When it comes to increasing your capacity for empathy, the journey can be a lot like chasing happiness or love or any other elusive and sometimes fleeting emotion. Empathy might find you, but sometimes you just have to choose it.
Science tells us that, in any given moment, we either feel empathy or we don’t—and that we’re even able to recognize when we’re not feeling empathy in a moment when we should and autocorrect. That’s because the brain’s capacity for empathy is elastic and when we believe we can be more empathetic, we can be.
Magali Charmot, Research & Innovation Team Leader at SEEK Company, knows a lot about this. Charmot has traveled worldwide with SEEK Company over the past 3 years, going into the field to interview people, ideate with brands, and to give hands-on empathy training. Everything SEEK Company does is rooted in extensive research into empathic human connection, and Charmot herself is a jack-of-all-trades whose warmth and sense of humor is palpable the second you meet her.
Here she explains what SEEK does—and how empathy can unlock better ideas, better products, better service, and better relationships in your world.
SEEK Company is dedicated to empathic research—in a nutshell, what have you learned about empathy?
It would take more than a nutshell to acknowledge what we’ve sourced and learned in order to develop our methods and practice of empathy, which are rooted in neuroscience, behavioral science, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. But I can say that we’ve learned this: empathy takes practice, empathy can be improved, and if you’re willing, it can transform all of us—both professionally and personally.
"Empathy takes practice, empathy can be improved, and if you’re willing, it can transform all of us—both professionally and personally."
In our work, we talk a lot about two kinds of empathy: contagious and cognitive. The first kind, contagious, doesn’t require us to think about it. It’s the kind of thing where if you see a picture of a spider crawling on someone’s arm, you have a reaction as though the spider were crawling on your arm. It’s what makes us lurch toward a child crossing a road when we perceive them to be in danger.
By contrast, cognitive empathy is a conscious choice. If you were to react contagiously all the time, you’d be a mess. Your brain would hit saturation and you’d never get anything done. So our brain shuts it down and cognitive empathy becomes something that takes some energy. If I’m doing research in someone’s home, for example, that’s a time where I prepare myself mentally to be there, to be a vessel for whatever it is they’re going to share with me. We like to say that empathy is a loop. It’s a planet you never get to land on, but you’re constantly orbiting and you’re constantly trying to understand and to connect.
What types of problems can empathy help solve, and what is the relationship between empathy and innovation?
Problem-solving begins with empathy because empathy allows us to truly understand the creative problems we should be solving for. It enables us to identify the needs that we can innovate against, and we’ve proven over and over again that the process of empathy only slows us down in the beginning so that we can speed up down the road.
At what point in the ideation process is empathy research most impactful?
We often participate in the creative brief process. Empathy becomes a transformational tool at that time to ensure that all parties involved are aligned and solving for the same tension. This allows us to speed up the process and act from our gut, because we all have an unquestionable sense of what is needed once we can convey it to others, often through storytelling.
As an example, SEEK Company worked on the viral #LikeAGirl campaign. What was your involvement?
SEEK worked on the foundational insights that led Procter & Gamble (parent company to Always) to brief Leo Burnett, who created the campaign. We led ethnographic research in many countries around the world.
Whether we’re talking about this example, or other examples from companies who use this empathic process for research or ideation, the impact of early empathy research continues to have a ripple effect. For example, we didn’t work on the Barbie campaign, but we learned that Mattel was inspired by the Like a Girl campaign.
Empathy as a business initiative
What can businesses expect from empathy training and research? Is it more effective when it comes from the top-down, or rolled out at the team level?
It’s great when you have a top-down approach because then you have a lot of resources to put against it. When we do a company-wide project, we can come back in 3-6 months and do really in-depth training on specific topics each time. It’s more structural, more like enterprise design, and we’re often focused on the way we’re talking about the company’s consumers and users as a whole. Then, how people change themselves on a personal level becomes easier because they can apply what they’ve already learned to their work. We’ve worked with Fortune 50 companies and have gone really deep into the behavioral science behind empathy and have witnessed the entire organization completely change the way they approach business.
