Empathy - The Most Important Life Skill

In bottom line terms, there’s no denying the impact empathy has on business. Among the L’Oreal salesforce, the best empathisers sold nearly $100,000 more per year than their colleagues. Waiters who are better at showing empathy earn nearly 20% more in tips. Even debt collectors with empathy skills recover twice as much debt.

Empathy and success are inextricably linked. But what exactly is empathy?


Sometimes empathy is confused with sympathy. But they are two very different things. Sympathy is just feeling sorry for someone. For example, your friend loses his job. A sympathetic response would be to intellectually understand losing a job is hard, momentarily feel sorry for him, and then express your support, ‘I’m sorry to hear that’.

In contrast, an empathetic response is vastly different. When your friend loses his job, you do more than just intellectually understand the problem. You forget yourself, you listen deeply, you ask questions, you seek to truly feel what he is feeling to understand the significance of what losing a job means to him. And it’s through this connection your friend feels understood, and you can truly offer genuine advice rather than just a tired old ‘I’m sorry to hear that’.

Sympathy is just feeling sorry for someone.


At its core empathy empowers us to understand other people. Whether those people are our employees, colleagues or customers, empathy helps us to connect with them and understand what they need. And when we understand exactly what they need, we can deliver it for them, which engenders loyalty, satisfaction, and engagement. Empathy is key to success and it has the power to transform the way we think, work and lead.

The opposite of empathy is assumption. Assuming we know what somebody needs.

Assuming we understand their world. In a world with constant time pressures, it’s very easy to ignore empathy and make assumptions.


We believe it’s important to slow down and have more empathy in the workplace. This doesn’t mean singing kumbaya around a camp re. It’s not touchy-feely. It’s not a ‘soft skill’. Empathy is hardcore, and doing it right is hard work.

So, if you’re about to embark on a project that’s going to impact your employees, then gaining empathy for them should be your first step. The norm for most businesses to do this is through focus groups. But over the years we’ve tested different ways of gaining empathy that have helped us to break out of the boardroom and connect with people in revealing new ways.... 

The opposite of empathy is assumption. Assuming we know what somebody needs.


Shadowing is the act of observing your users as they work through a task. By closely observing their mood, body language, pace and timing you’ll get a better understanding of the world from their point of view. This is particularly useful as an addition to focus groups because what people say in a focus group, and what they actually do in the real world, can be totally different. One of our most memorable shadowing experiences was in Mumbai when we got to attend sales calls with reps selling beauty products. 


Visiting a physical space connected to the problem allows you to get a feeling for the environment users are operating in and could even be a source of inspiration. We spent a day in the engineering office of a major airline to understand the reality of their day-to-day environment. The small things we picked up, like the fact that everyone shared a computer and communication was primarily through a system of notice boards, impacted the way we rolled out our project in a big way. If we didn’t go and visit their place, we wouldn’t have gained this important insight into how they communicate. 


Immersive experiences are exercises that allow you to immerse yourself in the experience of users and truly feel what they’re feeling. For example if your users were all vision impaired and you wanted to experience their day-to-day reality you could try wearing a pair of glasses that had been smeared with Vaseline for part of your day. We recently spent a day on a trading floor of a major international bank to understand the pressures people face. It was intense, yet very insightful. 


Pictures speak a thousand words, and asking users to document their experience of the problem you’re focusing on in photos helps you to understand their perspective visually. And asking them to take photos of moments connected to how they’re feeling (sad, energised, anxious) can give you an even deeper level of insight. While working with a luxury fashion brand we asked employees to capture what the brand meant to them in a series of pictures. It was interesting to see how different people interpreted the brand. 


No matter how you choose to build empathy, remember these do’s and don’ts when connecting with your users...


One-word answers don’t build connection or understanding. Always seek to ask questions that encourage longer responses and explanations. For example instead of asking “Did you enjoy the onboarding experience you had when you first joined the company?” You could ask “Can you tell me about the experience you had in your first month with us?”


Silence can be uncomfortable, we understand. But silence encourages people to elaborate on their answers, allowing you to get a greater understanding into how they are thinking and feeling about a particular experience.


Stories and emotions are incredibly powerful for building understanding for your users. Questions that elicit emotions and stories start with “Can you tell me about a time when...” or “Can you describe how you were feeling when...”


Asking why reveals reasoning and every time you ask why you get to a deeper level of understanding. If you hear from your user that they feel frustrated by something, ask them why. Ask them why five times in a row so you can be sure you reach their deepest motivations.


Leading questions suggest to the user the answer you’re looking for and reduces the likelihood that you’ll get an authentic response. If you asked “Can you tell me the last time you felt frustrated by...” your suggesting that frustration is an emotion they should have felt – when maybe this isn’t the case. Instead you could ask “How did it feel when.....”


Judgement is a product of your personal experience and view of the world – it’s also very damaging when it comes to building empathy because it inhibits your ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. If you find yourself moving to a place of judgement when connecting with your users push yourself to ask them more questions, the more immersed in their perspective you can get, the harder it becomes to judge.


Assumptions represent your perspective, not those of your users. When you hear your users express an emotion, don’t assume you know why they feel that way – even though it might seem obvious to you. Ask them why.


When first presented with a challenge or problem, it’s easy to develop ideas about what needs to be solved or how to go about solving it. Often we get so attached to these preconceptions that they affect our ability to really listen to users. And so as soon as we hear something that remotely lines up with one of our preconceptions we build a tenuous link even though one may not exist. 

Judgement is a product of your personal experience and view of the world – it’s also very damaging when it comes to building empathy because it inhibits your ability to see things from someone else’s perspective.