Empathy, Intuition and the Simulated Self

It’s not clear why and when “intimacy” got benched in favor of “empathy”, except for the veneer of professionalism that the latter term wears. Or maybe it’s because intimacy comes with responsibility, while empathy somehow doesn’t carry that burden.

Regardless, the same essential practical competency is involved: the ability to grasp importance and relevance from the point of view of the other party.

Here the idea of “grasp”means awareness and ideally a felt awareness, but which need not be exclusive nor permanent. It’s ultimate manifestation is “predisposition”, which seeks to be actionable “preference”.

So for Empathy Pros, your minimum practice mechanism is to walk a mile in the other party’s shoes, then to “answer surveys” about how things (events, decisions, conditions) in that experience were meaningful — and compare your answers to theirs.

Role-playing in simulations is a no-brainer approach to pulling this off. But it isn’t a solo act. Coaching readily both stages simulation and manages the feedback loop — something thoroughly typical in sports, acting, ensembles, and the military — with one key point being that the outcome of empathy practice is not “product” but instead “behavior”.

The “business” purpose of the practice is to understand the behavior in a way that offers more intelligence for decision support to the practitioner.

The illusion of Technique

But does this intelligence also have, inherently, a limited “veracity”? After all, role playing can easily be a situation in which the player experiences the simulation mainly through their own biases, instead of with a more “neutral” POV or a POV presumed to offer mostly a “common denominator” of sensitivity with the subject.

One of the functions of the coach is to guide the player away from bias without diminishing the potential for the player to use both acuity and intuition.

For the purpose of what follows here, the base distinction between acuity and intuition is as information suppliers: acuity intends to draw information from what can be recognized in the presentation of the data of the moment, independently of prior decisiveness; it is allied with being explicit, and “conscious”. Intuition instinctively draws information from what has previously become known regardless of the current moment; it is allied with being implicit, and “sub-conscious”.

In both cases just described, we refer to “information”, but we are really talking about how our cognitive behaviors use information to produce sensitivity.

The value of the sensitivity — the significance of the difference that it makes — is as guidance. In effect, it provides the “dashboard” that shows whether what continues to happen and (Websters) /or (Boolean) what proceeds to be done is relevant, compatible, and desirable, versus a need or goal.

In that way, we conclude whether a current status is different from a previous one, and we understand whether we want anything from this point further to change or not.

MG TD dash, fotolibra.com via Roger E Holfert

What then remains to be considered is who should be the beneficiary of that awareness, and how to do whatever should be done next, according to the goal.
That is the point at which the practical “boundaries” of synthetic empathy become clear:
  • awareness gained through simulation cannot be trusted without validating its similarity to the subject’s own awareness
  • that validation requires interacting with the subject, but that interaction can change the subject’s own awareness
  • the awareness gained is itself not automatically the highest authority for directing what comes next

Net: after the attempt to develop empathy, what we think we “know” as the subject, that is, the idea of the subject that we have formed, may be decisive yet still insufficient… it can be expected only to be advisory. The gap betweenimpersonation and personification can be just as large as it was beforehand. As a result, the requirement is not to do it and stop; the requirement is to keep doing it over and over, even if the results-to-date are not encouraging.

Street Cred

Aficionados of Empathy must also acknowledge the difference between the directives, “Walk a mile in my shoes” versus “Walk a mile in shoes like mine”. The issue here is entertaining to phrase but it raises a multitude of practical questions about how to define “effectiveness” for the effort to develop and use empathy. It stands to reason that before even talking about an effective result, there’s the matter of avoiding an ineffective process.

LL Cool J Radio Vinyl © Def Jam Recordings

Process is a biggie. Marketers have increasingly adopted profiling techniques that rely on a subject’s manner or willingness for self-expression. With digital communications and analytics thoroughly integrated, it is now the rule rather than the exception that profilers conduct continuous “testing” of the impressions of their harvested observations to see what credibility and longevity can be attributed to them as evidence of personalities — autonomous behaviors instigated by underlying predispositions.

