Practising empathy

25 March

Why showing empathy is not as easy as it may sound?

6 min read
6 min read

These days there is a lot of buzz around the word “empathy” in the marketing world. Actually, ever since Pandemic hit us, brands scrambled to tell their consumers how much they empathised with them. As Qualitative researchers, it has been imprinted in our minds that empathy is the lens through which we should be viewing the consumers and their complex worlds. And rightly so, as Qualitative research is all about understanding consumers by getting right under their skin. In fact, one of the first lessons given to a rookie moderator is to be empathetic to the respondents when interacting with them in focus groups and depth interviews.

But do we tell them enough about the kind of empathy that they should be expressing during their tete-a-tete with consumers. Not always. The thing is, not all empathy looks and feels the same; just like not all sadness is the same, or happiness; or fear. The three types of empathy that psychologists have defined are: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate, and a researcher should know which one to pick when.

Cognitive empathy

Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence defined Cognitive Empathy as “Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking” while he goes on to define Emotional Empathy as “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” Compassionate Empathy goes a step further and, at times, calls for action. According to Goleman: “With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help if needed.”. Compassionate empathy can be viewed as intense emotional empathy, which requires one not just to feel but act too.

Cognitive empathy is concerned with thoughts, intellect and understanding, while emotional and compassionate empathy evokes feelings, physical sensations and mirror neurons and tends to be reactive and spontaneous. A classic example of emotional empathy is the case of emotional ‘contagion’. Here, emotions spread between interacting people pretty much like viruses, in a pre-reflective, semi-automatic form. On the other hand, cognitive empathy requires a much more effortful process of ‘seeing’ things from the perspective of someone else, of adopting the point of view of another person, of reasoning about the motives that may lead someone else to feel and think as she/he does.

An emotionally intelligent moderator has the aptitude to juggle between different empathy types effortlessly. He will know exactly when to ‘feel’ the consumer’s emotions by practising emotional empathy through words like “I can understand your excitement when you first tried that brand” or “ Now I can really sense your disappointment when you used that brand” and also through appropriate body language that mirrors the consumer’s feelings. Though largely instinctive and spontaneous, practising emotional empathy is not as easy as it may look on the surface; it requires sensitivity and mental agility to appreciate the consumer’s emotional state and express it in a way that appears genuine and heartfelt. Nothing can be worse than empathy that reeks of hypocrisy, self-indulgence and a patronising attitude!

Similarly, he will know when to get into the consumer’s shoes and peep into his world through her eyes.  He could do this by a provocative conversation starter like “Suppose I have become you and entered your home, what would I be seeing….what would I be doing…what would I be excited about…what would worry me”. This is just one of the armouries he has to enter the consumer’s world. There are several others that he can choose from that would enable him to gain access to the consumer’s perspective of things. Practising cognitive empathy is challenging as it requires considerable intellectual dexterity, but an enthusiastic Qualitative Researcher can do it by empathic exploring, listening and eventually interpreting a situation from another person’s perspective.

Practicing empathy

Sometimes, while talking about challenges that she is facing in life, a consumer may seek some kindness and sympathy from a moderator, just as one human being seeks from another. It could range from something very personal, e.g. “The pandemic has impacted us financially, and we are struggling”, to something that is product/service related, e.g. “ I spent so much money on it, and now I feel cheated and let down” At such moments it is not enough just to feel the consumer’s woes, the moderator needs to come across as someone who can provide some comfort and hope. He could, for instance, say, “The pandemic has indeed created a havoc, but surely things will get better, and you will be OK” and “It’s really terrible to feel cheated, maybe you should write to the authorities and complain”. At such junctures, this is the kind of empathy that the consumer will expect from the moderator. However, it is important that the moderator does not get too intricately involved with the consumer’s challenges as then the discussion may lose focus and objectivity. The moderator also has to watch out that empathy does not turn into sympathy. As Brene Brown, the well-known academic and Ted speaker said: “Sympathy involves understanding from your own perspective. Empathy involves putting yourself in the other person's shoes and understanding WHY they may have these particular feelings.”

Practising empathy is certainly an art that has its complexities, but it is one of the most beautiful emotions in possession of human beings.  Qualitative researchers have ample opportunities to practice empathy and feel the experiences of others with clarity and connect with them more deeply and effectively. They just have to be cognizant of the many facets and types of empathy and know when to press which empathy button for a deeper and authentic understanding of their consumers.

Sandeep Dutta
Senior consultant at Kantar