Overcoming our empathy deficit


Indifference by Azli Jamil

For those that know me personally, the idea that I have been thinking a bit about empathy may come as a bit of an out of character departure.

The journey began when, dutifully in search of weird shit, one of the planners that works with me paid a visit to the amazing and most timely School of Life round our way. She brought back for me Empathy by Roman Krznaric. Goodness knows why – maybe she sees monumentally hidden depths in my character.
Roman Krznaric is the expert in empathy at the School of Life and he rather takes issue with the established notion of empathy as the ability to feel other people’s experiences. Rather he sees it as the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes and something that is in short supply. As Barak Obama is quoted as saying on the back cover, “we seem to be suffering empathy deficit – our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes”. This might be considered bad news at any time however it is a much more pressing problem in an increasingly globalised world, where we have enormous amounts of contact with and are utterly dependent on people who see the world in a different way to us. For Kraznic, where the twentieth Century was a Century of introspection (Birth of psychoanalysis and self help), the 21st must be the Century of outrospection, one in which we attempt to more fully understand each other.
There are few more ready examples of what we are talking about than what is happening in Gaza, which is surely the most appallingly sad example of the absolute absence of any empathy on either side, the loss of which diminishes the humanity of all those involved.
But back to marketing!
I want to warm to a theme that we too suffer from a deficit of empathy in the way we relate to those we seek to influence. We may try to understand their lives but we never really try to see the world through their eyes. That’s partly because we are constantly trying to lump people together so that their incredibly disparate lives become more manageable for us. And when we aren’t doing that we are dividing them into horrifying segments and then, even worse, writing ghastly pen portraits about our imaginary lives.
Steve Henry used to demand that planners write briefs in such a way that he would end up loving and respecting the intended audience. Well that’s a start, but if revelation becomes our watch word for the insight in a strategy could we commit ourselves to real empathy in the way we think and talk about people?
I think this would involve a number of things.
We might bin the target audience bit on a brief.
We would have a section about the revelation – whether its about people’s lives, the brand, the category or the wider world. This wouldn’t waffle on about the audience it would get straight to the point about the astonishing disclosure at the heart of the brief
We would then perhaps have a collection of real and individual stories about people who are from the group we are seeking to influence. These would be real accounts of real people’s lives.
And to get those stories we would need a new approach to engaging with people directly and without fear. A post-research approach.
And I know that those from a research tradition always get annoyed when I say things like that. But the use of research is not going to go away it is simply losing its potency. And perhaps as a community you need to start to think about the longevity of qualitative research and a life beyond it. I’m now going to keep a score of the qual’ research debriefs I attend that contain a revelation and those the merely contain important information – necessary but not sufficient.
Krznaric suggests there are three ways to improve your powers of empathy. They may be a good start on our journey to a more empathetic relationship with people.
First he advocates empathy through learning. Building understanding through immersing yourself in the accounts of other people’s lives most especially from books (particularly autobiography) and film. Nothing much to argue with there.
Second he advocates empathy through conversation. This is more of a challenge for us Brits and it’s the about engaging others in proper conversation in order to more readily understand them. Turning strangers that we stereotype into people who we see as individuals. Theodore Zeldin has set up an online project with this aim in mind called the Oxford Muse. Here he is collecting written portraits of people from all over the world to better understand their lives and also facilitates conversation dinners where complete strangers meet and talk about the contents of the conversation menu. For a taster visit the ite and read the portrait of Alan Human a paranoid schitzophrenic who lives in Oxford on the ‘loony scene’. Another thought is to strike up a meaningful conversation with a complete stranger everyday – something that strikes fear into my own heart.
Thirdly he advocates empathy through experience. This is of course the daddy, going to actually experience the lives of others. My great hero George Orwell did exactly this when writing books like Down and out in Paris and London and the road to Wigan Pier. And If you do nothing else read the chapter in Wigan Pier called Down the Mine – that’s real empathy at work. Maybe we should be spending less time dropping in on people in the living rooms of recruiters and more time having dinner with them, taking their kids to school with them and generally just hanging out.
So that’s the plan then. More revelation in the insight department and more empathy in the target audience department and in the words of Blackadder ‘we will all be in Berlin by tea time’.

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29 Replies to “Overcoming our empathy deficit”

  1. Regarding Orwell – you could reference Aldous Huxley’s book ‘Doors of Perception’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Doors_of_Perception), which references his experiences of taking mescaline and how it related to what people had previously written about it.
    I like the idea of taking a pen portrait, holding it up to the light and testing it against your experiences with your desired group.

  2. urm, that was a pleasant self portait you linked to but i think I prefer campaign with my cup of tea on a friday morning!
    are you using really shit qual agencies or something? is that what this is about?
    I think real empathy is always difficult when you’re crossing people’s palms with silver in exchange for them to open their doors and minds to a total stranger.

  3. Empathy is certainly something missing from too much of adland. We have groups and titles and ages to seperate people down into manageable groups but so few of us actually know who we are talking to.
    Empathy needs the kind of enthusiasm shown in Dave Trotts pan story in campaign this week. Id love to have a campaign that works not only because its good creative, but because in planning, creative and production we understood and empathised with the people we were speaking to.

  4. Like you, I’ve found myself reflecting on empathy a lot in my personal life and public work.
    I even posted recently on an empathy lesson from my 7 year old grandson.
    Thanks for pushing for this conversation.
    Keep creating…with an attentive heart,

  5. I really like this post and wholeheartedly agree that empathy is critical in order to make effective communication. EDD (Empathy Deficit Disorder) is the AIDS of Adland. And I’ve met too many infected planners for me to sleep well at night.
    For truly great planning – the revelation kind – I like to think planners find this largely by relying on their natural empathy-guided curiosity…if they possess this to begin with that is. Problem is I think empathy to a high degree is something you either have or don’t: you can only increase/improve your ability to empathise to a certain degree. Same goes for creatives of course.
    Interestingly, I’m currently working with a couple of colleagues of mine to improve our creative brief formats and this post almost perfectly tangents the conversation we’ve been having.

  6. Great points made.
    The lack of empathy in Adland is in part due to the lack of diversity within the industry. Diversity breeds mindfulness and the ability to see through others’ eyes. The industry suffers from racial & class diversity (not necessarily for sinister reasons), but most importantly the deficit is in experience.
    Many shops often demand 2 things from planners, but don’t always seem to get it right.
    1) Diverse professional experience: sounds great in theory (hiring someone from outside adland), but does anyone have time to train an ex-political scientist how to write a brief? How does one get the most from an outsider? Do we really want divergent thinking?
    2) The desire to hire “interesting people” – question is, are they really interested in true diversity of experience (i.e. a single mum), or people that just do cool shit (i.e. part-time DJs & photographers)?
    The failure to live up to these 2 standards can only hamper our perspective & feeling for the wider world.

  7. This is thought provoking because it reflects the absolute necessity for brands and planners to move from analysis to immersion. I talk in my book about the interchangeability of strategy and tactics. That in fact strategy is tactics and tactics are strategy. Empathy is about immersing yourself with your customer and tactically connecting your product to that customer. At this point in the cycle it feels like this immersion doesn’t scale, but emerging media is going to change that and I think as planners we need to start adopting this new frame
    so that we can halt a massive decline in the brand value we’ve spent years building up.

  8. This is a fascinating post and on the money about empathy.
    Like mm, I’m struggling with your take on qual research, though. Did you have a bad experience in a focus group as a child, maybe?
    Most qual researchers I know would play the Joker in the empathy game in Jeux Sans Frontiers. Empathy is the basic ingredient of any good conversation, including those rather artificially generated ones called groups or depth interviews. But they work when you treat people right – as people. “People are people through other people” Xhosa saying as quoted by Zeldin I think. Talking to people openly and respectfully is amazing and usually very productive if you can give up your agenda. And talking to strangers can be scary, because our agenda is both a comfort and a barrier, self protection. So do try it – and maybe keep a count of the ‘revelations’ that come via this route (vs ‘revelations’in debriefs). What you describe so well is so NOT post-research. It is research.
    Jings, are you starting to get converted …? http://www.artofconversation.typepad.com

  9. Go for it Richard!
    On a recent quest for what you call weird shit, I discovered that those clever neuroscientists seem to think that empathy resides in our mirror neurone system. And initial work suggests that females tend to be more endowed with these mirror neurones than males… so keep it up.

  10. Great theme, R.
    Think the big point here is that marketing dehumanises: it reduces the richness of human life into what matters for the selfish agenda of the marketer (and the agency). It turns people with a life constisting largely of other people to isolated individual “consumers”, ‘mineral water’drinkers or pasta eaters or “happy homebodies” or some such inanity.
    Whether or not qual researchers or planners actually pull it off (and that’s a debate for another day), both attempt at times to buffer this dehumanising pressure & tendency, to provide some human counterbalance. At heart, though, they are both really just making the best of a bad job.
    So long as we all persist in thinking that people exist to serve business’ ends (rather than the other way round) and that marketing is something we do to people (in order to get what we/our client want) and not a means to really provide something of value in exchange – some means to make their (largely social) lives more interesting, for example – we’re going to trip over this stuff again and again.
    Last summer, Dan O’Donahue offered a suggestion to a crowdsourced presentation I was doing which sticks with me, something along the lines of:
    “Planning was invented to patch up an old agency model”
    Think the same is true of marketing and business more generally. If we want to see what’s next we really have to step clear of the wreckage of the old model, rather than patch it up again.
    Humanising practices like empathy are a really good strategy to start doing some of this – a good place to start.
    What else?
    Dr Jane, yes, lots of stuff on mirror neurons seems to suggest that. And Kevin – it was me and Xhosa/Zulu proverbs. That’s Ubuntu. Both discussed at length in HERD, natch!

  11. I love the phrase:
    We must stop making people interested in what interests us and care about the things people care about.
    Something I bleat to any marketing director that will listen

  12. Great, great post!
    It is now all too clear (finally!!!) that purchasing behavior does not conform to the logical criteria that the law of economic utility wanted him to obey. So what are these criteria? What to look for? The answer will come, inevitably, from the dialogue with the consumer, instead of the traditional (marketer) monologue.

  13. I get the ‘…stop making people interested in what interests us and care about the things people care about.’ point of view.
    I think it has value to some extent.
    However, I might argue that many great brands concentrate on doing what they like, what interests them but in a way that is so compelling and engaging that people join in.
    blah blah…you know the ones….
    In my experience, the key to it is not trying to follow the customer, but leading. Dan Wieden used to always bang on about ‘once you go after them, you’re not you, you’re them’.
    Nike have faltered when they’ve tried to follow ‘the kids’. Arguably Innocent are now faltering because they are chasing, not leading. But ….I would definitely agree that as a brand, being true to yourself and creating products and communications with empathy – so that others understand you, gravitate to you and engage with you – now that is key.

  14. Agreed.
    Brands should lead.
    Just helps to try and get organisations out of the ‘make people interested in my product’ school of marketing.

  15. just re-read this post and it is really a cracker, very thought-provoking – well done
    I like Mark’s point about empathy being a humanising force and a kind of reversal of the usual ‘reductive’ way that marketing works (incidentally I now remember Desmond Tutu as the srouce of the ‘people’ quote – unless HE read it in Herd!)…
    …and I wondered Richard if you now consider more ethnographic approaches eg EverydayLives type of approach?

