Learning Empathy

“If you’re a 40-yr old mother who likes to run and also knows how to code well, please come talk to me after this discussion because I want to hire you.”

Cheryl Kellond, founder of Bia, made the above appeal during a panel session last night titled Geeks vs. Suits.  She explained that she highly doubted a 23-yr male coder was going to be able to relate with her company’s target market — 40-yr old mother triathletes.

The problem is empathy.  We need those who are writing the software to be able to understand who they are writing software for. Her appeal launched a panel conversation about empathy.  Though not explicitly mentioned, this is pretty much what the entire discussion was about.   Can geeks understand and appreciate what the BizDev guys are doing and can the suits understand and appreciate what the coders wrestle with?  The conversation turned to whether empathy can be learned.  Everyone agreed that it can be, but not many suggested how.

Empathy is one of the most critical skills to entrepreneurial success. We can empathize because we are the target market (like a 40-yr old mother athlete) or we can learn to empathize with our customers by talking to them.

Empathy is an experiential skill not a declarative one — we can’t just read a book to learn it, just like we can’t read a book to learn how to shoot a basketball and expect to win any free throwing contest.  It comes from practice and there are several exercises to help learn it. Steven Blanks’ Customer Development Process (described in the 4 Steps to the Epiphany) is an excellent and practical process for many startups to learn to empathize with the customers they are trying to serve. Outside of entrepreneurship, there are several activities that can help – for example, sympathizing (simulating) a day in the life of the person we are trying to understand, or actually living their life if it’s possible to truly walk in their shoes.

I don’t think you have to be a 40-yr old mother runner to be able to understand what is going on with Bia’s market, but I do think you need to have a lot of empathy to be able to make sure you design a product that will work well for them. Empathy is a critical skill for an entrepreneur to learn.

[There are also many good books on the subject that also give suggested exercises to learn how to use them.  Here are a few: Wired To Care, A Whole New Mind, and The Ten Faces of Innovation. ]







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