As people, we have no direct access to the experience of other human beings. It makes it nearly impossible for us, makers and marketers, to know completely what our audiences and customers want, or which ideas will resonate. We can only close this gap using empathy, hence the term empathy gap.
To pour our hearts and souls into our work and to spend our precious resources to bring ideas and products to market without simultaneously working hard to bridge the empathy gap that is inherent in our relationship with those we seek to serve, is, at best, naive, and, at worst, stupid.
Bridging the empathy gap is difficult mainly for two reasons.
First, we are self-centered by nature, though not in a selfish kind of way. To see things from another's perspective, for example, we don't actually consider how that person feels; in fact, it's impossible for us to see things from their perspective. Instead, we consider how WE would feel or act in the same situation. We have to use our moral imagination to put ourselves in others' shoes.
Second, reality as we know it is highly subjective. What we call life is merely a projection of our own reality, colored by our biology, beliefs, values, and past experiences.
Unless we can bridge the empathy gap, our human self-centeredness and the subjective nature of reality will make it impossible for us to produce work, share ideas and create brands that others will find compelling, useful and meaningful.
So as we embark on our respective journeys as makers and marketers, here are three powerful approaches we can take to bridge the empathy gap.
1. Embrace co-creation
In any form of human communication, the receiver has to decode information or signals to create meaning. Sender and receiver create meaning together. In the same token, every time we create something for other people, it immediately makes them co-creators.
If we embrace this fact, and treat those we seek to serve as co-creators by bringing them in earlier in the creation process, they will provide us with valuable feedback to make our ideas, products, experiences and brands even better.
As you navigate your way through this messy process of co-creation, have the humility and wisdom to embrace the critics but to ignore the non-believers.
2. Build a shared reality
A shared reality is any entity that serves as common ground for people with otherwise different beliefs, values, cultures, genders, ages, races, or political affiliations. Shared realities are glued together by common interests, beliefs, values, myths, or norms. And people within a shared reality usually develop a strong affiliation and feel a deep sense of belonging.
America is a shared reality. So are, sports teams, religions, political parties, and movements like Black Lives Matter. Harley Davidson is a shared reality for people who aspire to a life with more freedom and less conformity. Apple is a shared reality for people who Think Different. And Nike, a shared reality for those with the courage to Just do it.
By building a shared reality, we provide an opportunity for people to suspend their existing beliefs and abandon the filters they normally use to define themselves and to understand the world and their place in it. We bridge the empathy gap by creating a shared reality for those who can see and hear themselves in our ideas, and for those who aspire to the same ideals.
3. Follow the artistic path
In our attempt to see things from others’ perspectives, we have turned empathy into an outward pursuit. But I would argue that building empathy is an inward journey. Since we have no direct access to others’ experiences, the best way to understand them is to know ourselves at a deeper level and to connect with the most fundamental parts of what makes us human. The better we know ourselves, the more we can see and hear ourselves in others, even if their experience doesn’t at all mirror ours. I call it the paradox of empathy.
Artists understand this paradox very well. They don’t use market research or crowdsource ideas. They bet that if they bring something fundamental about who they are as people into their art, it will inevitably translate into the experiences of other people. They simply try to connect with themselves and the “Truth.”
As human beings, we all share the longing for happiness and fulfillment, but we don’t agree on how to get there. We all know shame, insecurity, doubt, envy or fear, but they have different triggers and we express them differently. Recognize these things in yourself and you will be able to relate to every human being. Focus on the substance and not the form.
Ultimately, whether we choose the messy process of co-creation, the metaphorical scenic route of building shared realities of the soul searching journey of artistic creation, there’s no escaping the emotional labor required to bridge our empathy gap in order to create work that is compelling, meaningful and impactful.