When Empathy Got Real

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SEEK Bookshelf
  • by Lane Byrum

I did not always fully believe in empathy.

In 2010, SEEK was just starting to peel back the layers on empathy. We knew we wanted to be able to connect in a more human-to-human way with our recruits, our clients, and one another, but I was not completely sold on empathy as the fix. We had some internal trainings and workshops, but I wondered how it would work on research - out in the real world.

I found myself in Mexico City doing immersions that focused on toilet paper. As an aside, until you’ve spoken to consumers about their wiping technique through a local moderator in a language that is not your own.…well, you haven’t done research.  

Immersions allow us the rare opportunity to go into the homes of recruited consumers, see how they live, and learn about the decisions they make. They take us on a tour of each room as we ask questions along the way. After three full days of immersions, I had come to love the culture to which we were being exposed. In every home we entered, we were greeted with hugs and smiles and offers of drinks and meals and family introductions. Even working through a moderator, we were made to feel so welcome in each home. My team was all smiles as we knocked on the door of our last immersion, looking forward to what lay ahead. The door was opened and we were unceremoniously ushered in by the respondent we were scheduled to see: Maria.  

Unlike every other home we had been welcomed into, Maria was frowning and appeared to be somewhat frustrated by our presence. We confirmed her identity and made sure she was expecting us before having a seat in the living room. 

As our local moderator began introductions, Maria cut her off.  She said in Spanish while looking at me, “I know what you’re here for. You can ask me anything about my home and the products I purchase - but you will not ask me personal questions or anything about my family.”

That took us by surprise. The first 30 minutes of our 2-hour immersion was meant to be learning about her family. The moderator looked to me and asked in English if we should just go, and I encouraged her to keep going and ask if we could start with the home tour. As we moved from room to room, Maria’s tone never changed. She was polite but brief in her answers - never giving too much information. 

The tour included a stocked library. Three walls were covered with built-in bookcases and filled with hundreds of books. When I asked about them, Maria responded, “They are all mine. I’ve read them all. They are medical journals. I’m a doctor.”  

Along the top of the bookcases were trophies and awards of all shapes and sizes.  Maria was dismissive of them and turned towards the door to leave. “Those belong to my husband. He gets them for playing his sports. I’ve never received a trophy for anything.”

I noticed what looked to be a cup-like trophy prominently displayed in the corner and asked her about it. Maria turned to see which one I was pointing to and started, “That’s my son’s …”  Her voice caught in her throat and she abruptly turned and left the room. We followed her back to the living room where she sat crying. The local moderator looked at me and motioned that maybe we should leave. Resolute, I shook my head and sat down opposite Maria. The moderator asked in Spanish if she wished to continue or if she would prefer that we leave, but Maria just continued to cry. Silence is hard in general, but while someone is crying, it is exponentially harder.

Again, the moderator looked at me and said that she thought we should leave, but my eyes never left Maria. I found myself beginning to cry as well. I was not sure why. I only felt an immense pain coming from Maria. Then I decided to take a chance - and become more human … and less researcher.

I offered my hand to Maria. She took it with both of hers. She looked at me through her tears and said in Spanish, “That is not a trophy. That is my son’s urn. I lost him two months ago.”

Now we were all weeping.

She maintained eye contact with me and gripped my hands even firmer. “I’m a doctor. There was nothing I could do. Nothing.”

As we wept together her eyes darted around my face. We didn’t know one another’s spoken language - but she knew that I understood on some level, her pain. While I had not lost a child, I had lost my mother. Together - we knew loss.

On her face appeared a fiercely determined smile and she said, “Through all of this, though - I learned how to truly love. I learned how to truly love my other son. I also learned that I am a damn good mom.” I found myself smiling and nodding through my tears. We sat there holding hands. Crying. Smiling. Nodding. Truly seeing one another.

Before she got up to grab some tissues for us, Maria leaned over and patted my cheeks with her hands. From that moment on, Maria was literally all smiles. She was funny. She made us laugh. She kidded her husband about his tennis-playing, never being as good as Federer. She took us into her other son’s room where he was asleep and jostled his bed - chiding him to get up while ruffling his hair.

When it came time for us to leave, she tried to convince us we should stay for dinner. She walked us all the way to our van waiting on the street. After multiple hugs (and another pat of my cheeks), she waved to us from the sidewalk until we were out of sight. 

We were quiet in the van for a few minutes.

Then it hit me. I had to do something. I had to act on the gut response I was having. I needed to honor the empathic connection I shared with Maria. I grabbed my phone.

When my colleagues in the van asked what I was doing, I said, “We’re not leaving this country until that mom has a trophy to put on that bookcase.”

Jumping into action, our local partners worked with an artisan to create a trophy of sorts for Maria. As a team, we aligned that there would be no mention of either of our companies. Beneath her name, it would simply read, “World’s Best Mom.”  

The attached note read, “Of all the moms we’ve met during this research that covered 4 different countries all over the world, Maria - you are the one that we always remember.”

The following day the gorgeous “trophy” was delivered to Maria via courier. The courier reported back to us that Maria opened the package while he was still there, hugged him and cried again. Then she proceeded to make him dinner. He thanked us.

Here’s what I learned: true empathy requires action. If you’ve done the work to truly connect with another human being - even one that does not speak your language - you will be moved to act on their behalf.  Do it. Act.

As an aside - I have to tell you that my interaction with Maria changed me. After I shared the experience with the rest of SEEK - I would say that it changed all of us.