The Innovator’s Secret Weapon – Empathy Part 2

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How good are you at putting yourself into someone else’s shoes?

I’d like you to form a mental picture. Recall a time when as a child you felt left behind, perhaps by an impatient parent or older sibling. You were tired and having trouble keeping up but despite your complaints, they just kept going. How did you feel? Frustrated? Angry? Maybe so angry that you defiantly stood your ground and refused to even try to catch up.

If you had younger siblings, you may have been the one leaving them behind, or maybe your were a middle child who experienced both. Being left to struggle alone may have left such an impression on you that you can still remember the exact occasion when it happened…and it was not fun.

It’s a universal experience that we don’t entirely escape as adults. There are times when we may still feel left behind. Maybe it’s a social slight, or a class where we struggle to follow the instructor, or listening to a colleague’s confusing presentation. Think how you feel trying to figure out how to operate a new piece of software or camera or smart phone, especially when the documentation is poor. Do you get frustrated? Angry? (I do.)

In my last post, I talked about the importance of having empathy for your customers, but there’s another crucial way that innovators need this key personal capability. It’s when you’re pitching a new idea.

Empathy is more than knowing what someone needs or understanding how they feel. It’s more than being sympathetic. Empathy is being able to genuinely experience their emotional state, their desires and expectations and frustrations.

When you have an idea—one that’s truly a breakthrough—you’re going to be a little ahead of everyone else almost by definition (or you’re not being very innovative). Sometimes folks can quickly connect the dots and catch up, but often they can’t. You’re several steps ahead and they’re struggling to understand how you got there—and it’s not their fault that they’re struggling. On the contrary, you’re the one that found a new path, one that they’re not on yet. If anyone knows how to follow it, you do. And to clearly communicate how to find this new path, you need empathy. You need to remember what it was like to not know where the path is and the steps you went through to discover it. If you expect others to follow you, to embrace your idea, you have to begin where they are, not where you are, and explain how to reach this new destination.

In other words, it’s your responsibility to enable them to “get it.” It’s your challenge. And if you don’t have the empathy and the patience to help others see what you see, then you will likely fail to win the support you need. Adults, even more than children, have a tendency to dig in when they feel that left-behind sense of frustration, and defiantly stand their ground.

So the next time you get impatient when others don’t quickly embrace your ideas, remember what it feels like to be on the other side of that gap. You need to become skilled at figuring out where your audience is and how to bring them to where you want them to be. Take time to figure out exactly where they are coming from. Ask questions. Observe. Reflect on the context and what their role and motives may be. Anticipate their questions and concerns. Expect skepticism. Then, figure out what the intermediate steps need to be to bring them to where you are.

There’s an old saw about persuading an audience that goes: They don’t care how much you know; they want to know how much you care. Just making an effort to understand and relate to their perspective can be disarming. So show some empathy. You may find that it pays big dividends in gaining crucial allies and selling your ideas.

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