‘Empathy’ is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”.
This definition, not closely associated with the business landscape traditionally, has come to the fore in recent times as businesses begin to change their perspectives towards their customers and the way they not only create products and services for them, but also how they communicate with them.
In the embracing of design thinking, which sees companies connect with customers more deeply to understand their needs, desires, and what drives them, and put them at the heart of what the company does and designs, companies are also embracing empathy.
Matt Taylor, director of Narrative Strategy at Deloitte, believes empathy is now a big word across various industries; be it augmented or virtual reality, customer experience, or content marketing, everyone is looking for ways to understand the experiences of other people more clearly.
“It’s interesting seeing the rise of human-centered strategies alongside the new ways in which technology lets us work and live. Change is a constant now and even if clients have never done an empathy map before, it doesn’t take much explaining to see why you need to consider more than one facet of others’ opinions.”
Embracing empathy has been at the core of Taylor’s work for some time. In 2012 Taylor founded The Explainers, a digital communication studio helping clients inform, engage, and persuade their customers more effectively through various storytelling methods.
With The Explainers acquired by Deloitte and becoming its Narrative Strategy unit within Deloitte Digital earlier this year, Taylor said the team is presented with a problem to deal with rather than a brief.
“To get the information we need, the first challenge is getting the right people in the room. These stakeholders often do not frequently, or sometimes ever, get together so we are not only creating a space for a unique conversation but then also trying to unlock the problem from a new angle,” he explained.
“We want to reframe experiences and events so we can string them together differently with a new narrative running through them. This year we’ve been using a lot more design methods to tease out briefs and the process is feeling more therapeutic to me than formulaic.”
Teasing out briefs and getting candid conversations rolling about big hairy problems requires a fair amount of trust, Taylor said, and that’s where more creative methods come out.
“If we as designers can step outside of our hands on skills and bring creative lateral thinking to left brain environments, reframe challenges with less jargon, so clearer and faster decisions can be made, well that’s what it’s all about,” he explained.
“There are processes and models to use, but bringing together people who don’t normally speak is a huge part of it and however we can ignite new ways of seeing issues, then that’s doing more than just writing script for a video.”
This is where the idea of ‘design as therapy’ comes in.
Taylor points to a concept presented earlier this year by cartoonist Lynda Barry, who pointed out when you look at whiteboards during a brainstorming session, or look at the drawings of kids, you can see certain highly-worked areas – often where things are circled a lot – where you can literally see the moment an idea is conceived.
“When you put a pen to paper there is a free associative gap between what’s in your head and what comes out, even if you’re an excellent draughtsman, you’re never fully sure of what the end result is going to be. I think that’s a good mind state to enter for problem solving and for life in general,” Taylor explained.
Taylor will be encouraging creators, innovators, and business leaders to enter this state of mind at Pause 2017, running the hands-on workshop ‘Desperately Seeking Empathy’.
“It will be part discourse, part performance, part workshop. I’ve done a lot of talks about my work over the years, and a lot of talks on the power of video content and marketing, but this is an opportunity to try something new and different. And that’s what’s Pause is all about,” Taylor said.
Participants will be encouraged to pick up a pencil and draw, with Taylor hoping to encourage them to let go of their inhibitions and draw from the heart to get to the core of the problem.
“I’ve been teaching drawing at my son’s school to first graders and I keep trying to impress on them that anyone can draw. There are points in your life where you become self-conscious and you stop doing all sorts of stuff to focus on teenage stuff, but before then most of us would happily pick up a pencil and paper to try and draw something out. It’s hard to pinpoint but there is something different about drawing, which can unlock some different parts of your brain,” he said.
“There are so many tools to express ideas now, but for me, as someone who’s grown up with a pencil in my hand, there is something about the simplicity and immediacy of drawing which is still very relevant. Even when you just look at the popularity of whiteboard videos, people love watching people draw. There is something mesmerising about it, regardless of how good the drawing is. If design can be therapy, I want drawing to be hypnotherapy.”
As the competition grows, success in today’s business landscape will not be due to innovation and technology alone; it is embracing empathy and different perspectives, both within your own team and the perspectives of customers, that can set a business apart.
“In seeking to understand people, be they customers or employees, you open up the possibility for input and feedback that can radically improve your business. Doing this in a half-assed way your good intentions will just wither and it all just looks cheap and nasty,” Taylor said.
“To be a successful corporate therapist you need ears to listen, opinions to share and you need a good share of empathy yourself to be able to see clients as people and get inside their problems.”
Pause Fest 2017 will take place at Federation Square on the 8th-10th of February 2017. Tickets can be purchased here.