Moderators’ Voice Series: Is Empathy a Muscle?

A Picture of Jenny Karubian

Apple Computers described empathy as the fundamental principle of their brand DNA in the early 1980s. The “Apple Marketing Philosophy”, an internal memo, stated that Apple would truly understand customer needs “better than any other company.”  Since that time, empathy has become a popular buzzword across the tech and market research industries.

But what is empathy? Is it a skill set? Is it a worldview? How can it be developed?

I believe empathy is a muscle that is best exercised when relating to people whose experiences are completely different from our own. Forcing ourselves to confront the realities that others face removes us from our comfort zones as we experience empathy in its purest form.

Forcing ourselves to confront the realities that others face removes us from our comfort zones as we experience empathy in its purest form.

As a moderator, I take the business of empathy seriously. My research often takes me out of my comfort zone when I work on difficult projects, but that is not enough to sustain an empathic muscle.

There are some situations that professional experience cannot emotionally prepare us for:

Sitting at a Midwestern kitchen table with a young woman, I fight back tears with everything I have. When we recruited her for the cancer patient caretaker study, her husband was still alive. By the time I arrived to do my ethnography in her home, her husband had died and left her alone with two small children. All the research experience in the world did not prepare me for this moment, as I sat with a respondent who, in another dimension, would be my peer. But her kitchen table stands as a chasm between her experience and my own.

Empathy is the crux of qualitative research. Relating to individuals on a human to human level is the necessary ingredient for being able to understand people, and then translate their needs, wants, shortcomings, and desires to our clientele.

Relating to individuals on a human to human level is the necessary ingredient for being able to understand people, and then translate their needs, wants, shortcomings, and desires to our clientele.

The need for empathy is most apparent when dealing with sensitive research topics. However, it is greatly needed in all qualitative research settings. When conducting IDIs and focus groups in the consumer realm, we might find ourselves needing to relate to people on topics that we don’t personally invest a lot of thought or energy. How can we zero in on the realities of lived experiences that are so unlike our own?

Here are a few ways to exercise your empathic muscles:

1.    Immerse yourself in a community that is not your own

Spend a few hours a week or month volunteering in a community outside of your own. Not at your child’s school or your church where you will see others who are just like you, but some place where you would not normally go.

If we need to be empathetic for the sake of our careers, it is vital that we do not stop relating to people who are totally different from us.

While high school and college students are encouraged to do this, once we become adults, we become more set in our ways and spend time with our own flocks. If we need to be empathetic for the sake of our careers, it is vital that we do not stop relating to people who are totally different from us.

2.    Be an engaged participant

Observing from the sidelines is not enough. If you choose to volunteer your time, don’t hide in the background. Chat with the communities you are helping, try to relate to people at a human level. Suspend your judgement and truly try to empathize with those who have very different experiences than you do.

3.    Read fiction

Studies show that people who read fiction have higher levels of empathy than those who do not. Fiction forces us to feel compassion and empathy towards characters who are not like ourselves. So pick up a book that you wouldn’t normally read and practice relating to characters who are unlike anyone you know.

4.    Explore new neighborhoods

If you live in a major US city, there is a good chance that you haven’t explored all of the neighborhoods across town where none of your peers live. Spend a Saturday at an ethnic market where you don’t understand the language, grab lunch somewhere that you are a cultural outsider, try to relate to people for whom “organic”, “grass fed,” “gluten free” are not nutritional priorities.

5. Suspend judgement

Coming to research with a nonjudgmental approach can allow us to get to core of experiences that are completely unlike our own.

We know as researchers in the consumer realm that purchase habits are often reflective of lifestyle, values, and self- image. These perceptions of self that our research participants hold near and dear may be diametrically opposed to how we define our own personhood. Coming to research with a nonjudgmental approach can allow us to get to core of experiences that are completely unlike our own.

In short, relating to others is a skill. But the key is to strive for a more inclusive perspective that strengthens our abilities to empathize with diverse populations in our qualitative research.

About Jenny
Jenny Karubian is the founder of Lotus Research LLC, a boutique qualitative agency. Originally trained at the New School for Social Research and Emory University as a cultural anthropologist, Jenny is an active ethnographer and moderator. Her broad based experience in qualitative research spans across verticals that range from consumer goods to healthcare, entertainment, travel, food/beverage and pharmaceutical.

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