Join Magali and the SEEK Company at Relate Live San Francisco on May 11th. Magali and her colleague Christy Kennedy will hold a session: The Return on Empathy, followed by a hands-on workshop.
But this type of work is also really effective at the level of teams—maybe marketing or innovations or branding or even customer service—who are more dialed into the importance of empathy in product or campaign design. At this level, people are super jazzed about what they’ve learned and how they’ll apply it. We ultimately aspire to transform people at an individual level, because every person can have an impact on the whole and for the greater good.
How do you prepare companies for what might be a seismic shift in the culture of their company as a result?
We often have to evaluate the openness of a person or an organization to this type of approach. Some people, or some companies, aren’t ready, and thus we’re not always a match. You can potentially ease teams in by providing tangible examples of results, and by providing scientific and academic backing to our ideas, but you can’t force the process because it has to be intentional. Empathy, at least cognitive empathy, requires you to consciously engage.
"You can’t force the process because it has to be intentional. Empathy, at least cognitive empathy, requires you to consciously engage."
You don’t use the word “customer” internally at SEEK, or with your clients. It’s always the “people you serve.” What’s the reasoning behind this?
The difference between sympathy and empathy is that with empathy, one might feel compelled to act on another’s behalf. It’s the difference between saying, “That sucks,” and “This sucks.” Empathy requires the courage for us to decide to connect with another human being. It requires personal awareness and a remembrance that as humans we’re more similar than different. So on that level, consumers are people before they are consumers. We all have personal stories and context that is critical to who we are and how we shop or make decisions. Whenever you can keep that common human bond at the forefront, you can see that it’s not “us versus them.”
It turns out, some of the best teachers in the field of empathy education are... babies. Find out more by listening to this story from the Relate podcast.
Some might say you could just make the switch in terminology without going any deeper.
It’s a start, because ultimately you’re humanizing your customers a little more, which is what we’re working for. But for me, this brings to mind game dynamics. There’s an example in baseball. You sometimes see during the game that someone gets hit with the ball and the whole crowd will gasp while everyone on the field keeps playing.
The crowd’s reaction is an example of contagious empathy—we didn’t feel it but because of the way our brain works, we think, “This hurts!” The team’s contagious empathy wasn’t triggered even though they probably have a more personal connection to the player who was hit, even though they know each other’s kids, or train together. That’s because their job is to continue the game, to make it to the next base.
In that sense, we’re all baseball players. In our day-to-day and in our jobs, we have goals and objectives we have to meet and so we wear “a business hat” that can impede our ability to see what other people really need.
Empathy is often a job requirement in service-oriented roles, but it can be tough for companies to truly be empathic with consumers. What is the best way for disparate groups of people to connect?
We’ve developed a step-by-step cyclical process for the practice of empathy. The first step is to “Acknowledge.” For each of us to try and build an empathic connection with someone starts with recognizing that we’re different. We’re 95% the same, but we have different life stories and experiences. By acknowledging that, we’re freed up to differentiate how we feel versus how the other group may feel. If you can remove assumptions and judgment, you can be more open to learning about someone else, and then know how to take care of their needs.
“If you can remove assumptions and judgement, you can be more open to learning about someone else, and then know how to take care of their needs.”
In business we talk about big data and about making data-driven decisions. But how do our feelings and gut instincts factor into business decision-making?
Data is important, but it can be hard to make sense of big data if we don’t know how to formulate the right questions or design the right problems. Building “gut” is critically important because neuroscience, or the science of decision-making, shows that most of our decisions are more emotional than rational. Many behavioral scientists, like Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (and authored Thinking, Fast and Slow), go into great depth about this very topic. That’s because decision-making is always context-dependent and based on personal experience.
In difficult or threatening situations, we react to stress differently, and sometimes irrationally or based on our pasts, regardless of context. So in order for us to make the right decision on behalf of the people we serve, we need to build that gut instinct or that memory, if you will, of their emotional experience.
Is there such a thing as a return on empathy? In terms of measurement, what should a more empathetic organization look like in 6 months? In a year?
