A century ago, a young couple named Earle and Josephine were starting their married life together in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Earle was a cotton buyer and Josephine was a homemaker.
Josephine seemed to be perpetually dealing with burns from hot pans and nicks and cuts from sharp kitchen knives. Almost nightly, Earle would dutifully treat Josephine’s wounds with bulky bandages fashioned from adhesive tape and cotton gauze.
Earle realized that Josephine could get relief much quicker if there was a way for her to easily bandage herself after a mishap. So, he cut several squares of gauze, folded them into small pads, affixed them to strips of surgical tape, and covered each strip with crinoline to keep the tape from sticking to itself. That way he could reroll the tape, and Josephine could unwind and custom cut what she needed to dress her wounds on the spot.
One of Earle’s coworkers encouraged him to show his new idea to their managers. Their employer happened to be Johnson & Johnson, and they decided to produce Earle’s invention. They called it Band-Aid, and over 100 billion have been made since then.
Band-Aid began because Earle Dickson could see that his wife was suffering, wanted to make things easier for her, and found a novel solution to her problem.
Earle Dickson didn’t set out to create one of the world’s most widely recognized consumer brands. He just wanted to make things better for his wife. He understood her predicament, he cared about it, and he wanted to do something. He probably didn’t know – at least at first – how his empathy could so powerfully reveal such a tremendous opportunity.
What is empathy?
Broadly, empathy is our ability to understand – and possibly share – another’s thoughts, feelings, or experiences. Empathy allows us to see another’s point of view, to put ourselves in their shoes. We can empathize with other people, animals, or even fictional characters.
Psychotherapy pioneer Carl Rogers saw empathy as a process, rather than a state. To Rogers, the process of empathy involves “entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it,” and “being sensitive, moment to moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person.” Empathy, explains Rogers, requires “that for the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another’s world without prejudice.”
Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut described empathy as “vicarious introspection.” According to Kohut, empathy can be viewed as one person’s attempt to “experience the inner life of another while simultaneously retaining the stance of an objective observer.”
We can’t truly or fully understand another’s perspective or experience exactly what they are feeling, but empathy is a genuine attempt to at least try.
Components of empathy
Even though they are closely interconnected, research supports the idea that there are three identifiable components of empathy in most people:
- Cognitive empathy. Sometimes called perspective taking, cognitive empathy involves simply knowing how the other person might feel or what they are likely to be thinking.
- Emotional empathy. Also called emotion sharing, this component of empathy allows us to adopt the emotional or mental state of the other person. We feel what they feel.
- Compassionate empathy. When our empathy is strong enough to motivate us to take appropriate action to help another, we are experiencing compassion. We don’t just understand what they are going through, we are willing to do something about it.
The precise definition and construction of empathy is still a subject of cultural and scientific debate, and there may be numerous other subcomponents. However, for the purpose of connecting empathy and opportunity, it’s enough to know that empathy traverses a continuum of knowing what someone feels, sharing someone’s feelings, and helping.
Characteristics of empathy
Although there is some disagreement over its specific parameters, research has revealed some general characteristics of empathy:
- We are much more likely to empathize with people close to us than with strangers.
- We tend to empathize more often and more strongly with positive emotions than with negative emotions.
- Empathy is quite commonly experienced. Participants in one study reported an average of nine opportunities to empathize with someone else every day.
- Study participants reported about six opportunities to receive empathy each day.
- All three of the primary empathy components (cognitive, emotional, and compassionate) occur together about 75 percent of the time.
- Empathy can vary across demographic variables including geographic region, age, ethnicity, education, income, and gender.
- Studies indicate that empathy has been declining over the past several decades.
Benefits of empathy
Empathy provides a number of benefits for the giver, the receiver, and society. For a start, empathy is strongly linked to a greater sense of well-being. Empathetic people tend to be happier, express greater life satisfaction, and are generally more optimistic and positive. Empathy can also reduce stress and anxiety and help relieve depression.
Empathy also promotes prosocial behavior. It encourages us to be more helpful, to show more concern for the welfare of others, and to understand the needs of those around us. Without some degree of empathy, living cooperatively and peacefully in large groups would be impossible.
Interpersonal relationships are strengthened by empathy. We use empathy to figure out other people’s behavior and motivation, to manage conflict, and to understand how our own actions impact others. Empathy also helps us address bias and prejudice, on both personal and social levels.
Empathy and opportunity
While there may be many apparent benefits to giving and receiving empathy, the impact of empathy on our ability to recognize and evaluate opportunity might be less obvious.
