I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. Maybe you have, too.
By its very definition, empathy involves connecting with others to understand how they feel. And we’ve never been more connected. With Skype and Hangouts, social media and instant messaging, friends and family are never far away. Making a new connection is as easy as sending a Facebook request or clicking “follow.”
With a new year ahead and Newtown still on our minds, now seems like a good time to ask the obvious question. With all this technology, are we actually having better, more fulfilling human interactions? Or is technology disconnecting us from nurturing the deep ties we need to be, well, human?
And if social media is part of the problem, can it also be the solution?
We’re Becoming Less Empathetic
Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, told The New York Times that the ultimate risk of technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.
“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.”
If you need proof beyond recent events that empathy is on the decline, look no further than a 2010 study of college students performed at the University of Michigan.
It showed that students are more narcissistic than ever before, and 40% less empathetic than students of just 20 years ago. When it comes to the ability to see things from another’s point of view or feel how someone else is feeling, we’re getting worse.
The study’s authors speculate that social media, among other factors, may to be blame, writing:
“The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline.”
Is Social Media To Blame?
But blaming social media assumes that online relationships are less “real” than physical relationships — that they don’t require empathy or can’t create a deep connection.
I know many members of the Marketing Land community might disagree with this assumption. Luckily, there’s an alternate view.
Author and economist Jeremy Rifkin posits that empathy is wired in all of us — that it’s in our nature to experience another’s plight as if we are feeling it ourselves.
This is what fuels the sense of belonging that makes social media so special. We go to forums, Facebook, Twitter and other networks to find others who are having the same feelings and experiences that we are, and we become part of a shared experience.
And social media is especially good at turning empathy into action. How else can we explain the overwhelming virality of the #26acts hashtag — a pledge many are making to do 26 good deeds in honor of the victims of the Newtown massacre.
The empathy was out there. It just needed a place to go. One social media voice mobilized a community into action.
Where Does This Leave Us?
In a marketing climate where the focus is on creating great content and being the most interesting, it’s easy to miss the most important element for meaningful relationships: empathy.
We experience lots of “shallow” social media interactions every day: likes, retweets, follows. But social media also creates an important opening for deeper, real, connections and relationships. Is it possible to market with empathy? I think so. Here’s how to start.
Asking: In social media and in person, ask questions and listen to the answers. Ask unexpected questions. Ask real questions. Be interested in what others have to say. It not only create empathy, it gives you greater knowledge about your customers, how they feel and what they want.
Listening: Not monitoring, but listening. Hear what someone is saying and attempt to understand their point of view. When we listen without the goal of adding our own commentary or selling something, we cannot help but feel empathy.
Responding: Respond to questions and comments — even angry ones — with honesty and humanity. Let the other person know that you understand and empathize with their viewpoint, even if you disagree.
Understanding: You can’t solve problems or even create great content for your audience until you understand them. Put yourself in their shoes. Get to know them individually. Create personas to help you understand who they are and what they need.
Connecting: Humans crave real relationships. Whenever you have an opportunity, move the relationship forward — whether that means a Skype chat, an in-person dinner or a care package to the office. Over time, empathy builds a rapport that allows people to feel connected to each other.
In 2013, I’m challenging myself to use social media to connect more deeply. To personalize instead of automate. To feel before I sell.
I’m challenging myself to empathize, even when it isn’t easy. I don’t know what it’ll do for traffic and conversions. But I have an idea of what it’ll do for my soul.
You can join me, too. Could we move beyond the click of a button to real compassion and empathy? What would it look like if we did?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.