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Empathy to Action: Listening Completely is a Good Place to Start

January 16, 2017 by Paul Taylor

Almost 70 years ago, Ernest Hemingway offered this advice to a young writer. “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

In today’s world of shrinking attention spans and distracting background noise, Hemingway’s advice is perhaps even more important. Listening (and watching) is the key to understanding and empathy, and empathy unlocks the power in people – and companies – to improve the world.

Empathy is sometime confused with sympathy, but empathy is much more powerful. Sympathy involves feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference.

As business guru Daniel Pink has noted, “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.” Consequently, he says, “Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

Interestingly, although we live in a dog-eat-dog, highly competitive world that sometimes appears focused on personal greed, there is growing scientific evidence that we, as humans, are wired for empathy.

Years ago, scientists studying specific nerve cells in macaque monkeys’ prefrontal cortexes found that that specific cells fired when the monkeys threw a ball or ate a banana. Then they discovered that these same cells fired when a monkey watched another performing these acts — the brain of the monkey observer reacted just as if it had tossed the ball itself.

It turns out human brains also contain these ‘mirror neurons’ which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them. This is why when someone smiles at us, we spontaneously smile back and when someone screams in pain, we cringe. In a very real sense, we feel each other’s pain.

In effect, these mirror neurons transport us into another person’s mind, briefly making us feel what the person is feeling, prompting V. S. Ramachandran, a pioneer in mirror neuron research, to dub them ‘empathy neurons’ or ‘Dalai Lama neurons’ capable of “dissolving the barrier between self and others.”

Frans de Waal, the eminent biologist, professor of psychology and director of the Living Link Center at Emory University, agrees and describes empathy as the social glue that holds human society together. In his book ‘The Age of Empathy: Nature‘s Lessons For A Kinder Society,’ published in 2010, he points to the fact that many animals survive not by eliminating each other, or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.

Like De Waal, psychologist Mark Davis has suggested that there are three important types of empathy. Consider putting the three types of empathy into sub-sections or bullets to make it easier to follow

The first is a purely “cognitive” form of empathy that he terms “Perspective-Taking.” This involves being able to see things from another’s point of view. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

A second type of empathy, involves “Personal Distress,” or emotional contagion. Personal distress is literally feeling another’s emotions. When you are watching a scary movie, and you start to empathize with the hero and feel afraid, that is personal distress in action. You are actually feeling the other’s emotion through a process called “emotional contagion.” The actor, or another person, is actually “infecting” you with their emotion. We all experience personal distress, but too much of it may not be a good thing. Some people are so prone to feeling other’s emotional states that they are battered about by the feelings and emotions of others (thus the label of “distress”).

The third type of empathy is called “Empathic Concern.” This type is what we most often think about when we hear the term “empathy.” It is the ability to recognize another’s emotional state, feel in tune with that emotional state, and if it is a negative/distressful emotion, feel and show appropriate concern.

At different times we as individuals may feel all three types of empathy, but from a corporate perspective cognitive empathy and empathic concern are the most important. Consider this: most companies pay lip service at least to the concept of putting customers first. But many ultimately fail to grow and thrive because they fail to put themselves in their customers’ shoes – to truly understand and address customer concerns.

This is what SAP CEO Bill McDermott calls ‘Empathy to Action’ and he made it a personal and company pledge last year after listening to the concerns from some of the company’s customers. “Everything has to start with empathy for the end user,” he says.

For technology providers, the need to empathize with customers has never been more acute. Most technology customers are complex. They have multiple businesses; operate across geographic borders and often across different industries. Keeping operations running smoothly in a world of increasing digitization is challenging.

“Now layer onto that the fact that digital transformation is accelerating,” says Geoff Scott, CEO of the Americas SAP User Group. “We live in an increasing digital world where everyone is connected to a device, and more and more devices are connected to each other. We have cars with sensors, we have homes with sensors, and we are starting to have bodies with sensors. Any organization that is not thinking about how this digitized world impacts or disrupts will wake up one day and wonder what happened.”

To help them navigate this complex fast changing world, technology customers say they want a clear strategy and product roadmap that shows them how to get from where they are today, to where they need to get to.

They resent the arrogance and swagger of some vendors and they want technology providers to be genuine partners that understand their concerns and provide innovative solutions, not just sales machines. They want a single point of contact with vendors, simplified pricing and contracts, and a simpler, more integrated user experience for their smart, mobile and tech-savvy end users.

Most importantly, they need to feel the empathy. In other words, they want their technology providers to demonstrate a real customer-first culture and to “walk in their customers’ shoes.” Listening completely is a good place to start.

McDermott’s pledge to customers has already led to changes, big and small across SAP including providing customers with more prescriptive guidance and road maps, but he emphasizes this is a journey with no end point. “Empathy is a race without a finish line,” he says. “We’ve only just begun to show our customers that every action we take is driven by their experience and satisfaction. The customer is the only boss.”

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