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Big Ideas

Michael Ventura: Empathy Is Your Best Creative Tool


Entrepreneur and author Michael Ventura has dedicated his career to exploring how empathy can make us better leaders, collaborators, and contributors to society. In his 99U talk, Michael explains that the practice of empathy “isn’t about being nice” — it’s about deep understanding, and learning to apply that understanding to incredibly effective ends.

About Michael Ventura: Michael Ventura is the CEO and founder of Sub Rosa, a strategy and design firm that has worked with some of the world’s largest and most important brands, organizations, and start-ups, including Johnson & Johnson, Pantone, Adobe, TED, Delta Airlines, and The Daily Show.

Michael has served as a board member and adviser to a variety of organizations, including Behance, the Burning Man Project, Cooper-Hewitt, and the UN’s Tribal Link Foundation. He is also a visiting lecturer at institutions such as Princeton University and the United States Military Academy at West Point. In addition to these pursuits, Michael leads a thriving indigenous medicine practice, where he helps patients address illness and injury of all types on the road to better well-being. A passionate entrepreneur, he also owns and operates a globally recognized design store in New York’s West Village with his wife, Caroline.

Applied Empathy, his first book, was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2018. 

Full Transcript

Hey everybody.

It’s not about being nice. This sentence I have said probably more than any other time in my life when we’ve been sitting in a room talking with clients about empathy. Because there’s this preconceived notion that empathy is about being nice, or being sympathetic, or being compassionate. It’s none of those things, those are side effects of empathy. What we’re going to talk about today is how to really build a practice of empathy. How to use it in your work, how to define it in a different way, and ultimately how to bring it into the work in order to solve problems and be a better collaborator with people.

But before we talk about what it is, I would like to talk a little bit about: why empathy? What led us to it? I’m sure there are other masochists in this room who run services businesses besides myself. And when you do that, you have these decks that put on a screen and you take people through all of your service capabilities and somewhere in the first few slides you probably have something in italics that says, “This is what makes us special”. And we one day asked ourself, “What is our thing?”

I had been running the business a few years at that point. The company is 10 years old now. And we didn’t really know. We knew we had done some good work, we knew we had some work that wasn’t so great. And so we made a project team out of it. And we went back over a few years worth of work, and we really interrogated it. And we said what made that good? Why did that work so well? Why did that fail? And every time we asked that question the answer kept coming back to empathy.

We realized our best work really brought it to the center and we used it as a part of the process. And our worst work we ignored it entirely and we shut the door and said wouldn’t it be cool if… and we played the game of just getting high on our own supply instead of actually going out and learning something. And it’s important to note that empathy is human. We’ve heard that just in the last session a couple times. Right? This is something that’s inbred in us. It’s in our DNA, we have wanted to understand and to be understood since we scratched images on cave walls. Since we tried to tell our stories. Since we tried to communicate with someone else. This is part of us. Yes, some of us have more than others. For sure. But I do believe it is a trainable, learnable skill. But there are different types of empathy. And I think this is an important thing to bring up in the context of this conversation. When you look into the psychology of empathy, there are three often types that emerge.

The first is affective empathy. I like to think of this as sort of golden rule empathy. This is: I’ve been sad before, I know you’re sad now, I’m going to treat you the way I would have wanted to be treated when I was sad, right? That requires a good deal of EQ. It also can be wrong because maybe you want to be left alone, maybe I want to be consoled. Right, it puts too much of us in the process, it lets our bias slip in. Right? So while it’s great, and of course we do want to try to build more empathy and more emotional intelligence, it’s not always the right way to bring it into business because it does get a little cloudy, it does get a little murky.

The second: somatic empathy, also pretty challenging to bring into business. This is sort of like sympathy pains when your spouse is pregnant or something like that when you’re physically feeling the emotions of someone else. Not really an easy thing to plug into business. But cognitive empathy is something we can bring into business, this is about perspective taking. This is about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and just seeing it from their perspective. Without bringing too much of yourself into it.

And so we developed an approach which we call ‘Applied Empathy’, italics. Which is self-aware perspective taking to gain richer, deeper understanding. And we field tested this. We didn’t want to just put it in a deck and then say, “This is our jam” and hope for the best. So what we did instead is we went out into the world and said, “Let’s not go to clients first.” Because clients are picky, clients move fast, and we haven’t really field tested this yet so what we did instead was we went out to academia and we actually said, “Let’s create a 12 week curriculum. And let’s teach this. And let’s have undergrads beat it up with us and let’s see if we can figure out how to bring it to bear in a way that feels robust and thoughtful and expansive.”

