On a Monday afternoon in late fall of 2018, a group of 30 or so adults in various interpretations of business-casual sat in neat rows of chairs facing a projector screen with the words “Applied Empathy” written across it. They had arrived minutes earlier, lanyards in tow, at the spacious West Village event room of Sub Rosa, a creative marketing agency whose clients include Pepsi, General Electric, and Nike, for a workshop on how to bring more empathy into their work. 

At the front of the room, Sub Rosa’s founder and CEO, Michael Ventura, stood before the glowing screen. Tall with long dark hair, a beard, and fashionably casual clothes, he exuded a kind of urban shaman vibe. As one of the Fast Track sessions at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, the 90-minute workshop promised to introduce attendees to Sub Rosa’s Applied Empathy methodology, a corporate leadership approach designed to “drive internal cultural change, build better products, and connect [businesses] more deeply with [their] audiences.” Ventura authored a book titled Applied Empathy and designed an Applied Empathy card game called Questions & Empathy that he describes as “a highbrow Cards Against Humanity—it escalates you from small talk to big talk ultra fast.” 

Ventura started the session with a vocabulary lesson. “I’ll begin by asking a fairly obvious question that we often ask ourselves: Why empathy?” he said, as attendees dug through their bags for a pen to take notes. Empathy, he continued, is a chronically misunderstood term, particularly in the business world. “People think empathy is about being nice, being compassionate, being sympathetic—it’s none of those things,” he said. At Sub Rosa, he explained, empathy has a broader meaning that extends well beyond its dictionary definition of “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

“We say empathy is self-aware perspective-taking to gain richer, deeper understanding,” he said. And all the niceties he mentioned before? Those are simply the side effects of being a more empathetic person. For companies like Sub Rosa that position themselves as design-centric problem solvers, developing a deeper understanding of their clients—or of their clients’ clients—has very real economic benefits. It can lead to more impactful campaigns and more memorable brand activations. It can produce more useful products and solve overlooked needs. 

Questions & Empathy Card Decks on display.

According to an organization called The Empathy Business, empathy is a quantifiable metric. In 2015 and 2016, the UK company released an Empathy Index, which ranked the top 100 companies based on an analysis of corporate culture, ethics, leadership performance, social media presence, and brand perception. Businesses can be good or bad at empathy, but the company argues that those who build an empathetic culture can see real economic benefits (Facebook ranked first in 2016, so take from the index what you will). “The top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings,” Belinda Parmar, founder of The Empathy Business wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2016. Another online report from the human resources startup Businesssolver found that in 2019, 91 percent of CEOs surveyed said they believe a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace, adding that empathy can motivate employees and improve productivity. 

The idea that soft skills can net hard numbers was boardroom catnip for many of the attendees, who were sent to the workshop on behalf of big companies like Microsoft, Kelloggs, and L’Oréal. Unlike other corporate self-improvement initiatives that have the scent of snakeoil, empathy has a hard-to-hate charm. What monster doesn’t believe having more empathy in business is a good thing?

But getting to the point where teams operate in truly empathetic ways takes work, Ventura reminded the crowd. Empathy is like a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it, it will atrophy into self-involved mush. The workshop—and the Applied Empathy methodology in general—is a first step toward recognizing your own biases and ultimately making better products and solutions for your clients. “When you get into the shoes of someone else, you’re able to really see something from their eyes and use that to inform the decision-making and the problem-solving you’re doing,” Ventura continued. “Does that make sense? Cool.”

Empathy everywhere

Turn on the news. Scroll through Twitter. Click on a stream of seemingly endless news stories with headlines like “How to Use Empathy to Get You What You Want” and “Discover Your Biggest Business Advantage—Empathy.”  In 2019, the drumbeat of “more empathy” is hard to escape. The term has become a cure-all salve for a time of deep divisiveness. If we’re to believe the news, it’s the stitching that can unite opposite sides of the political aisle. It’s the key to making technology less toxic and addictive. It’s the secret ingredient to ensuring your design is truly ‘human-centered.’ It’s also a hot commodity. 