For us, success is when we can tangibly see the impact in a team’s day-to-day. We see changes in the way teams or companies talk about their customers in meetings, by name, and a sense of responsibility they feel to solve for the people they serve. When this happens, the end result is mind-blowing. When people feel a sense of purpose and accountability to both do their job and go beyond, it always ends up impacting a business positively, either through brand differentiation and relevance, improved product concepts, and of course, the financial gains as a result of that.
Empathy in the wild
What’s an example of how empathy changed the problem a company thought it was solving for?
If you can look at a problem differently, you can come up with a new way to solve the problem. So, for example, we did some work in the diabetic space. You’ll find, that some people are too busy to take their insulin. Maybe we’re talking to a mom, and the insight is that her life is hectic. When you meet her in the context of her life, you see her picking up her kids, cooking dinner, and only then can you see that yes, her life is hectic, but that what she’s actually saying is: I feel broken. I feel broken and so I can remember to take my insulin in the morning when I’m alone, but at night, when I’m around my kids, the insulin is another reminder that I’m not perfect.
Of course, she may never actually voice that, but contextual insight allows us to see what we never would have been able to, that she’s embarrassed to take her insulin in front of her family, that she’s sad. Contextual insight allows you to tell beautiful stories, but also to really understand what problems you’re solving for. From the first insight, you might solve the problem by introducing an alarm or buzzer, or a loud phone app, to remind her to take her insulin. But the contextual insight revealed that she feels broken, so then the last thing you’d want to do is add a buzzer to remind her. All of the sudden, you’re thinking about very different solutions and, in this case, perhaps about a patch that might deliver insulin for her, out of sight. In nearly every case, the tension in someone’s life is often different from what they’ll say and, a lot of times, it’s unconscious.
For a company that champions empathy, how does SEEK practice empathy internally? Is it possible to become reliably empathic after a certain amount of time or training?
Our content is constantly evolving and so are we. We go through all the same training we put our clients through. Two to three times a year, our entire staff regroups for what we unofficially call “SEEK Academy” to further refine our knowledge of empathy. Our programs and curation team regularly meets with experts in some of the best research institutes in the country.
Essentially, we’ll never be finished. Empathy is a constant practice that takes courage, awareness, and energy. We’re not always “on” because we all have to preserve our brains and hearts, but with practice it becomes easier to turn empathy on and off when it’s needed.
Sometimes the whole team stays together in the same Airbnb. That’s pretty personal—is keeping close quarters part of your process?
It can be. We had a staff retreat recently and an ethics professor at U.C. Berkeley came to speak to us. Her conclusion at the end of the day was, “You guys are really weird.”
I don’t know, we might have less structured boundaries than any other company. There’s a lot of vulnerability in our work and we go into people’s homes and ask them to spill their guts for three hours, even though we might never see them again. If we can’t do that for ourselves, then it’s hypocritical for us to ask that of other people.
There’s actually a lot of autonomy in how we plan our travels and where we stay, but one of our values is “Dare to love” and it’s interesting to see how many different ways this value has manifested in our company. Thirteen of us did recently stay together in a B&B. We’re a big family, with all the same dysfunctions.
Empathy: The take-home test
To wrap things up, for companies without the tools or means to engage at this level, can they still hope to build the kind of empathetic bonds we’re talking about?
Yes, of course. We can all build empathetic bonds even without understanding the neuroscience behind them. After all, empathy is the practice of being human, humble, and vulnerable. That alone is not easy, but brands who dare to be tend to be some of the most successful and inspiring companies out there.
"Brands who dare to be [empathetic] tend to be some of the most successful and inspiring companies out there."
Another powerful tool that may help trigger empathy within an organization is storytelling. Storytelling engages contagious empathy. If you can make people emote, then they’re inhabiting someone else’s story and emotions.
Going forward, in our day to day lives, what can we do to better listen to our own gut, and to create richer connections with our colleagues and customers?
We can all practice awareness. The more aware we are of ourselves, the better we can recognize our own emotions versus that of another person. Without that, emotions can get very messy, and it can be hard for teams to recognize the priorities of another team. It goes back to those “game dynamics” in the workplace, and learning to take off our business hats.