Dr Vinay Dabholkar in his blogpost Can Empathy be taught? talks about the concept of empathy walk. He shares the story of movie Rainman as an example to state how walking a few steps with someone can create empathy for them, and this empathy can tell you much more about the psychic makeup of the person and his needs and wants. He also mentions the empathy walk experience of an MIT student. If businesses could use this technique to understand their customers, they would be producing far more relevant products and services.
When I read this piece on Vinay’s blog, like always it set me thinking. Is it not a natural human process to be empathetic? Did we always need an empathy walk like solution or is this a new requirement that has cropped up in the current day individualistic society, where we are forgetting to live with people and hence no empathy is exchanged? We are in as much need of being understood as we need to understand those around us. Is this a result of not having complete communication with those around us, and trying to understand people and their needs more based on data and statistics rather than on the basis of what their body language tells us, what their tone of answer tells us, what their interests and inclinations tell us? Take a simple example, I may be using a certain brand of toothpaste and hence adding to the statistic of its user base, revenue, profit, etc and somewhere it is assumed that I like it and that is why I buy it, while the truth may be that it is the only brand available at the store I shop, or it is the brand that shopkeeper decides to push to me, or because there is a common toothpaste that we buy as a family and it is not my choice but of someone else in the family, it can be a result of my disinterest in the choice as all of them sound the same and many such reasons. Should a new flavor designer or teeth cleaning solution designer take into account what I would really like or should they just go ahead and analyze data. I know this is a very simplistic example, the real problem areas can be quite complex.
Given the direction in which our super-connected yet lonely society is moving, I think we do need to include experiments like empathy walk in our curriculums so that students learn to gaze into worlds other than their own.
From an Innovation perspective, this would lead to my favorite Intersectional Innovation, where the ideas from diverse worlds meet to create new solutions.