Want a break from yourself? Show some empathy
A view from Sue Unerman

Want a break from yourself? Show some empathy

Feeling what someone else is feeling is energising because it takes you away from your natural self-obsession, so why not take a step outside the ad agency bubble and see what benefits it can bring both personally and professionally

Sympathy is exhausting. Empathy gives you energy.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is feeling pity and compassion, and it can be exhausting. 

What is empathy?

Empathy is actually feeling what someone else is feeling. 

It is not imagining how someone is feeling by putting yourself in their shoes. It’s a nice thing to do, of course. But it is different from real empathy. The phrase many people use is imagine walking a mile in their shoes. I heard one chief marketer say that he took some shoes that his customers might wear to a board meeting so that the senior management could try them on. It is a worthy thing to do, and it does take some effort. But it is not empathy.

The example I use in our book Belonging to illustrate this is of a pet cat. Pet cats like to bring their owners presents. The best way that they can show their love for their owner is to bring them a present that they themselves would love to receive. Usually this is a dead bird or a dead mouse. It is, of course, usually received with horror by the recipient. This is a superb example of a lack of real empathy. 

A cat with empathy would never bring a present like this. (A cat with empathy would clean your house for you, or bring you new trainers.)

Empathy is really stepping into the skin of the other person, into their head, it's close to being possessed temporarily by them. And that’s why it is energising, because the real act of empathy is taking a brief holiday from being yourself, and your natural self-obsession. 

American writer David Foster Wallace said: “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”

To stop doing this, even for a few moments, gives you a break from yourself. And a break, as many of us appreciate even more this year when we have been not just working from home, but living at work, is as good as a rest. 

We have a technique that we use at MediaCom for this in particular – Method Insight. Named (by my colleague Steve Gladdis) for the technique that actor Robert De Niro famously used to prepare for his Oscar-nominated role in Martin Scorsese’s film, Taxi Driver. To get into the right mindset to play the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, De Niro literally took to the New York streets in a yellow cab. For two weeks prior to shooting, he trawled the streets day and night, developing a feel for life from the driver’s seat in the seedier areas of New York. It was essential preparation for his job. 

This was not only an arduous undertaking that showed off the star’s willingness to put in the hard yards required to achieve a great performance, but it was also downright dangerous. The areas around Precinct 75, where De Niro would patrol, were notorious crime hubs and, often, that would spill from the streets into the backseat.

De Niro has said: “I look at it from the character’s point of view.”  Not his own, but really inhabiting another person.

How does this apply to planning?

We ask every planner to live the experience of the business they work on – this might mean going on a shopping expedition with the target audience. It might mean delivering groceries, delivering sofas, spending time with sales leads and at call centres. We ask them to be conscious and aware of paying attention to what they observe and not consider it from their own point of view but by inhabiting the point of view of others. From this, comes the insight that leads to great work.

Really being open to other people's lived experiences, not seeing them from an ad agency bubble, allows you to have real empathy and not just sympathy with the brand and the buyers. It’s essential preparation for the job. 

Sympathy is tiring. 

Empathy gives you energy.

It’s as if you are going on holiday from yourself.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom