Psychologist Russell Church crawled out on a big limb in 1959 and published a paper, "Emotional reactions of rats to the pain of others." That was back when scientists put quotation marks around the words like “emotions,” “empathy” and “grief” when connecting them to animal behavior. Most scientists labored under the misguided belief that only humans had emotions.
Today, the quotation marks have been removed. Scientists now generally acknowledge that empathy is a powerful emotion that predates man’s existence on both an evolutionary and time scale. And it obviously has great survival value to a species.It's a crucial property of social bonding.
But how well do we understand empathy? And what is the difference between empathy and sympathy, sometimes used synonymously?
Which word applies to "the ability to enter into, understand, or share somebody else's feelings?"
Sympathy. Sympathy wells up when you feel bad about someone else’s unfortunate circumstances.
Empathy is sharing feelings, good or bad with someone. More specifically, empathy is the act of identifying with and understanding another person’s circumstances, emotions and motives. People all too commonly associate empathy with symphony. But you never feel happy when you feel sympathetically about a person’s circumstances.
On the other hand, feeling happy because good friends of yours just become new parents is an expression of empathy. (Or maybe it’s a couple of decades later and your friends just became empty nesters!)
The key difference between empathy and sympathy lies in the words, “identify with and understand.” You don’t need to understand the misfortune that has befallen a person to feel sympathetic toward them. But empathy requires some level not only of understanding but of identification with a person’s “circumstance, emotions and motives.”
Having said all that, I feel that empathy does not get the attention in marketing that it deserves.
A persistent argument in customer relationship management is that people don’t want everyone they buy from to be a friend. Customers will even tell you the same thing if you ask them. But almost everyone prefers dealing with someone who can identify with their circumstances (needs), emotions and motivations. How else can the seller take customer service to its loftiest limits?
A serious challenge that marketers face in trying to signal their empathy for customers is coming across as sympathetic or worse, as condescending. Marketing that calls attention to a person’s possible unfortunate circumstances (“Help! I’ve fallen down and I can’t get up) will work with some people but not most.
The trouble is, that declaration of an untoward event violates a cardinal principle of marketing espoused by the late, great David Ogilvy. He once said something to the effect, “People buy products that project images of who they want to be, not of who they don’t want to be.” No one wants to be sprawled across a floor after tripping on a rug.
Managing an empathetic tone in marketing communications is not simply a matter of choosing the right words. If getting the words right drives the process chances are you’ll end up with an ad that is not authentic to the sensitive ear of the consumer. The older your intended market the more likely this will happen. Sensitivity to nuance or “between the lines” meaning tends to increase with age.
Older people, like pets and little children, often have an uncanny ability to know what is really on your mind. So, for empathetic expression to persuade people that you truly identify with and understand their circumstances, emotions and motives, it needs to be authentic.