The empathy economy is booming, and understandably so. Empathy is, in theory, the perfect antidote to the anger, tension, and world-weariness that so many people currently feel. The logical thinking goes: If everyone put themselves in another person’s shoes, they’d be able to see things differently. It’s a sentiment that, inevitably, people have learned how to profit from—perhaps nowhere more than in the design world where the concept of ‘user-centered design’ has become the default methodology. 

Right now you can go on Amazon and buy dozens of books that teach you how to use empathy as a leadership and marketing tool, and at least one that tells you empathy is total bullshit. You can hire a coach who will teach you how to be more empathetic or sign up for an online empathy skills training course that promises to teach you tips and tricks for imbuing your emails, body language, and verbal delivery with a sense of compassion.  

But the rise of the empathy economy isn’t a bulletproof path to hugs and happiness. With empathy’s rapid ascent into the communal medicine cabinet, there are new questions to consider, like: What happens when empathy becomes a marketable skill? Will its meaning become diluted as its worth ascends? And is empathy something you can learn—let alone buy?

Apparently it is. A few weeks after the Sub Rosa workshop, I found myself on the phone with Whitney Hess, an executive coach in New York City who offers coaching for individuals and businesses who are feeling stuck, adrift, unhappy, or some combination of the three. I found Hess by googling “empathy coach,” but she’s just one of a whole page of results advertising motivational language and corporate problem-solving advice. In the current climate, empathy is reliably a marketable—and thus SEO-able—term. 

For the better part of a decade, Hess has owned her eponymous consultancy, which boasts the tagline “Improving the human experience one say at a time.” Hess’s website tells me that she is a Myers-Briggs ENFJ (The Protagonist, The Teacher, The Giver) and that her conflict style is Accomodating (“you win, I lose”). Her services, which include things like “management coaching,” “facilitation and mediation,” and “narrative shifts,” make me feel like she’ll be able to guide me to a higher moral truth and help me make more money while I’m at it. 

Hess told me her coaching sessions are designed to peel back the layers of hardness and rationality that prevent people from confronting the emotional roadblocks and blind spots that can make it harder to truly connect with people. Most clients pay Hess for a package of sessions, but there’s also a pay-what-you-wish form on her website where people can decide on their own fee. The average payment for an hour-long session is $169. 

Hess is a former user experience designer who spent her early career wireframing apps and websites at digital agencies before she quit to make a go of it as an independent consultant. She says many UX designers and researchers are natural empaths who’ve found themselves in a position where their sensitive attunement to human nature is funneled toward a business goal. “I see all of user experience as being an empathy practice,” she said. “There’s a particular set of goals that we’re trying to achieve that are ultimately for the businesses’ benefit, but the vantage point of a user experience practitioner is, ‘How can I find the intersection between what the business wants and what the user needs?’”

UX research is predicated on uncovering gems of insight found only by gaining access to a user’s mind and emotions. To understand another person—better yet, to empathize with them—is to be able to make something they want and maybe even need. But for Hess, empathy isn’t just getting to the point where you can imagine where another person is coming from, it’s feeling where another person is coming from. “Empathy is actually a relatively new word in the English language,” she explained in her slow, deliberate cadence. “It comes from a German word that I’m going to butcher if I try to pronounce it, but the literal definition of it is ‘to feel into.’ I see ‘to feel into’ as being very different than ‘to feel for’ or ‘to understand.’”

That’s the main problem with empathy and design, Hess conceded. Lots of designers get caught up in the idea that empathy is merely understanding another person’s perspective. They approach empathy as another step in a user-centric design process or as a mental puzzle to solve rather than an emotional state to tap into. “I sometimes worry that in the field of design, when we talk about empathy, we really mean cognitive empathy,” she said. 

Empathy coaching is, in part, a way to strip away any notion that empathy is an item on a checklist or best practice in the design process. Hess is insistent that before people can practice empathy in their work, they must practice empathy with themselves, which tends to be a long and messy process. When I told her that empathy coaching sounds a lot like therapy, she quickly corrected my choice of words. “It’s not therapy. It’s not anything else—it’s coaching,” she said. “The work that I do with my clients is not explicitly about empathy. What I’m really doing with my clients is helping them to better understand their own feelings and needs. Because when we’re not self-connected, we are much less capable of connecting with others.”

This article was produced in partnership with AIGA Eye on Design. Part two of the story is continued here.