Last November, Democrats came to a shocking realization – they’d lost touch with their white working class voters. Business teams across the country are facing a similar realization – they’ve lost touch with their consumers.
Like the “liberal elite,” those in the “ivory tower” often lack empathy with their consumers. The empathy deficit impedes successful business decisions and product development. Ivory tower executives don’t understand who their consumer really is. Just like the Democrats couldn’t get elected by ignoring their white working class base, executives can’t run a successful company if they ignore what their consumers purchase.
The risk to a brand is tremendous - lose touch with your consumer and risk losing the vote cast by the consumer wallet. How far can your brand go without embracing your base? Not far.
As for the Democrats, we’re about 100 Days into the new Republican administration. How are the Democrats doing in terms of understanding and empathizing with the Trump voters? Not very well, according to Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
Let’s face it - empathizing with someone you have nothing in common with is hard. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to stay in a bubble of outrage than step outside and hear a point of view that might be uncomfortable.
For example, let’s take your work situation. You make a product. It’s been around for 40 years, maybe longer. It’s a good product, millions of people buy it. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, your sales start to drop. It’s not that people left the category, it’s that they found something else they like better. It might even cost more. People are voting against the best interest of their wallet?! That dissonance is hard to make sense of when you believe your product is perfectly sound and that consumers are focused on saving a buck.
Now your team is on red alert because sales are down. You work furiously to figure out what’s happening. You go out and talk to consumers, brainstorm a possible fix, and make changes to fit your operational or business needs. The fix goes to market and it falls flat. Wash, rinse, repeat. You try it again. And again. And it still falls flat.
You’re frustrated. What’s going on with those consumers? Why won’t they buy this fix? Since when do they vote against the “best interest of their wallet”?! You did your due diligence and spent time talking with them. But did you really get to know them? Do you understand their lives and what really motivates them? Seeking validation of your idea is fine but you need to understand how your idea fits in the overall context of their life.
It’s the same as the Democrats not understanding that there was enough allure in the promise of a return to ‘greatness’ in the United States that the white working class were willing to ignore the flaws and vote to try something new instead of more of the same. Tired of not being heard, what did they have to lose?
The problem is that without even realizing it, you, me, the Democrats, Trump, are all sitting snugly inside our respective bubbles. Part of the bubble is of your own making, other parts of it are crafted for you based on the things you like and the people you hang out with. You are isolated with like-minded people – from work, friends, social media, etc. Comforting? Yes. An asset? No. Each one of these social bubbles limits your exposure to different thoughts and reinforces your beliefs. So what can you do?
First: Notice That You (Like Everyone) Have a Bubble Around You
Take a look at your social media feeds. See any shared or sponsored pieces that aren’t aligned to your interests? Nope. It’s carefully curated based on your behaviors and likes. The unintended consequence? You don’t see opposing viewpoints.
Listen to your colleagues at work talk about the consumer. Is there understanding of who that person is holistically, not just as it relates to your product? Do you know what really motivates them in life? Do you know what it’s like to live their life? Then ask yourself, do you talk like your colleagues about your consumer?
Next: Make a Map of Your Bubble
Therapist, author, and empathy expert Brené Brown, Ph.D says, "I've never seen any evidence of 'how-to' working without talking about the things that get in the way." You need to understand what’s getting in your way so you can burst your bubble. Time to make a Mind Map.
To start, take a piece of paper. Write down who is outside your bubble that you want to connect to (e.g. white working class voters). It can be an individual or a group of people.
Then, ask yourself how it would feel to talk to them (e.g. kind of awkward, it’s been a while). Make note of the emotions that are coming up as well as other tangible barriers (e.g. I live in a very liberal, urban neighborhood).
Look at the emotions you wrote down. What’s behind those? Are they rational or irrational?
The people you want to connect with are real people just like you, your colleagues, your friends and family. How would you have a conversation with someone from those more familiar groups? How would you get to know them and their perspective? Write down those questions.
Take a step back and look at what you wrote. Any surprises? New insights? Take a photo of your notes or tack it up somewhere you can see it. Awareness of your bubble is crucial.
Finally: Get Up and Do Something About It
Whether you are a Marketing Manager trying to make sense of why people stopped buying your product, a Democrat trying to connect with the white working class, or just an Everyday American looking to broaden your horizons, the steps are the same.
Recognize that you are in a bubble. Seeing the bubble and how it reinforces beliefs and impacts your thinking and decision making is how you will burst the bubble.
Jot down observations of the bubble. The more you make note of it, the more evident it will become.
Seek out a different viewpoint. Yes, it will be uncomfortable to read or listen to someone who doesn’t share the same point of view as you do, but you’ll be better for it. Switch to a different cable news station or take a dip into a news or opinion website that doesn’t align to your beliefs. I try to read columnists Peggy Noonan, George Will, and David Brooks as much as I do Frank Bruni, Paul Krugman, and E.J. Dionne. Being open to different perspectives will help you broaden your own.
Build empathy. We have a habit of quickly shooting down and rejecting opposing opinions. Dismantle your judgment and hear what they have to say. Try to see things from their point of view. You don’t have to agree but at least take it into consideration.
Speak the language outside your bubble. Now that you’ve built up some empathy and connection outside your bubble, use what you’ve learned. Speak to what you’ve experienced, present it as a viewpoint, incorporate it into your decision making and problem solving.
Repeat. Practice makes perfect and it will take time to master breaking free.
When it comes to bubbles, there is no quick fix. You will need to continue to be mindful and manage the bubble you are in. If you are able to do that however, you will be more reasoned in your thinking and decision making, resulting in better products and services for your constituents, clients, and consumers. What do you have to lose?
For more information on good Empathy habits to transform your business, including our Empathy Camp workshops, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the conversation on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.