This article was originally published in One Hundred EMEA’s ONE e-magazine.
Empathy; the ability to understand the feelings of others, is not something that should be confused with sympathy; when you share those feelings and often feel sorrow.
However, the practice of empathy is one which our industry struggles to take on board; in fact, we have been criticised for not being particularly good at it. According to the 2019 ‘Empathy Delusion’ report by Reach; “There is a persistent belief in the industry that we have stronger empathy or that we are trained to overcome our biases. But it turns out we are more likely to be driven by these biases than the modern mainstream!”
In the USA, levels of empathy fell by 48% between 1979 and 2009, with the average American college student in 2009 scoring less empathic than 75% of students in 1979.
Why is empathy in decline? Today, we surround ourselves with more people than ever, think social media followers and online gaming, but we actually know very few of them personally. We are living more and more in smaller social bubbles. We are living on our own more or potentially flat sharing with those who look like us. Our children play less outside and more online. In general, we are socialising, dating, shopping, playing and communicating more through technology, with little to no human interaction. Technology is helping us do more, and at a greater speed, but it’s de-humanising and devoid of empathic communications. We are losing the art of small talk, conversation, and reading body language and signals that would set off our empathy triggers if we were communicating face to face.
It is suggested that the more we surround ourselves with mirror images of ourselves; those who look like us, have similar political views, eat the same, watch the same movies, shop in the same shops, have the same religions and educational backgrounds, the more we are falling into an Empathy Deficit. This lack of diversity in social circles, along with natural biases we all hold, is creating an even wider gap and becoming the root cause of so many societal problems.
A crucial way to address the Empathy Deficit within the workplace is by fostering a diverse, inclusive and safe environment. Helen Reiss, the author of The Empathy Effect, says, “When a child is not mirrored, he may give up trying to achieve his goals, or if he becomes a high-achiever, his accomplishments may give him little pleasure,” and that is true across all areas of the business. Employees need to see themselves mirrored in all roles, all sectors and all areas, to truly have a sense of belonging.
Empathy is crucial when we encounter people who are different from us as it can be harder to feel empathy towards them. The first natural component of empathy is emotional empathy, quite literally feeling the other person’s emotions, which is easier to do if they are similar to you, as you can instantly, and easily, see yourself in their shoes. There is another component of empathy, though, cognitive empathy, which is the understanding that our feelings may not be the same as someone else’s, but we can still understand their emotions.
Empathy planning is built by understanding the entire consumer experience and identifying unmet needs and untapped desires to determine how a brand should use communications and media to fulfil them. Empathy is the core component part that allows us to deliver value for the consumer in terms of creating brand affinity and valued experiences and interactions for both the consumer & the brand. Empathy drives us to better define and prioritise audiences across a range of interests, mindsets, needs and moments. This perspective informs our application of data signals, as we mine for differentiating insights that allow us to create more valued consumer experiences.
The practice of empathy in all areas of our business is critical to unlock growth and improve performance for our clients and staff. Fundamentality, it is also the right thing to do to enrich the lives of all consumers.
As we advance further from one-to-many to one-to-one targeted comms strategies, more than ever, we need to be able to see the world through the eyes of the consumers we’re trying to reach. Therefore, the more determined we are to put ourselves in the shoes of our clients, partners and consumers, the more we will question and correct our own choices. Empathy planning will help us define better strategic opportunities, and thus the comms & media set to fulfil them.
It is our responsibility to use the tools we have at our disposal to create meaningful, diverse, empathic communications, to drive our industry forward, in ensuring we are doing the right thing by our employees, clients and consumers.