The most important skill? Empathy

In previous posts I've talked about the importance of wonder and humility. These are two of the the three things necessary to develop and bring to life a Big Audacious Meaning. The third is empathy.

While humility guides how we act, it could be argued that empathy defines how we interact. With empathy, we hope to understand others and feel what they feel. Then we use that newfound insight to guide how we interact with others. That interaction can be everything from a one-to-one relationship to a product we develop.


Consider it a skill

As my kids were growing up, it was important to my wife and I that they understand and develop a sense of empathy for those around them. It was our belief that empathy would help them not only be good human beings, but also help them become intuitive problem solvers.

For me, empathy was the most important skill I hoped that they would learn (not that we didn’t have many a stern conversation concerning math, English, etc.) I use the word ‘skill’ intentionally here. I believe that while we’re all endowed with the ability to empathize (unless, of course, you’re a sociopath), ultimately empathy must be practiced and honed.

Fooling ourselves

It’s easy to believe we are practicing empathy when really, it’s just sympathy we’re expressing. Sympathy is us feeling sorry for someone. It can be conveyed in a greeting card with a sentiment like, "I'm sorry for your loss." But empathy is too nuanced to be captured with a one-liner. Empathy requires more of us. Because having true empathy means attempting to understand how a fellow human being feels. That means stepping into her shoes and walking a mile or two to get a feeling of what it's like to be in her situation.

Compared to sympathy, empathy requires a deeper emotional commitment.

It requires a dedication to our fellow man (or woman). We have to listen and learn. We have to suspend our own agenda. We have to dedicate ourselves to helping them discover how to accomplish their goals.

That takes a servant’s heart. If we're interrupting people to tell them how to solve their problem, it's a good bet that we need to work on our empathy.

Why empathy is worth the bother

Empathy is quickly becoming a lost ability. Today's hectic pace makes it challenging to take time to really understand someone and develop genuine empathy. Which may explain why it seems to be in short supply.

But empathy can help us do some pretty great things. For starters, it helps us to connect with others because it telegraphs that we are honestly attempting to relate to them. More impressively, it can help us develop groundbreaking ideas.

When we truly understand those we're serving, we can create things that really get to the heart of their need.

More than that, it allows us to do it in a way that respects and preserves the dignity of those we are serving.

Have you ever had that feeling that a product, service, or experience was designed specifically for you? It’s like someone climbed inside your head, figured out what was important, and then created something that felt incredibly relevant and personal. You can bet that when this product/service/experience was developed, it was done with great empathy.

These are the kind of innovations that win hearts as well as minds. They are the things that get talked about, and recommended. In fact, when an innovation creates advocates or even evangelists, it’s safe to assume there is a great sense of empathy at the core.

Empathy & design thinking

More and more organizations are discovering the power of tapping into empathy to fuel innovation through a process known as design thinking.

Design thinking speeds the discovery of relevant and meaningful solutions by taking into consideration human emotions and behaviors. This methodology ensures that the solutions align with the needs and wants of our prospects.

Through empathy, we begin to understand how those we are serving think, act, and feel.

It’s not always an easy road. As we were trying to improve the empathy at our firm, we hit some bumps. I remember a number of years ago describing to one of our programmers how our users were having trouble with a system that we had developed. He told me, “They're dumb. They’re using it wrong.” Needless to say, we had a bit of an empathy deficiency. If users are having trouble with what we developed, the last thing they want to hear is that they’re dumb.

I understood the programmer's point of view. The system was designed in what seemed to be the most logical manner. The thing is, humans are far from logical. So we can build solutions based on the way we think they ought to use the system. Or we can use design thinking to empathize, ideate, and iterate in order to create a solution that intuitively matches they way they want to use it.

Powering a Big Audacious Meaning

Beyond the innovations lies something even greater that empathy can help us pursue. A Big Audacious Meaning. It’s the difference we can make in a life, a community, or even the world. This is where the full potential of empathy can be realized.

To take on such an exceptional purpose naturally requires nothing short of an equally exceptional amount of empathy for those we hope to serve. If we really want to make a difference, we must have genuine understanding of what they face and how they feel. That’s no easy task. But that is what makes it so worthwhile. There is no greater feeling than to know that you have made a significant difference for another.

Humility prepares us for the challenge. Wonder helps open our eyes to the possibilities for addressing the challenge. But it is empathy that ensures that what we deliver is relevant and meaningful for all those that we serve.

That thought makes me want to work a little more on my empathy.

Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at

PurposeDan Salva