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Empathy Through Inquiry.

Empathy’s a concept that’s been getting a lot of attention lately. In fact, just last week the New York Times published yet another article on the topic: This one looks at studies regarding social media, connectedness and acceptance of diversity. Yet empathy doesn’t stop at personal relationships. For researchers and marketers, it extends into our everyday lives as we try to shift past our own experiences and think about others’ needs and challenges.

Unlike sympathy, which means we have pity or sorrow for someone, empathy just means we’re aware of and sensitive to someone else’s feelings, thoughts and experiences. Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, says, “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”

So how can brands show empathy?

For most brands, the R&D and marketing teams work on a variety of products – and they don’t necessarily resemble the target audience for any of them. Take, for example, one of our medical device clients. Its product development team, comprising men, was building a therapy for overactive bladder – a disease that mainly impacts women. To find a solution that fits their consumers’ needs, the team needed to first understand the women it hoped to serve.

Guided by our own desire to use empathy in our work, our research teams pay close attention to consumers’ needs and comfort levels. One key step involves designing participant homework activities that help consumers prepare for and feel confident in interviews. We also develop discussion guides that help the clients and team think through the many levels of questions that will help get at rich insights. Then, in the field, we look for ways to get beyond those prepared discussion guides to have a genuine conversation with consumers in a way that truly expresses empathy – especially when discussing sensitive topics such as finances and health care.

Our researchers mirror the language consumers use during interviews – gracefully switching to their preferred terminology or even copying mispronunciations instead of correcting someone. Finally, we stay true to the voice of the consumer throughout our analysis and presentation of research findings, always sharing findings with direct support from consumer quotes and homework activities.

Those empathy-driven research findings then form the foundation for our creative team, which also works to understand the target audience and to be aware of what resonates – and what could have the opposite effect.

If you’re wondering how to bring empathy into your job, start with these three tips:

Invite consumers into the discussion. Get past quantitative studies, and conduct ethnographies, focus groups and other qualitative research. Talking individually or in small groups allows you to get deeper into conversations about what consumers need, how they perceive your offering and what you can do to make it more relevant.

Empower your customer service team. Sometimes all we really want is acknowledgment of our feelings. “I can hear how disappointed you are” can go a long way toward keeping a customer. In some cases, it might have as much impact as replacing a product or offering a discount. And don’t forget to use customers’ feedback. Ask your customer service team regularly what frustrates customers most and what they love. 

Ditch your own biases. Keep your own background from getting in the way, and attempt to see how a wide variety of individuals will perceive your product or service. It’s challenging, but with a little practice we can all learn to do it. For example, to help a leading airline engage its employees in their own health, we listened both to employees who had called a support line and to the nurses they had spoken with. Actually talking with someone facing a health condition allowed our creative team to think more deeply about what individuals want – and how to motivate them toward better health.

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