However, it doesn’t take much effort to connect empathy and opportunity. For example, entrepreneurship typically involves finding creative ways to solve other people’s problems or satisfy their unmet needs. Since we can use empathy to simulate another’s experience from their perspective, it seems intuitive that practicing empathy could improve someone’s ability to recognize opportunities to meet other’s needs.
While practicing empathy can help all of us see opportunities to meet other people’s needs, it may be particularly helpful for entrepreneurs. A significant percentage of entrepreneurs are self-centered, entitled, and overconfident by nature. They are also limited by their own experience. The ability to adopt another’s perspective greatly enhances a key entrepreneurial skill: selecting opportunities that are relevant to the needs and wants of potential customers and users.
Anyone who is looking to develop and market products and services can benefit from using empathy not only to align an opportunity to the market, but also to boost the motivation to meet customer needs.
As entrepreneurship researchers Mark Packard and Thomas Burnham explain, “entrepreneurship requires far more than merely mirroring a consumer’s feelings; it requires imagining how and why consumers experience those feelings.”
In Packard and Burnham’s view, empathy is a vicarious mental simulation of another person’s experience from their point of view. True empathy, they explain, requires not just that we mentally simulate the other person’s experience, but also the feelings and emotions that accompany that experience. Feeling sad when someone else is sad is not true empathy. We must “feel the same sadness for the same reasons.” It is this type of vicarious imagination that underlies opportunity recognition and opportunity evaluation.
Beyond opportunity recognition and evaluation, empathy is beneficial to entrepreneurs in a number of ways. Research suggests that entrepreneurs who are high on empathy are better motivators and leaders, are better at helping their employees cope with stress, are more attuned to customer wants, have higher levels of customer satisfaction, and are more innovative.
Brand titan Blockbuster either didn’t understand – or didn’t care enough about – its customer’s changing wants and needs. Netflix listened, cared, and responded – and eventually took over the market as Blockbuster withered.
Many people believe that empathy is so important to the human condition that it should be widely taught. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees, saying “Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy.”
Most of us have some capacity for empathy. Of course, some people will be naturally more or less empathetic than others. But whether you see empathy as a trait or a skill – or both – there are always things we can do to improve and regulate our empathic capacity.
Noted clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen explains, “Empathy is a skill like any other human skill – and if you get a chance to practice, you can get better at it.”
For the most part, being more empathetic comes down to two things: getting better at identifying other people’s thoughts and feelings, and learning to respond appropriately to those thoughts and feelings.
There are several techniques we can use to help hone our empathic skills:
- Listen. Become an active listener. Don’t just listen to the content of the speaker’s message; focus on the underlying feeling. Respond to those feelings where appropriate. Pay attention to nonverbal cues and provide feedback.
- Ask questions. Practice asking open-ended questions. They give the respondent a greater opportunity to be heard and understood, and they don’t constrain the respondent’s answers. They also provoke longer responses that allow the other person to fully express their feelings, opinions, problems, and desires.
- Challenge biases. We all have unconscious biases that influence our perception and cognition. If you really want to connect with someone and find similarities rather than differences, you must acknowledge your own preconceptions and prejudices and challenge them.
- Suspend judgment. Don’t jump to conclusions. Practice observing and listening without evaluating. If you find yourself starting to react negatively to the other person, find a positive thought or plausible explanation that counters the negativity.
- Imagine and visualize. Empathy is a vicarious mental simulation. We can’t actually get inside someone else’s head, so we have to imagine and visualize. Try to see yourself being the other person, living their experience, and duplicating their actions. Try to imagine their emotions and feelings.
- Role play. To really go the extra mile, role playing games and exercises can allow us to briefly assume another person’s reality by proxy. Rehearsing some of the situations that other people find themselves in can make it a lot easier to put ourselves in their shoes.
- Label emotions. Identifying felt emotions is critical for true empathy. When someone expresses their feelings to you, practice consciously labeling the emotion you think they are experiencing. Be specific and really drill down. Don’t just think “she’s upset.” Is she annoyed? Frustrated? Hostile? Outraged? You can do this with your own emotions, too. This will bolster your emotional literacy and, consequently, your ability to empathize.
Markets are people. The better we understand people’s unsolved problems and unmet needs, the better we will be at recognizing and evaluating opportunities to align ideas with markets. Empathy is critical to truly understanding and sharing people’s feelings.
Improving our capacity for empathy won’t just make us better at recognizing and evaluating opportunity, though. It will make us better partners, leaders, employees, teachers, students, motivators, persuaders, and citizens. More empathy just makes us better, period, and improves all our interpersonal relationships.
Maybe empathy is on the decline on a broad social level, but it remains a learned skill that each of us can cultivate with a little bit of regular practice. And if more empathy means less social division and more opportunity, a little practice might be worth our time.