If you really want to go places, you need to understand the power of empathy.

Do Contribute | Social Entrepreneur

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 
— Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

According to an admirably diplomatic recruitment consultant, my career has been “non-linear”. Because I looked puzzled she explained, “you’ve done a lot of weird stuff in a lot of weird places.” Apparently, even though that’s very true, you can’t put that on a CV, so to help her do her job getting me another job she then asked, “what’s the unifying narrative in your working life?”

I told her that it was probably marketing and communications, which is superficially true too, but since the phrase ‘storytelling’ is a hackneyed cliche, I’d now go with ‘understanding the power of empathy’. Pretentious — moi? Maybe, but having experienced a lot of global weirdness, I’m convinced that empathy and understanding are the keys to any of life’s locked doors.

In a recent blog post Seth Godin made a compelling argument that we should value and train for ‘soft skills’, and he lists a huge range of non-vocational attributes all of which, to me, could be boxed up under the title Empathy — or understanding your fellow humans.

“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.”
— Susan Sarandon

When we say that ‘The world is your oyster’ we mean that the world holds infinite possibilities if you have the chutzpah to go out and find them. And that is true, but like all good Shakespearean quotes ‘it does not mean what you think it means.’

The character who says it is trying to extort money from his friend. “the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” To shuck an oyster and find the pearl takes force and a sharp blade. But the world doesn’t truly open up to you by force, quite the opposite, it takes empathy to reveal its riches.

Travelling to explore other cultures is good way to learn empathy. Living and working in them is even better.

When I was twenty-three I pretended that I could speak French to get a job running a skier’s’ lodge in the Alps and although I got the job, I quickly discovered that there was a good reason why speaking the language was an essential skill required. No one in the remote village spoke English — or if they did they weren’t about to use it to make ‘les Anglais’ life easier. So get anything done, I had to learn fast.

I learnt by trial and error, but mainly because I asked for help. It’s amazing how much of a language you can learn in bars and cafes with a positive attitude and a combination of handy phrases like ‘Comment tu dis?’ (how do you say…) followed by a quick game of charades to ascertain the French word for lift pass / radiator / plumber / anterior cruciate ligament / morning after pill (for one of the staff, not me). Arm-waving, shoulder shrugging and pouting are essential parts of the French language, and copying and deploying them at the right moment speaks more eloquently than most words.

That one thing led to another and another and another. Learning French under pressure and in situ led to a job in Italy, which led to a job in London, which led to a job in Switzerland, which led to a job in Australia, which led to a job in Singapore. The link between them all was learning how to empathise with strange people in strange places. Empathy looks different in different cultures, but the instinctive principles are the same and they transcend any language barrier.

In South East Asia, to do business you have to give ‘face’. It’s more complex than simple respect. It means understanding a person’s position and standing in the negotiation and showing them, in words and silent actions that you understand their importance to getting this thing done. Face not an easy thing to teach — bowing and flattering aren’t enough — you have to feel it and experience it.

Faced with the probability that it would cost several thousand dollars in bribes to secure a permit to fly a hot air balloon in Vietnam, our translator was struggling to explain my request without insult. If you’ve never seen a hot air balloon, it’s difficult to grasp the idea that you can take off and drift around at the mercy of the wind with no idea where you’re going or where you’ll land. I tried a different tack with the stern-faced General. His impassive face flickered when I showed him a video of the balloon over England.

“My wife has always wanted to do this,” he grunted via the translator.

“She’d be very welcome to fly with us.” I offered.

“She’s busy.” He grunted back.

“No one has ever flown a balloon In Vietnam, would you like to be the first man to fly in one over Hanoi? It would be a world record.” The translator’s face lit up as he explained this much simpler proposition.

The General blinked twice and bravely withheld a smile. Then he barked a stream of orders over his shoulder, stood up, shook my hand and departed.

“Tomorrow morning.” The relieved translator confirmed.

The General was the first Vietnamese man to fly in a hot air balloon over his country, and once airborne he became the most garrulous man in the country too. He spent the whole flight yelling to his friends on his mobile phone, waving to everyone below and literally squealing with delight. It didn’t need a translator to explain the gist of his “yes, it’s me — look up — I’m up here — look at me — look at me — I’m flying!”

Three hours after his historic flight, I was given a simple letter from the highest ranking air force commander, the gist of which read “let these guys fly anywhere they like.” Which came in very handy in half a dozen other countries too.

Getting that permit and glowing reference required a fistfull of Godin’s soft skills, none of which I’d learnt in school or on vocational training courses.

“It turns out that what actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work. Culture defeats strategy, every time.”
— Seth Godin

The simple truth is that life is not only easier, but far richer if you can see and feel what everyone else is facing. This is not just some new age mindfulness schmaltz to fill the world with peace and love (although it wouldn’t hurt for our leaders to try it), this is hard-edged business nouss too.

Show me any successful sales, marketing and even HR strategy and I reckon I could show you the empathy at the heart of it in seconds. Likewise, every commercial and PR disaster you could name usually has a lack of understanding of the relevant humans at its core.

The customer journey, the user experience, brand loyalty, company culture are all powered and fuelled by empathy.

I agree with Seth Godin, empathy can be taught, but it’s a helluva lot more fun, and it’s far more powerful a lesson to go out into the weird parts of the world and learn it for yourself.

“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”
— Steve Martin

Tim Le Roy

Fledgling writer. Founder of DirtMeetsTheWater and Communications Director at Dootrix. Read more from Tim on Medium.