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Empathy as a Strategic Decision

Simply stated, the practice of empathy is all about head, heart, gut. Empathy enables us to receive information in our heads, to feel the emotion in our heart, and ultimately be compelled to act on behalf of the person we’ve empathized with.

Most of us are born with the ability to empathize, yet, it doesn’t always “just happen” and requires practice. Why is this? Well, we can blame it on cognitive empathy.

Being empathic all of the time is impossible, and it would be downright bad for our health. We’d all be puddles of emotions who would never want to leave home. Cognitive empathy is within us, but it’s more of a dial. We turn that dial down to enable efficiency, especially at work. Turning it down is a-ok, but we need tools to turn that dial back up, especially when it’s in a setting where we are not accustomed to using.

As researchers, we are told to check our biases at the door. As humans, we know that is impossible. How can I engage with a consumer and, for that two hours, magically forget about all of my life experiences? Spoiler alert: I can’t. Empathy allows us to embrace our life experiences, recognize our biases. You cannot engage empathy without YOU.

The magic of empathy is that we connect on the emotion, not the experience. So while you may have an entirely different life experience from your consumer (or friend or child), you’ve certainly felt the same emotion they are experiencing - and that is the connection point. Acknowledging your own emotions means there is vulnerability involved. This is just one of the reasons that engaging empathy is an all-in effort.

The Return on Empathy

Empathy requires time, and time is a scarce resource. Time is what causes us to turn our cognitive empathy down in the first place. But empathy can save you time, too. How can this be? At SEEK, we’ll often refer to this as “slowing down to speed up.” This means that if you put in the time to invest yourself (and empathy) in the front-end, you will end up connecting to the people that you serve in a way that will leave an imprint on you. You will have internalized their emotions, and when you’re sitting in a meeting or making a decision for your brand in the future, your gut will be so well-informed, that your decision will be quick and accurate.

And how is empathic research different? It requires time both connecting with the people you serve and analyzing not only what they said but also all of the nonverbals and context clues. An empathic insight is one that reflects the unspoken needs and motivations of a consumer. It is rarely, if ever, a direct quote. So, to get there takes time.

A Journey, not a Destination

Just like cognitive empathy can be dialed up and down, empathy during the innovation process can be dialed up and down, too. Sometimes this is a good thing, but sometimes it can be a blind spot. Bottom line: Empathy isn’t a step in the design process meant to be checked off and never revisited. Once you put the time in on the front end, it’s easy to get wrapped up in an iterative design process, losing sight of your empathic insight. Every team needs at least one person (or multiple people) to be the champion of the insight, and ultimately, the champion of the consumer. Be the empathy champion.

When Empathy Pays Dividends

Sometimes that blurred line between work and personal life is not ideal, but this isn’t the case when it comes to empathy. Empathy is all about fostering human connection and understanding. The beauty about strengthening that muscle in your work life means that the benefits show up in the way that you interact with family, friends, and even coworkers.

Natalie George is a Senior Account Strategist at SEEK and is currently a featured contributor with the Front End Innovation conference's blog: Edge of Innovation. Check it out!

Questions about those tools to engage empathy? Please reach out! At SEEK, we geek out over all things empathy and celebrate brands who have really nailed that empathic connection.