  16. I absolutely agree, the more distance between the researcher and the subject, the more cynical and manipulative the insights can become, and the further they stray from hitting the mark.
    Good call of the Road to Wigan Pier too. Some further suggested reading along the same lines, about one of Orwell’s contemporaries: “The Most Offending Soul Alive” the Biography of Tom Harrisson (one of the founders of Mass Observation)

  17. So true, empathy is devoid from pretty much all marketing. If you look at the language we use it is de-humanised and violent – we talk of campaigns, media bursts and target audiences like it is a war to pummel people (whom we reduce to their utility for us….they are ‘consumers’)
    We need to seduce people to buy brands; engaging with them emotionally as much as rationally (as Qual researcher I confess that research is criminally guilty of focussing on the rational)

  18. You could have a look at Theodore Zeldin’s ‘Intimate History of Humanity’ which is structured exactly as you mention above. Great book too.

  19. Love this post! Isn’t it ironic that acts of extreme individualism start to become and extreme liability. Yeah, start caring a bit before you start flogging stuff.

  20. I agree that you can’t teach someone to be empathetic. You either are or you are not. Research has proven time and time again that women’s brains are wired for empathy. In the adland world of testerone and cojones, is there really a place for empathy? It sounds like a nice idea but until there are more women in senior position, positive female role models, and companies that actively encourage a work life balance, its going to be a while yet.

  21. Oh contrare Belinda,
    The point is that empathy can be taught, at least this form of empathy. And that women do not have sole preserve of seeing the world through other people’s eyes. Though I do agree that adland in desperately in need of more women in senior positions. And more women starting up!

  22. I agree with the earlier comments that a brand needs to lead and not follow- if they try to ‘become the consumer’ and emphasise without first hand insight, then surely they’re at risk of patronising and thus alienating their audience further? brands should stick to what they know and stop trying to sell anything to everyone, that way they can properly relate to their audience with genuine knowledge and empathy.

  23. As usual Mr Bullmore has anticipated us. I seem to remember a short piece of his in which he argued that the essential quality for anyone in communications is the ability to see the world through another’s eyes. As an example, he suggested that the person who first proposed writing the word FIRE back to front on fire engines ought to be given a job…

  24. It annoys that ’empathy’ comes across here as another one of these God sent revelations. It’s not something you learn or mechanised, it’s something we all have, now. Christ, it’s a natural, part of the human condition, something any marketeer who wants to ‘influence’ their ‘consumer’ should have from the start. Your consumer is your wife, not some stat on a quant debrief (or something Ogilvy-esque). So yes, empathise, know your ‘consumer’. Empathy here comes across as something mechanical that can be learnt if you go to the right class – it can’t be faked. If this so called revelation was on a qual debrief it sounds that it would put this down as “just re-stating the bleeding obvious”. This would suggest Qual is worth listening to – it’s just you’re not wanting to listen to it in the right way.

  25. I’m with Simon on this – empathy is not a new thing – it’s something we all have even though many in adland have pushed this most human of traits to the rear so they can concentrate on creating the next Youtube phenonemon [ie: a sponsored joke that only encourages people to laugh than remember the brand it’s for] except at times where they’re hired to create a charity ad.

  26. I ‘ m exploring a way of doing planning based on my own sensibility through a new way of considering human beeing, brought by a Tolteca philosophy (Miguel Ruiz: Los 4 acuerdos) that helps you to see the world through someone else eyes ad feel what he feels in his life. It’ s giving me real great results, but it’ s hard to sale it to a P&G marketing executive…

  27. In response to the notion that ‘brands should lead’ and avoid becoming ‘one of them’ — with all due respect to Dan Weiden, this is sort of a silly and false polarity. The key, it seems, is to do these two things simultaneously: to find something deep and true and unique in the brand and (here’s the trick) match it up with something deep and true and relevant to the consumer you’re trying to reach. No, you can’t let the consumer insight lead your brand to places it doesn’t belong. But then, I’d argue that’s not a relevant consumer insight. It’s just an interesting fact. But it’s equally silly/dangerous to think that brands can ‘lead’ consumers to someplace that is not already in their hearts. You need to find truth and insight on both ends of the spectrum –brand and consumer– and deftly find the place where they meet.

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