As a kid, I loved fairy tales. They were full of intrigue, suspense, cliff-hanging danger and, of course, romance. Years later, I realize that reading fairy tales was also helping me to cultivate empathy. They caused me to step outside of myself and my own reality and cultural norms, to suspend judgment and consider for a moment, "What would I do in that situation?", "How would I escape the horrible wolf/evil witch/or puzzling maze?"; and to embrace a host of "What if...?" questions. Fairy tales were one of my first entrees into imaginative problem solving.

Well, it turns out that one of your roles as a business owner/leader is to be a problem solver. I turn here to the value of design thinking, which is a problem solving process that starts with an empathetic stance by asking "What problem am I solving for my customer?" Design thinking borrows from the way designers problem-solve to innovate tangible objects, and applies that process to the design of services, experiences and processes. The etymology of 'empathy', is from the Greek 'affection' and the 'ability to suffer with another'. What customer doesn't want that?! Starting with empathy could be the saving grace to your business.

Here are 4 key principles of using empathy to grow and sustain your business.


  1. Practice, Practice. The best way to cultivate an empathetic stance inside your business is to practice building empathy outside of work. Reading literature is one great way to become more empathetic because just as in childhood fairy tales, fiction places you in a different geography, historical time, gender or ethnicity. Customers love working with businesses that seek to "get them".
  2. Remain Curious. Curiosity is at the foundation of having an empathetic stance. It requires you to step outside of yourself, engage with others, ask the sometimes "stupid" or nave questions and end up with some amazing answers and insights. Always being a student of something, is a surefire way to remain curious, humble and open to what's new. In a saturated market, approaching the development of a new service or product requires genuine and authentic curiosity to get to the "fresh" and new insight.
  3. Do Qualitative Research. Integrating an empathetic stance into the ethos of how your business functions will also mean that you shift to using qualitative research methods to understand your customer and discover new ways to market and sell your products and services. Qualitative research includes the tenets of ethnography: observation, situational analysis, interviewing, and participant-observation. These all yield data that is as important as the statistics in reams of Excel sheets. Quantitative methods can help you figure out which questions to ask; qualitative research helps you get to the stories that explain the "Why". Combining qualitative research data with quantitative metrics can be a bonanza of a win.
  4. Prioritize People. Starting with empathy in your business will surprise you in the ways it sparks personal growth in you and your employees. Having an empathetic stance means that you become hyper-human centered, and connecting with others requites you to be more grounded in who you are and what you value. This inside-out orientation will mean that your business meetings, pitches, and organizational structure will all resonate as more authentic- without you even trying.

Starting with empathy to drive profitability is a bit radical in a traditional business context, where many companies start instead with operational efficiencies and productivity to increase profits. It's time to get radical, and empathize.