Why Empathy Matters

I overheard a conversation the other day between a guy who has been pretty successful in the social media world, and a guy who said he was really struggling trying to figure it all out.  

The social media expert told him, “It’s not about the technology… it’s about empathy.”

The rise of social media has helped highlight the Golden Rule of any successful relationship – the ability to get in the shoes of somebody else and really listen.

For example, when a blog post or newsletter shows up from one of my favorite thinkers – I read them right away. They exhibit this incredible quality that makes it sound like I’m sitting at a coffee table right beside them, nodding my head.

On the other hand, I also get a lot of well-written newsletters full of facts, tips and techniques that I wish I had the time to read. But I don’t. Here’s why – they show up like a flat sheet of paper in my inbox – as valuable data, but not a conversation.

And social media is just the most recent and visible way to see how empathy works. It’s everywhere. For example – good product designers really get empathy. They take the time to ask users what really turns us on, and what really ticks us off. Then when the product comes to market – it looks like somebody really understands us.

Compare this to the products designed for consumers. (The stainless steel refrigerator gleaming in the showroom that’s covered with fingerprints 10 minutes after you get it home.)  The life cycle of these items fades as soon as something shinier or more affordable comes into town. And the customer goes right along with it.

Think about the products you love. The folks you really like to be around. Business people who have loyal and engaged employees. Really good salespeople, or marketers. Causes that move you. People you friend on Facebook or follow on Twitter. Chances are they – and you, have the empathy thing going on.

In a marketplace where things are always changing, understanding people well enough to anticipate what will make their job, life or process work better is invaluable.

Unfortunately, empathy can’t be bought or assimilated by reading a book.  It’s more like a muscle that must be exercised to get stronger.  To do so we keep an eye out for our tendency to fix, tell, correct, solve or even make others feel better.

This isn’t always easy, and the curiosity needed doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But while some people have a higher level of empathy than others, we all have the room and the opportunity to grow. In the process we make work, life and the world a better place.

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