The most underrated skill is empathy — for businesses and for you

This article from the 99u business blog makes a point that you who work in nonprofits and governments might be inclined to take for granted – the need for a business to listen to its potential customers to learn what they need and what they want.  After all, we do that listening all the time, right?  What do you think all those public meetings are for?

The article, though, takes it deeper by emphasizing the need for empathy: not only listening, but actively listening –exploring ways to not only hear another person’s words, but to understand the hopes, the fears, the emotions behind what they say.  And they have a very pragmatic reason for doing that:

Those who stop and listen [and] connect with their customers and fans on an emotional level, putting themselves in the service of others.

The big benefit? These people now have the fuel to push pass the relentless friction that arises from bringing something original into the world. It is much easier to push through your creative blocks when you can actually visualize what your audience needs. But more importantly, you’ll make stuff that people actually want.


Businesses have come to understand that people’s’ decisions are not made solely in their rational minds, disconnected from their emotional experience.  People are fundamentally emotional

Commodore 64

This. (from Versus…

creatures, after all, and even our most rational decisions have an emotional undercurrent to them.  In many cases, though, people who design products or technologies face the temptation to place the emphasis on the designer’s needs (for functions, for cool effects, for low costs), but if they give in to those, they will lose the competition for customers to products that are designed to meet people where they are.  Look at the design of an early-90s PC and compare that to a modern tablet — certainly the technology available to tablet designers has changed, but it has changed because of a growing understanding of how people actually think and how they want to interact with their computer.  There’s even a profession within software now that is called User Experience — UX.  These folks, who often come from anthropology and psychology, focus their work on understanding what people want and need in all aspects of their experience with the software — rational and emotional and everything in between. They are, in many respects, the carriers of this empathy.


Do we employ empathy?  Who looks out for our user experience?


Too often, we cast our community decisions — the things that we are supposed to get the community to participate in – as rational choices.  We aggregate lots of facts, we cite ordinances, we make maps.  It’s all very rational.  The problem is, the people of the community, who often have a lot more potentially at stake, react in a very human way: they react emotionally.  They might quote facts back at us or make arguments that have a rational structure, but their impetus, the thing that drives them to take the time and stick their necks out enough to participate, comes from something deeper than the brain.  It comes from the gut.

Samsung tablet

This (from

And of course, what do we do when the public starts responding from the gut?  We disparage it. We pooh-pooh their histrionics. We say that doesn’t belong here. We try to push it aside.

But when you’re scared of something, your rational mind has little power to persuade you.  Ask your 12-year old the next time he’s awake during a thunderstorm.  Or ask yourself why you can’t sleep after watching a scary movie.  The rational answers don’t change your feelings — or your reaction.

Given that, it’s no wonder our public meetings get ugly so often.  We deny any place in the process for the emotional part of our perceptions to be heard, and instead of acknowledging them, making them visible and working through them constructively, we try to shovel them into a back corner.  Given our success in trying to talk ourselves into going to sleep after watching Saw IV, we really should know better.

But acknowledging and accepting emotions does not mean that the process gets ruled by them – that would, of course, be stupid. Instead, we do best when we incorporate them — when we fold them into the full range of the information that we use to make our decisions.  We may not be able to meet every need and address every fear, but we can make sure that we understand them, honor them and deal with the ones that we can.  That’s acting with integrity and honoring the whole human experience, not just the parts that can be shoehorned into a statistic.

This article outlines some of the methods that tech companies use to empathize with their customers, and they’re worth giving some thought to.  You can find a broader outline of how we need to rethink public engagement in the book, and watch this space and the Wise Economy — we’re hip-deep in a new book, tentatively titled Crowdsourcing Wisdom, that will give you a detailed how – to for doing more meaningful public engagement.


Hey…1954 Called and it Wants its Economic Development Back

Dan Gilmartin, of, usually pops up on my feeds as a good source talking about the emerging and vibrant new economies developing in Michigan cities and towns.  But when this “rant” hit today (thank God someone other than me rants), I knew many of you would also find it interesting.  I don’t have any knowledge of the legislation Dan notes, and I have no opinion on that – for all I know, it’s written in Swedish.  OK, probably not.

I say in the book, and in every talk I give it seems like, “That which makes you unique makes you valuable.”  In oversaturated markets, including an oversaturated market of places that have “great work ethic” or “highway access” or “low taxes,” we should have learned by now that the only alternative to competing on meaningfully unique value is to compete on cheap costs.  And we’ve seen what that does to products, to workers, to buildings, to local economies.  If your town or neighborhood isn’t differentiating in a meaningful fashion, you’re consigning yourself and your businesses and your residents to the clearance bin of communities.

Here’s Dan:

*I write this post in the midst of battling state legislation that would curtail local decision making on economic issues in favor of a single statewide standard.

Indulge me, please.

In an age when people, jobs and entire industries are mobile city leaders must make great efforts to distinguish their communities from the crowd. Creating and nurturing authentic experiences for people are vital tools for improving economic opportunities. That’s a fact.

The “one size fits all” argument clings to a flawed premiss that it increases efficiency, which leads to growth. This concept is at least outdated.

