Friday, May 4

Finding Empathy: Can Anybody Do It?

Journalist, author, and screenwriter John Buchanan might have touched a nerve with his recent article, Anger Management, for the Conference Review Board. The article uses three high profile crisis communication scenarios of their own making in 2011: Netflix, Bank Of America, and Verizon.

Two of the three are still included on the "10 most hated companies in America." And then he points out why the three companies failed so miserably. They didn't make bad decisions, he wrote, they lacked empathy. I'm glad to read it. Empathy seems to be in short supply in business and communication

Maybe if business students studied empathy, ethics would be easier too. 

Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. (Or, if you prefer, it's the ability to identify the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.) Most people don't apply it very often because the problem isn't limited to businesses.

Last year, Scientific American covered a study that found almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago. What makes this especially frightening is that even though empathy is innate (even primates have it), social context overwrites it.

People are more inclined to make decisions based on their needs, exclusive of others. And when you look at the three case studies offered up by Buchanan, that is exactly what you will find. All three had to improve their bottom lines. And all three considered their options, exclusive of their customers.

It wasn't until all three received customer pushback via social media that they reversed their decisions. But even those reversals aren't really social media triumphs as much as temporary surrenders. Chances are that no one learned to be more empathetic. Their reversals were a means to quell the backlash.

Empathy isn't about picking sides, which is why people misunderstand it. 

Two of the assignments that students who take my Writing For Public Relations class receive are also lessons in empathy. One involves delivering bad news for a company forced to lay off workers. Another involves an employee who is hurt on the job (possibly because of a safety violation).

Inevitably, there are two common directions students take in handling the assignments. Either students ignore empathy all together and get on with what they perceive as the job or they exhibit empathy toward whomever they see as the underdog. But neither solution is truly empathetic and here's why.

Empathy isn't about understanding how underdogs feel. It's about understanding how everyone feels.

Last year, one of the better articles about empathy was written by Guy Winch for Psychology Today. He titled it "How to Test Your Empathy." I'm glad he titled it that because there are dozens of misleading empathy questionnaires and quizzes  online (e.g., feeling empathy during a movie doesn't mean beans). Instead of a questionnaire, he asks his readers to imagine one scenario. That's all it takes.

Believe it or not, I first learned about empathy because of my work in advertising. It was one of several great lessons written by David Ogilvy. "The consumer is not an idiot," he said. "She's your wife."
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