When Empathy Is Hard

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  • by Amee Patel

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 impacting 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 an 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.