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.


3 thoughts on “The most underrated skill is empathy — for businesses and for you

  1. I’m not convinced the problem is mainly to do with emotion. Negative emotions are expressed at public meetings out of frustration. Too often the organisers design, perhaps unintentionally, a one way meeting where they speak and the audience listens. They may say they want to hear what the audience has to say but in practice it doesn’t happen. We need meetings where the focus is on conversation. The people are there because they have an interest in the topic. So get them into groups and participate in the conversation. You know you have a good conversation when you break through the “stuckness” and new ideas start to flow. The trick is to get the emotion to support the task and then it ceases to be an issue. Use participatory methods like World Cafe or Open Space Technology.

    1. Well said! Yes, the key and often unmet need in a public meeting is to channel the public’s passion, emotion, even anger– not ignore it, not pooh-pooh it, but create a process where they can use that to solve problems.

      I like the methods you named, but i often find that in dealing with the general public about intense issues, I need a process that has more structure, less opportunity for someone with an agenda to hog the spotlight, and a clear, visually understandable recording of the results for future reference. I’m working on a book on that method now– if you’re interested, you can read some draft chapters at Thanks!!

  2. I agree up to a point and I have adapted participative methods for more structured meetings as you suggest. The problem is the intense issues you identify cut both ways. I find I’m always working with powerful leaders who have interests vested in the outcome. How do I know that powerful leader isn’t me? It’s a fine line between underestimating the power of people together to make decisions and overestimating the degree to which they are informed. I read half your latest chapter yesterday but didn’t comment because I couldn’t see the whole thing.

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