Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, and understandably so. After all, both words relate to how the well-being of others affects us. However, there is a critical difference between the two words that is often overlooked, and this critical difference reveals the true importance of empathy.
When something terrible happens to someone we know, we immediately experience a deep sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach. If this unshakeable sorrow exists because we care for this person, and hate what they are going through — it’s sympathy. If we are upset because whether or not we have experienced something similar in our lives, we understand how they must feel — it is empathy.
More plainly, we are sympathetic when we feel bad solely because someone else feels bad. We are empathetic when we can put ourselves in the shoes of the person experiencing the pain, and experience the pain ourselves.
And this is not a knock against sympathy, it is admirable and important to acknowledge the feelings of others. But the understanding unlocked by true empathy allows for relationships to be built upon a foundation of shared perspective. For us at Digital Surgeons, leading with empathy makes us better at our jobs, makes for better relationships with our clients, and is part of what makes Digital Surgeons a great place to work.
We use our empathy to understand our clients deeply, to tune into their perspectives and their needs, understanding that they actually take on more risk than we do because they're trusting us to solve their problems. We use our imaginations to understand their unspoken needs and their pain points. Because they don't see the work "behind the curtain", we use our empathy to establish trust with them, and mitigate their fears by showing that not only do we understand their business, but we understand them as people. By understanding them on a deeper level than just deliverables and deadlines, and by seeing them as people who have trusted us not only with their budgets, but with their brands and in their livelihoods, we not only have healthier relationships but we deliver better work.
In our work, empathy is inherent in everything we do. Beyond being a buzzword, empathy is an integral part of effective human-centered design. We design experiences for people who have their own unique wants, needs and motivations, and only by truly understanding these individuals can we deliver truly great work.
Empathy, the creative act of imagining ourselves to be someone who we aren’t is what gives us the ability to solve their problems. Empathy is how we figure out how to convert leads into customers. Empathy is how we build brands that will grow communities.
Regardless of our final deliverable, we have to develop and maintain our emotional intelligence as an agency because the ultimate, end consumer is always a person.
And lastly, we practice empathy with each other. Successful people rarely operate alone, so it's imperative that we play nicely together and have that same emotional intelligence when dealing with each other as we too have our own unique motivations, wants and needs. Digital Surgeons is an environment of high-performers, where beast mode is always on. And while this fuels our success, we need to remember to pause and celebrate our wins, and celebrate each other when we succeed, and be forgiving when we may stumble.
Collaborative work is often touted as being an easy, natural thing for teams - but the reality is sometimes quite different. We’re all working together toward the same goals, and it’s inevitable that we’ll sometimes butt heads when we discuss the tactics and strategies that will meet those goals. It’s in these moments that displaying humility toward each other, even in small ways, will continue to build more positive environment overall, and creates a supportive environment, too.
It’s critical to our success that we never lose sight of this core value. We have to remain able to enter into the unarticulated wants and needs of people who aren’t in our tribe. In the same way that fiction writers are able to create stories about people completely unlike themselves, we have to be able to step into someone else’s shoes and understand them if we’re to continue building experiences that build relationships, and relationships that build brands.