So we went down to Princeton and we actually taught it for three semesters down there. It became the number one student ranked class on campus and we were able to actually use it as a means to really teach engineering, computer science, and entrepreneurial students how to use empathy in their thought process. And one day the phone rang at my desk and on the little caller ID, it said ‘US Government’ and I had a panic attack because why wouldn’t you? And I answer the phone and he says, “Hi, this is Captain Bachmeyer from the United States Military Academy at West Point.” Second panic attack. And then he said, “We’ve been following what you’ve been doing with empathy and we think it would be really interesting to bring you guys up to West Point to teach the generals.”

And I know what I look like and my hair’s tied back so it’s even better now but I knew what this was going to feel like walking on campus being like this hippie guy walking around talking about empathy, right? And I sit in a room with this three-star, career military general and I said, “Why am I here? I have no idea why this is of interest to you.” And this was my bias, right? This was me showing up with the wrong preconceived notions about why this might be interesting and he said something that blew my mind. He said, “We’re a military governed by civilians. If we don’t know how to perspective take, if we don’t know how to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, into the shoes of Congress, into the shoes of American people then we’re just blindly doing what we’re told and going out and fighting wars and perhaps dying. We have to be able to perspective take, we have to be able to understand. We have to be able to move with the influences from the outside world but also within the influences of ourself and really be connected to our own intuition.”

Not what I expected to hear. He also said, “Most people don’t stay in the military after their tour. They’re gonna probably go to the private sector and I want people to know when they see West Point on a CV, that they’re getting an empathic leader.” And I always try to share that when I give this talk because it just showed me it was a really important learning lesson in my life about the bias I was bringing into things and how I was coloring situations before I could actually see what really was going to happen.

So after that, and with a quick stint for 18 months with the Obama administration, actually testing this in Native American Country and in National Parks, actually using this with education around working with children. We were able to see that this was working, and then we rolled it out to clients. We had a couple brave clients who wanted to work with it first and we started to do that and it expanded since then.

But why do we need to apply it? We need to apply it because empathy unto itself is passive. I could have really deep understanding for you but then do nothing with it, right? It is in the application of empathy that the rubber meets the road. But what’s important to note is cognitive empathy is also neutral in that it’s not always good it’s not always bad, it’s what you do with that understanding that is either good or bad. It’s not like affective empathy. Affective empathy you would always kind of want something good because it’s ultimately you projecting what you would want, it’s that Golden Rule, right? But cognitive isn’t that way. So when I think about something like what Cambridge Analytica did in the last election cycle: deep understanding, really understood people, understood the way they thought, understood their behaviors, manipulated their news cycle, gave them a certain set of information, and ultimately influenced their behaviors. It’s a nefarious use of empathy. It’s a controversial way of thinking about it. Not everyone agrees with me when I talk about it that way, but it is what it is. Sociopaths, some sociopaths are great empaths. They really know how to manipulate you, right, cognitively speaking.

And so, empathy comes with an obligation. It comes with a moral code of conduct. If we’re going to have more data in the world than we did yesterday, we’re going to have to be clear with ourselves, we’re going to have to be clear with our teams, we’re going to have to be clear with our organizations and our customers, our users. How are we using this information? And are we going to be ethical? And is it going to be used for the right reasons? It’s not easy to use empathy. It’s not easy to train empathy.

This is probably the most important slide in the whole deck. This is the thing we talk about with clients all the time, it slows things down before it speeds them up. You have to ask the hard question. You have to take the extra 15 minutes. You have to be willing to put in the work, in order to get where you want to go. But when you do it, after a while it starts to become part of your process. It starts to speed things up again and the net effects of it start to become real. But we have to ask ourselves: Are we willing to address what comes up? Are we willing to change the things that emerge when you go deep?

So we developed these different frameworks because strategy people love frameworks. So we put a couple of them together and I’ll share them with you and I’ll show you what we did with them in practice. The first one we call ‘The Whole Self’. We mapped the self in seven different frames. The physical self, your physical body you have to have some empathy for that. You have to be aware, you have to understand, you have to commit to understanding it in a certain way. So just a quick exercise everyone get decently comfortable in your chair, and do me a favor; take a long, slow, deep breath. Seven seconds in, hold it for seven seconds, exhale for seven seconds. When’s the last time you took a breath like that? For some of you it might be weeks, right? Some of us just use our bodies like an Uber taking our brain and mouth to meetings, right? We’re just, like move it into here and talk and then we’re gonna do it over here and we’re just gonna keep going all day long. But there is an important connection to this right?

