For some, the term empathy connotes soft emotions, sappy feelings and a general sense of the “warm and fuzzies,” all potentially incongruent with business, boardrooms and branding. Empathy, though, in its truest definition is a powerful tool, integral to the brand engagement process, leading to insights and innovation.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of empathy is “The power of projecting one’s personality into (and, so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” In the blog post “Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill,” Harvard Business Review (HBR) editor Katherine Bell writes, “It’s an act of imagination in which you try to look at the world from the perspective of another person, a human being whose history and point of view are as complex as your own. At all levels of management, empathy is a critical skill. If you can imagine a person’s point of view—no matter what you think of it—you can more effectively influence him.”

Although a broad spectrum of consumer information can be gathered from client meetings, online surveys, focus groups, ethnographies and other data-mining tools, the transformation from simple information toward insight and innovation occurs when everyone within both the client and brand consultancy incorporate empathy. This empathy toward the customer fosters positive solutions, but, just as important, is empathy among colleagues and client-partners.

In a recent HOW magazine article, “The Empathic Designer,” David Holston shared that “design success is often as much the result of the quality of the relationships formed with clients, as it is the quality of the design.”

5 Tips for Better Collaborative Design Relationships:

  1. Humility: The ability to control emotions at critical times, and to maintain a level of detachment is critical for managing productive client/designer relationships.
  2. Listening: Active listening techniques include restating ideas the client has suggested to reinforce the idea that you understand; being aware of body language that might communicate disinterest; focusing on the content of the conversation; prompting for details to better understand the client’s point; and, suspending judgment so as to not cut off communication.
  3. Questioning: Being able to ask meaningful and relevant questions not only prompts the client to provide more information, but also positions the designer in a lead role, not just a passive tactical role.
  4. Feedback: The ability to give positive and negative feedback is a key factor in creating trusting relationships.
  5. Transparency: By providing clients a transparent process in which they understand what is going to happen, when it will happen and what their roles and expectations are, designers take a step toward building strong relationships.

In HBR article, “Leadership in a Combat Zone,” Lieutenant General William Pagonis, director of logistics during the Gulf War, wrote “Owning the facts is a prerequisite to leadership. But there are millions of technocrats out there with lots of facts in their quivers and little leadership potential. In many cases, what they are missing is empathy. No one is a leader who can’t put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy and expertise command respect.”