Empathy as a Skill

Conventional wisdom says empathy can’t be taught, learned, or strengthened. Conventional wisdom assumes our empathy ability is relatively set in stone.

But our empathy system is complex. It’s an interesting interaction of several neurological elements working together. Part of empathy is relating to others. Part of empathy is being able to understand what others feel and think. Part of empathy is going beyond knowing, but caring and feeling.

Thankfully, the term empathy is moving beyond pseudo science and toward actual science. Thanks to fMRIs and other tools we can actually see, measure, and evaluate “empathy”.

In a previous post, I mentioned that empathy was the most important tool in a marketer’s toolkit. Not fake empathy. Not user personas. Not demographics. Not primary or secondary research. Not insights or key motivators.

Actual, real empathy.

There’s a family right now that’s considering buying a new Chevy truck. Their combined income is 50k. They live just outside of Atlanta. They have 2 kids. They have a mortgage. They need to save for college.

Does 24-mpg matter compared to 26? Does a low monthly lease of $299 matter? Does the “dealer crazy special” ending on the last day of the month make a difference?

What matters is whether they can trust the brand. Whether they can trust the product. Trust the dealership. Trust the sales person. And what matters most of all is whether the truck actually makes their lives better. Whether it helps them. Enables them. Whether it becomes part of their lives and future.

It’s not about USPs. It’s not just a “sale.” It’s not closing. It’s not new features. It’s whether this new Chevy can actually be a part of their lives in a positive way.

Marketers and brands that get this succeed, time and time again. Those that don’t, fail.

The million-dollar question then --- is this kind of empathy a learnable skill?

The short answer is yes. Despite psychologists’ past beliefs or various naysayers, there is a fundamental truth about humans. We learn. We adapt. We respond to stimuli, both positive and negative.

But learning empathy is hard. Harder than cutting out carbs or getting up 15 minutes earlier, simple things that are tough, but doable. You can change your taste preferences by changing what you eat (our taste preferences actually adapt to what we eat, not what we like). You can change your sleep patterns or exercise routine in as little as 3 weeks.

Strengthening your empathy system takes much more work. It’s not just a personality change. It’s a neurological change. It’s a biological change. However, it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. The key is to do things that reinforce the positive behavior (negative reinforcement works much less effectively when it comes to empathy – and behavior changes in general).

Dogs make us better people. So do cats. So do babies. They strengthen our non-verbal skills. They give us love unconditionally. They force us to strengthen our empathy system (as well as our levels of compassion and giving).

But as I mentioned before, humans are learning creatures. For better or worse – from addicts to high performers – we are relative prisoners to our continual learning.

Hence, if you want to improve your empathy system, if you want to be a better person, if you want to be more compassionate, the recipe is simple.

Start being empathetic. Starting giving back. Even if you don’t feel it at first. Even if you don’t understand it. There is an intrinsic reward to making the world a better place. There is an intrinsic reward to connecting to others. There is an intrinsic reward to taking personal responsibility to improve the lives of others. There is an intrinsic reward to caring.

If you’re a psychopath, maybe you’ll never reach Gandhi status. But don’t accept your fate. We can all improve. We can all get better.

And if you’re a marketer, hopefully you’re very empathetic. Even if you are, you better continue to work on it. Because if you don’t, your career will likely toil in mediocrity.

Empathy, compassion, and authenticity are the magic triad when it comes to being a great marketer -- and a great person. So don’t be passive. Work your ass off. Not just for you, but for others. You’ll be surprised at how much better you are at your job and how much happier you are as a person.

Written by Brian Easter on August 13, 2014


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c says:

marketing is the opposite of empathy.

Very good video explaining empathy:


Very good video explaining empathy.

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Brian Easter