The emotional self. I go into rooms with large organizations and I’ll ask them think about the emotion you most commonly feel at work. And it’s devastating how often that answer is a negative emotion. And when you ask the follow-up question do you have control over that emotion are you choosing to come to work angry? People don’t think about that, they don’t know maybe I could change my own way of showing up everyday but maybe I don’t, but maybe I don’t bother to think about it. Maybe I have to change a little bit with myself in order to get that way. This type of introspection is important. If you can’t have empathy for yourself it’s going to be very difficult to have empathy for others.

The inspired self: what gets you out of bed in the morning? The community self: who are you giving energy to and who takes from you? The intellectual self: what are you working on, what are you developing, what skills are you acquiring? The mindful self: everyone talks about mindfulness in business, for me it’s just about presence. How often are you present with people? Are you on your device? Are you answering emails, are you really there connecting meaningfully with someone?

And your aspirational self: what’s the big picture? What are you here to do? What do you want to do? Are you doing it? These are the types of questions we do with leadership teams to help them really start to understand how to push forward through this to get a connection to themself so that they can ultimately lead teams and inspire them to do this for each other. What about empathy for others? We had to build something for that too. And of course it was going to have some kind of new age language. And so we developed this one, which is seven empathic archetypes. I’ll walk through all seven very briefly just to give you a sense of how we think about them.

The first is the Sage: be present, inhabit the here and now. Being present with someone is sometimes all you need to do to signal that you’re willing to understand them, that you want to learn something from them. The Inquirer: great question asker. Know how to ask the question under the question. Really unlock something, I think of them sometimes as like the therapist. The Convener: knows how to host. Knows how to hold space, knows how to create the environment where people are invited in, are willing to share. The Confidant’s a great listener, they’re not listening, planning what they want to say, which is what a lot of people do. They’re listening genuinely to hear you. The Cultivator is a committer, they see the big picture. They know how to bring that future state into the now and inspire people to get there. Build connection and understanding. Seeker’s daring, confident, unafraid to take risks. And the Alchemist is an experimenter, a prototyper.

Now what’s different than this that a Meyers-Briggs or a StrengthsFinder or a DISC or any of the other personality assessments is I don’t think any of you are one. I think you have the capacity to be all. But you probably have strengths and weaknesses. And so what we want to do is build diverse empaths. People who can, at times, can drop into the Sage because someone needs to know you’re present. But at other times, be a really great question-asker, because that’s what you need to be. That versatility with empathy is where you really start to build a muscle that’s effective in all different sorts of circumstances. So I’ll tell you a quick story about how we used it for a client.

So GE approached us a few years ago with a brief to redesign their mammography business. And they said, “Look, we don’t have a ton of market share, we’re third in category. We’re working on machine innovation but machine innovation is gonna take too long for us to make meaningful change in the near term. We need to grow market share faster than the products can get to market. So you can’t change our product, you’ve got five months, help us figure out how to use empathy to spur growth in this category.”

Sounds like a daunting brief, but yes we took it on. And what we did was we used those whole self frameworks and those archetypes and started to think about how we could change things. And so I’ll show you first some of the things we did with the archetypes. So we took a space, we didn’t take a space in a hospital, we didn’t take a space in some office building, we took a space at retail level, down in SoHo. We said, “We want to meet people where they are. We want to have real conversations.” And we invited them in and we knew how to hold space for them to actually give us the right information we needed in the research. And when they talked, we listened. We asked good questions, and we were good Inquirers. Right? We signaled to them we were there to really learn, we weren’t just going through the pro forma steps. We were really willing to understand things in a different way. And we were Alchemists. We had a lab where we prototyping ideas the whole time, we ran this program for a month during October, basically building all of these insights in real time with consumers so that in November we could deliver our report to GE and make some recommendations. And we put the whole self in practice too. We talked with women about the physical experience of getting a mammo. It’s a painful process, pretty much everybody knows that. 87% of the women we talked to said the number one reason they don’t get screened on the 12-month basis is that the memory of pain so significant that you put it off. Now, that’s an important thing for women to do for their own health, it’s also an important for hospitals to have more frequent visitation because ultimately that’s how it drives their business model. And GE, same thing, right? So this isn’t just about patients this is also a business case we’re trying to solve. 87% said the number one reason is pain. 82%, any guesses what the number two complaint of the experience was? You can shout it out.

[Audience Member] It’s a lot of fear.