Models (of personalities) from profilers, based largely on the co-incidence of correlations and of causal factors, are valued most for their potential success in predicting how a subject will perceive something. Prediction, derived from monitoring and then measuring the monitoring, is deemed “effective” based on how often it triggers a followup action that is successful. Effective prediction is routinely called foresight.

Yet in the subject’s own personal experience, the image of the self is not analytic. It is emergent. The “home” community within the subject’s self-acknowledged “culture” is the definitive source of truth, and probably of more reliable prediction, because it is the environmental host and fuel of the psycho-logical. If the subject builds their self-recognition on where they’re “coming from”, isn’t that more important to understand than where they are? And what is that emphasis like? Isn’t it instinctively intuitive, not intentionally acute?

You feel me?

As globally demonstrated in hip hop, empathy’s Subject is more often manifest through expression, not inspection. And the value of that expression is rooted in being “from the ‘hood”, and “reprasentin’ ”. Being from outside of the culture and outside of the neighborhood is a nearly automatic disqualifier of credibility for someone claiming to have empathy. Within the neighborhood and the culture, how do subjects recognize themselves in each other?

Ensembles of great maturity and impact, for example in music and in sports, feature members who really “get each other”. In performance they are, said most often, not “empathic” but telepathic. They send and receive each other’s transmissions of who they are, in performance.

Quite literally, the performers (active subjects) are testing themselves against a set of circumstances — the score of a composition, or the pressures of an opponent within the rules of a game — as the vehicle of their self-expression; and to the extent that this expression is aspirational, that aspirational self is the one that truly matters. Bottom line: they are not in simulations, they are in demonstrations… and the aspirational self that is in evidence is recognized in a Why under the How — their motive behind their modeling.

Is it the shoes, Mike? Is it the shoes?

Two of the most resonant phrases of the American pop culture, from 1985 well into this millennium, have been Be Like Mike, and Just Do It.

In the caricature role of superstar basketball player Michael Jordan’s superest-fan, filmmaker Spike Lee emphatically and ironically drove straight down the middle between the two directives, not wondering if he had to Just Do It in order to become Like Mike, but wondering what he needed to Just Do.

Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon, © Nike

At this point, someone somewhere may actually know how many billions of dollars have been spent buying copies of the basketball shoes that Jordan designed for himself. It’s always been a ridiculously great sales success. Marketers have been pretty clear about the profile of the Air Jordans buyer. But what do we know about the millions of guys who put their feet in them and put in some miles, walking or running or not?

What we get from this is two kinds of lists. One list has Top Five Reasons To Own and Wear Air Jordans.

The other list is Top Five Things Guys Do While Wearing Air Jordans.

These lists can be remarkably different!

What’s really amazing is that, totally without the benefit of the academies of design thinking or business, your homeboy ballers from ‘round the way know more about the second list than do marketers or thought leaders. For real.

Go Big or Go Home

What we get from that is a few notions that should be tempering the hype and mythology of Empathy as The Bridge To Otherness.

If you are not already a member of the group within which your subject lives:

  • It’s hard to get better at being empathetic than to go into the scene as an undercover agent. Being raised by wolves is admittedly better if you want to understand what wolves want; so, yes, there’s that.
  • Talking to writers, actors, social workers and therapists reveals a few hundred years of practical advice in the Empathy game; could be a real time-saver.
  • The best way to gain empathy is to be GIVEN it; figure that out.
  • There’s a very good chance that the real evidence of your gaining empathy is found in whether you are changing in how you feel about yourself.
  • Like “Faith”, Empathy is not something that you have; it’s something that you do. No practice, no game.

If those bullets are not attractive to you, Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200. On the other hand, if they look like you can handle them, be prepared to choose a side: your business will adapt to give your chosen subjects what they need, or your business will adapt its customer base to fit what your business wants to provide. Who is going to make that decision?

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Originally published at Medium on January 27, 2016.