Like a muscle, your ability to connect with your study subjects on a core human level will grow – but only with regular practice.
I fight back tears with everything I have as I sit at a kitchen table with a young woman in the Midwest. We recruited her for a cancer patient–caretaker study, but by the time I arrived to do my ethnography in her home, her 42-year-old husband had died of lung cancer only a week earlier. She was left alone with two small children. All the research experience in the world did not prepare me for this moment, as I sat with a respondent who could’ve easily been my peer. Even today, whenever I recall feeling her pain that day, her kitchen table stands as a chasm between her experience and my own.
As a professional ethnographer, I have to remind myself that this heart-breaking experience, like several others during my career, was in some way a good thing. It will always help me to realize that I’m not a stoic researcher who crunches numbers into statistics and bell curves. We call our specialty “qualitative research,” because it looks at human qualities. And we must understand that doing so requires something no number can express: empathy.
Empathy affects people at a core level. It goes beyond ascertaining someone else’s situation; it requires us to open our hearts to really experience a person’s feelings. You don’t need to be Mr. Rogers to be empathetic. Some of the most driven, goal-oriented businesspeople realize that empathy can be the difference between going through exponential growth and going belly up.
Case in point: Ever heard of a guy name Steve Jobs? He co-founded this neat little enterprise called Apple. Rumor has it the company has done pretty well.
In the now-famous internal memo titled Apple Market Philosophy, which was sent to all staffers in the early ’80s, empathy was repeatedly stressed as the fundamental principle behind the computer maker brand’s DNA. Jobs (and you can bet this memo came from his very own Apple) stated that the firm would truly understand their customers’ “needs better than any other company.” Part of Jobs’ brilliance was his ability to know what consumers wanted before they did. This Nostradamus-like ability was rooted in part by his empathy.
“Empathy” has become a popular buzzword used in dozens of industries, including, you guessed it, market research. That’s you and me.
But what exactly is empathy? Is it a skill set? Is it a worldview? Can empathy be developed, or is it an innate quality woven into a person’s double helix? How can empathy be developed, assuming it even can?
I believe that, like a muscle, empathy can indeed be developed. In his wonderful nonfiction work, “On Writing,” Stephen King notes that the best writers work on their craft the way power lifters and bodybuilders hit the gym: Every. Single. Day. In the same fashion, empathy can be developed by, well, practicing empathy. In other words, to use the cliché, “Fake it til you make it.”
Here’s how: The James-Lange theory, a psychological hypothesis first noted in the 19th century, states that physiological arousal precedes emotion. The act of running from a bear, for example, actually contributes to the fear.
Let’s apply this action-before-feeling idea to empathy. By acting in an empathetic fashion – even if you initially don’t actually experience someone else’s feelings – your ability to be empathetic can develop. In addition, this “muscle” is best exercised whenever we relate to people whose experiences are completely different from our own. By forcing ourselves to confront the alternate realities that others face, we’re moved from our comfort zone as we experience empathy in its purest form.
Empathy is a cornerstone of qualitative research. Conducting research with people on a human-to-human level is essential to understanding them. By approaching them from an emotional perspective, we more readily learn about their needs, desires and motivations. As a result, we can far more accurately predict their future behavior.
Practicing and developing empathy can affect your bottom line: When you incorporate a greater degree of empathy into your work, your qualitative research proves to be more helpful for your clients. Word gets out, and you wind up with more happy clients.
So maybe it’s time to take your empathy to the gym and give it a healthy workout. Here’s how:
- Immerse yourself in an unfamiliar community: Spend a few hours a week volunteering in a community outside of your own. As we get older, we tend to become more set in our ways and spend time with our own flock. The very future of your career mandates that you continue relating to a wide variety of cultures and people, many of whom are different from those we see in our day-to-day lives.
- Be an engaged participant: Observing from the sidelines isn’t enough. For instance, if you volunteer, make it a point to chat with the folks in the communities where you’re working. Suspend your judgment and try to see their point of view and experience where they’re coming from. Ask yourself what another person would do in a given situation. In some cases this will involve suspending your own viewpoint.
- Listen: Immerse yourself in the messages of others: Really focus on what they’re saying, see how they move their bodies, sense what is really important and feel with your heart. Listening has become a rare commodity in today’s society. Like empathy, I believe it’s a skill that can be developed.
- Read fiction: Studies have shown that people who read fiction have higher levels of empathy than those who do not. In one example, the peer-reviewed journal “Science” published a paper based on five studies in which subjects who read fiction had a greater capacity for empathy. Fiction forces us to feel compassion and empathy toward characters who are not like us. So pick up a book that you wouldn’t normally read and practice relating to characters you’re not familiar with.
- Explore new neighborhoods: This needn’t involve any directed activity, like volunteer work. Enjoy a Saturday afternoon at the Armenian market across town. Grab lunch at that Peruvian café you’ve seen while cruising by. Kick back and become the cultural outsider. It’ll open your eyes. And it might do the same for your heart.
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