Fear, someone said cold, I heard a little cold whisper. Yeah, it’s cold. 64 degrees fahrenheit. Average temperature in an exam room. It’s a cold room and you’re in that dopey gown going through a stupid experience that you don’t want to go through in the first place. You’re terrified about the results you might get at the end of the line. It’s an uncomfortable experience, top to bottom. The emotional self is firing throughout that whole process. You’re really thinking about, “Oh God, what am I going to find out?” The tranches, we found, were actually the most emotional time. The time between making the appointment and having the exam. And the time between having the exam and getting the results. So could we do something about that? Could we do something about the temperature? Could we do something about the community you find yourself in? Who can you talk to when you’re going through this? Not everyone has a friend or a family member they can talk to and release this kind of stress and worry that they’re going through. How can we build a community experience? And ultimately, aspirationally, what do you want? How can we makes sure that your family feels cared for? A lot of people have hereditary issues that when they think about get a mammo they’re worried about what’s going to happen for their daughter. They’re worried about what happened to their mother. This sort of line, this chain of command of worry really starts to play a role too.

And so some of the insights we found led us to have a different type of conversation with GE. We went to the engineers at GE and we said, “What would happen if we increased the temperature from 64 degrees?” And they said, “Well that’s the optimal temperature for the lifespan of the machine.” Yeah. And we said, so what would happen? And they said well it’s not optimal, but if you increase the temperature by 10 degrees it’s not going to hurt the test. But there was no human factors person on that whole journey that ever asked that question before. Right? Redesigning the gowns, changing the lighting in the exam room, the smell of the exam room. Making sure that the magazines in the lobby were current. You know? Like all of those little things that were not the machine ultimately ended up designing a new experience for GE that increased the efficacy of the tests by 12%. We can find 12% more cancer by making the experience more empathic. The machine did the exact same thing it did a few months earlier. But by creating an experience that was patient-led, human-first, empathic, and understanding of these people’s needs we were actually able to give them something that was more meaningful and ultimately changed their business.

GE’s chairman got up at a conference shortly after we delivered these findings and he said, “We are not just selling products we’re now selling products and services. We’re designing women’s centers inside hospitals.” So much like you want to go to a certain hospital because they have a doula or a birthing room or whatever it is that you’re interested in to have your child, you can now go to certain hospitals that have GE imaging centers. That are designed with a patient-first mentality that brings empathy into the process. And it spurred their business’s growth. GE had a hard few years, undoubtedly, but the healthcare business is actually seeing some growth because of this work, because they’ve seen this really be an important component of their business.

So where do we go from here? It’s important to remember that empathy goes in all directions, right? We have to go inward. We have to do that whole self work. To figure out what’s up with us. We also have to go external. We have to go out and understand each other. To ask those hard questions, we have to take the extra five minutes. We should look in the past, make sure we understand what we’re taking with us into the present but also remember that the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason. We want to also look at where we’re going. And make sure we get there the right way.

And you can expect results from empathy. Decisions become more understandable, they become more inclusive. Organizations feel like people understand things better when we’re using empathy. We see it every day. Teams get more collaborative. They get more productive. In the past 18 months we have seen so many briefs come in our door for diversity and inclusion issues because organizations hadn’t been asking these types of questions. Because they hadn’t been doing the work to be collaborative and productive and inclusive and understandable. And companies get more responsible, they get more resilient, they get more responsive when they bring this into practice.

But it takes practice. Probably the second most important slide. It’s not something you switch on. It’s a muscle you train. It’s something that you do every day. And in time, it starts to become part of your work. Seven encouragements, seven things we think about when we go in and talk with clients. There are important things to remind clients of. Be curious, be willing to explore and understand this. There’s going to be interesting things you will uncover. Be honest. Don’t be afraid to share what’s actually going on. If you’re short-changing the process, you’re short-changing yourselves. Be vulnerable. It’s important to share all of it. And to be willing to put yourself on a limb in order to get where you wanna go. Be open-minded. Because things will not be what you expect. That temperature thing we never predicted in a million years, but just by asking the right question, it emerged. Be selfless. Be generous with yourself and your time. Be undeterred. Don’t give up. Because this is a thing that requires attention and requires commitment. And be brave, because this isn’t something everybody is willing to do. But if you are willing to do it, you can see change inside your organization.

And now is the time. We live in probably one of the most divided worlds we’ve ever lived in. It’s challenging. It’s scary. There are things happening socio-politically. There are things happening militarily. There are things happening culturally that are pushing us all further and further apart. The divisions, the fissures that are cracking between each of us are terrifying and they are not getting any better. And I’m not here to tell you that empathy is the only way to solve that. But it’s a start. It’s the beginning of a process. It’s the beginning of inquiry. It’s the beginning of getting to a place where you can start to understand each other better. And perhaps pull some of those fissures closer. The clock is ticking. I hope we’ll do it together.

Thank you.

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