If the goal of a city or state is to attract low skilled, low paying production jobs then a single set of rules may eradicate barriers to entry. Many emerging countries favor this strategy. I, however, am under the impression that we’re aiming higher in Michigan.

Think of all the great places you like to visit (or live) and ask yourself, “what if they all looked and felt alike?” Where would Portland be without its emphasis on the environment? How would Austin differ without neighborhood based live music? Is Miami Beach still extraordinary without Art Deco?

Celebrating human diversity is a worthy and generally accepted goal today. We must do the same when it comes to our cities. Unique rules that buoy local culture and honor the distinct attributes of people and places are good things. Wiping them out is shortsighted and ill-advised.

Rant concluded.

Go Dan!

Yes, we really are all confident idiots

At one point during South by Southwest, [talk show host Jimmy] Kimmel’s crew approached a poised young woman with brown hair. “What have you heard about Tonya and the Hardings?” the interviewer asked. “Have you heard they’re kind of hard-hitting?” Failing to pick up on this verbal wink, the woman launched into an elaborate response about the fictitious band. “Yeah, a lot of men have been talking about them, saying they’re really impressed,” she replied. “They’re usually not fans of female groups, but they’re really making a statement.” From some mental gossamer, she was able to spin an authoritative review of Tonya and the Hardings incorporating certain detailed facts: that they’re real; that they’re female (never mind that, say, Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper aren’t); and that they’re a tough, boundary-breaking group.

One of the most worrisome elements of the book (and one that, in an alternative lifetime, I might have spent more time on), is the question of how our mental biases and shortcomings get in the way of making the right decisions for communities.  This also plays a big role in my suspicion of experts — the risk that the podium – commanding expert doesn’t know what he’s talking about is a lot higher than we’d like to admit.

This article, from Pacific Standard does a lovely job of illustrating some of that (and using a late-night humor piece to do it, to boot — read the article for more of these great goofs).   Take a look at part of the rest:

In the more solemn confines of a research lab at Cornell University, the psychologists Stav Atir, Emily Rosenzweig, and I carry out ongoing research that amounts to a carefully controlled, less flamboyant version of Jimmy Kimmel’s bit. In our work, we ask survey respondents if they are familiar with certain technical concepts from physics, biology, politics, and geography. A fair number claim familiarity with genuine terms like centripetal force and photon. But interestingly, they also claim some familiarity with concepts that are entirely made up, such as the plates of parallax, ultra-lipid, and cholarine. In one study, roughly 90 percent claimed some knowledge of at least one of the nine fictitious concepts we asked them about. In fact, the more well versed respondents considered themselves in a general topic, the more familiarity they claimed with the meaningless terms associated with it in the survey. [….]

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by somethingthat feels to them like knowledge.

This isn’t just an armchair theory. A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge.

Of course, there’s ways to at least attempt to counteract these kinds of mistakes.  We can:

  • Broaden the number and the type of people who are actively participating, so that we up our chances of someone catching the mistakes.  Of course, that means sharing ownership of the topic and creating an environment where everyone knows that questioning is desired.
  • Lay out the underlying expectations explicitly.  Making very clear what we’re trying to achieve and what we know and don’t know about it makes it harder to launch off down the wrong path– and a little easier to see when someone else is.
  • Establish as a ground rule that it’s OK to make mistakes, to float trial balloons.  The biggest reason why people get caught in the Dunning-Kruger effect is probably the fear that they’ll be laughed at if they say the honest “I don’t know.”

Others, I’m sure.  What would you add to that list?

A Must-Read: Ellen Harpel’s 6 steps to smart incentives use

There are very few people that I will Tweet or post sight unseen (which apparently gives me another piece of weirdness cred).  Ellen Harpel of is about the only one for which I will do that consistently.  Her understanding of the potential and failures of economic development incentives (a topic that I gave a lot of space to in the book), eclipse pretty much everyone.

This not-so-recent-but-still-spot-on post sums up her approach and gives valuable links to deeper explanations.  I’m pasting in her text here, but the hyperlinks are to her pages.

In short: read, follow and learn.  And then do.  And my deep thanks to Ellen for articulating all of this so clearly and concisely.

cut up money

Photo via Tax Credits/Creative Commons


  • Define the goal of each incentive clearly.   This is a surprising gap in many incentive programs. You can’t tell if it is working if you don’t know what it is supposed to achieve.
  • Review your entire portfolio of incentive programs to understand risks, costs and to make sure it is aligned with your overall economic development strategy.  Make adjustments and rebalance as necessary.
  • Conduct background research on incentive applicants. This is especially important for small firms and start-ups that are increasingly the focus of many incentive policies. The more you know about a company, the better deal you can create for both the business and your community.
  • Perform due diligence on the deal.  An incentive deal is an investment for the community.  As with any investment, a lot can go wrong. Due diligence can strengthen your hand during negotiations and lead to better outcomes.
  • Conduct an “ROI” analysis for your community by considering how well the project fits your strategy, the fiscal implications, and the potential economic impact.  It may seem expensive, but it is worthwhile to devote some resources upfront to make better decisions and communicate the rationale for those decisions to stakeholders.
  • Track performance.  Monitor and report on compliance with performance agreements.  Economic development organizations need resources to manage and monitor incentives, as well as to enforce contract provisions when necessary, not just make the awards.