Community Building Breakthroughs: Got Empathy?

by Jill Foster on November 10, 2009

I care graphic

My daughter is a tween who just started middle school. Every school day she wakes up to live in her world. Her essentials (and I mean essentials in every sense of the word):

  • Clean pair of UGG® boots
  • Fully charged iTouch
  • Umbrella if it rains
  • Cell phone for texting

I am a women in my mid-40’s and I run a small business.
I take care of a tween. Every weekday I wake up to live in my world with my non-essentials:

  • UGGs: Are you kidding? They may be stylish but they are not going on my feet.
  • Fully charged iTouch. I’ll take my chances. Not a big deal.
  • Umbrella if it rains. When I manage to find one, it comes in handy. But I can live without it.
  • Cell phone for texting. I have email! Definetely not an essential.

I have a list of essentials (coffee is one of them) but not to bore you with that list – and to quickly make my point – there is a serious disconnect here i.e. nothing in my daughter’s world really relates to mine.

Enter empathy (the perfect antidote for sustaining relationships)
Just as empathy can improve a parent/child relationship, it can also help companies communicate better with their prospects, customers, and constituents. In the book, Wired to Care, there are amazing stories of business transformation when organizations begin to see the world through their customer’s eyes.

More nimble than competitors
Companies that are able to create widespread empathy are more nimble when compared to their competitors. They have the propensity to take on risks or something new. And they have the gut-level certitude to stick with an idea that doesn’t take off right away.

I think the biggest gift empathy gives a company is the deep sense of trust that builds among the market they serve. Expressing empathy nurtures and sustains relationships. It builds loyalty, engagment and respect. All of these things are essential for building a community of enthusiasts around a brand, product, or service.

Exercising our empathetic muscles
In the book Wired to Care, author Dev Patnaik talks about how humans are hard-wired for empathy:

“Humans are a social, caring species. Our limbic brains are designed to make us curious about the feelings of other people and animals. This is what separates us from lower-order creatures. It allows us to communicate and collaborate with others. And it allows us to read between the lines to glean information that may not be explicity stated.”

Groups and loss of empathy
The book also describes how we quickly lose our ability to exercise empathy when we assimilate in groups. We begin to lose our intuition and don’t trust our gut-feeling as to what is going on in the world around us.

This point in particular brings back responses I’ve held toward my daughter and her daily essentials:

“Leave those UGG® boots in your closet. They’re hideous. I wouldn’t be caught dead with them on”.

“Forget about the iTouch today and read a book instead!”

“Can’t find your umbrella? It’s okay. It’s just water. You’ll live…”

“I lived 20 years without a cell phone and texting. One day without it isn’t going to harm you.”

Sounds like a pack of “moms raising tweens” to me. But hey, I am getting MUCH better. But this type of dialogue is a given when empathy is absent.

But you say you’re the “expert” (or as in my case, I adopt the non-empathetic, all-knowing parent that doesn’t truly empathize with the teenager’s environment).

I have found that empathy is often lost when we become the expert at something. The title “expert” is often associated with “I know what is best for you” or “let me talk and you just listen”.

I just wonder how much gets left at the table when we neglect to bringforth the intellectual capital of the other party.

Questions to you
So with your experience and Wired to Care in mind, how can you walk in your customer’s shoes to fully understand their needs?

What is one thing you can do today to exercise your empathetic muscles?

How will your customers recognize your empathy for them?

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Guest contributor Terri Holley writes our series “Community Building Breakthroughs and Social Media.” She is the owner of Creative Blog Solutions and a social media strategist, plus a certified life/business coach. A forward-thinker and relationship-centric gal, Terri supports small businesses who understand the value of using social technologies to build deeper relationships with prospects and customers.

Image I Care by Jannie T., Creative Commons.

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