It all starts with empathy

As 2016 comes to a close, with Brexit and Trump victories still ringing in our ears, the learning for us to take into 2017, is that it all starts with empathy. Empathy deficit disorder has been responsible for these political upsets, with both pollsters and politicians, being made, very aware, of their lack of vote understanding. This is also a disorder overlooked but pervasive in many businesses.

At work we often see people inclined to be sympathetic with their consumers and colleagues, but not empathetic. Sympathy is a reaction to the plight of others. While we might say "I know how you feel" we mean "I feel sorry for you". Sympathy is less engaged than empathy, amounting to little more than recognition of the situation. It does not mean shared emotion or feelings.

We should not confuse empathy with saying nice things or being tolerant. Film-making and ethnographic insight has shown us that empathy is an act of imagination and critical thinking. Film and ethnography call on powerful storytelling to achieve the connection outcome sought; storytelling is an exercise in empathy. Drawing on empathetic imagination, means connecting to other people's predicaments or dilemma, and then placing them in a position of supreme importance.

This is not always easy to come by, which is why it has always been a mission of ours, to leave people with a feeling, not tell them what they should be feeling.

This is the magic of memorable storytelling.

Whether writing drama or ethnographic scripts, it is essential to explore every element of a character's life, the world they live in and the rich complexity of their relationships. It is impossible to create a character people love or want to know more about, without this back story and understanding. It's not about judging people, as life includes both heroes and villains, and we want the same depth of character for each. Sympathetic storytelling let's sentimentality get in the way of a good story. Without genuine empathy, the characters created and stories told, lack nuance and depth.

Empathy is a capacity within us. Functional magnetic resonance imagery shows regions of the brain, that involve both emotions and physical sensations, light up when we become aware of a person's distress or joy, as we literally feel their pain or pleasure. Only psychotic minds are devoid of empathy. And we can exercise our empathy like a muscle, by cultivating our curiosity about strangers and being imaginative in trying to understand people whose beliefs contradict our own.

Whatever the focus or task, it should start with empathy. To create new and better ways of doing things, we need to understand the people and world we are creating them for.

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