Active empathy

28 Mar, 2019

Last week I went to a morning talk at the Financial Services Forum on “Where does financial services need to try harder?”. After we got past the initial jokey comments about “everywhere”, there seemed to be a number of clear themes. As I sat there with my coffee slowly working its magic on my brain the word I could not get out of my head that summed up everything I was hearing was “empathy”, or rather the lack thereof.

Whether it’s insurance payouts and companies getting into much publicised arguments about what they should and should not pay out on based on technicalities; or trying to work out why people aren’t investing enough for the future. Or companies scoring spectacular PR own goals by sending threatening legal letters to journalists. There are simply too many examples of FS businesses making decisions with seemingly scant regard for what the impact will be on those at the other end.

That is not to say that the people who make up these businesses aren’t empathetic. The problem is a systemic lack of empathy; these businesses really struggle to make decisions that take into account an outside perspective. The reason for this is that the processes that have been constructed for decision making never encourage a true outside view. Too often the question is: will this be signed off by person X on the board, rather than what will our customers think.

This is where we can help, I see our role as to encourage “active empathy”. If you ask people if they have empathy, all, aside from the psychopaths, would say that they do. But I think we should challenge that empathy more, and help clients to be more active in their empathy. Encourage them to step outside of their processes and look at their decisions from an external perspective. For example, if they are briefing an ad targeted at advisers, we should sit with an adviser early in the process, have a proper chat with them. Learn to see them as real people with hopes and fears. Get under the skin of the rational, and, through better understanding, develop communications that engage at the more powerful, emotional, level. With empathy.