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  • April 24, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, principal analyst, Forrester Research

Empathy Has Its Limits, and It’s Also More Critical Than Ever

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‘Nobody told me there’d be days like these/ Strange days, indeed’ —John Lennon (‘Nobody Told Me’)

One of my former colleagues has an annual ritual that I always found equal parts perplexing and entrancing. Every year, she writes her future self a letter. She details all the lessons that she wants her future self to remember from the past, and intends for this piece of paper to act as a signpost of both where she has been mentally and where she wants to be heading. Then, on the vernal equinox, she opens the envelope and hears the whispers from the woman that once was. Or something like that. I’ll admit that I never truly grasped the more mystical experiences this ceremony evoked for her. But…

But now! Can you imagine how the advice from a you who lived in pre-COVID-19 days would sound now? What must it be like reading that letter? The resonances—or the lack thereof—must really be striking. I can imagine that had I drafted such a missive in 2019, it would be filled with career advice that would ring hollow; practical details about staying healthy with advice that is now impractical, due to restrictions on freedom of movement; and so on.

This all got me thinking: What advice could I offer my future self that would be universal, whether during a world-changing pandemic or an alien invasion? (It’s no coincidence, I think, that the last verse of that John Lennon song referenced above ends with “There’s a U.F.O. over New York, and I ain’t too surprised.”)

I’d guess if you are allergic to squishy, somewhat anodyne sentiments, this is where you should stop reading. Go pick up a Hemingway novel or something. Because it seems clear that what really would reverberate with future me would be guidance on how to remain empathetic and to maintain some semblance of equilibrium.

My wife and I often marvel at odd couples we see and meet (or we did when meeting new people was somewhat easier). The 6-foot-5-inch bicycling fanatic who did a huge amount of volunteer work for bicyclist rights who was dating a petite, never-gets-exercise libertarian comes to mind. In such cases, my wife and I have a catchphrase: “You can never truly see into other people’s relationships.” That always reminds us to stop assuming we know what people are like in every facet of their lives. We cannot see the emotional sustenance these partners might provide each other when the chips are down. And by being reminded that we don’t know and can’t see these things fully, it reminds us to just be kinder and more accepting.

That is the kind of empathy I would like to maintain during my life. Yes, it would be nice if I could also have the Clintonian I-feel-your-pain type of empathy. But I think we should recognize in times like these that while we often don’t feel each other’s pain or joy, we can still accept that we are all human beings with our own joys and foibles and we all likely have good intentions. That would be the sort of advice I’d love my future self to hear.

In case my mawkish prose made you forget that this is CRM magazine, I’ll try to quickly bring this back to our work lives. As I write this in late March, consumers are under tremendous stress. Jobs are being lost and people’s health is at risk. They might not have the mental bandwidth to be kind to the folks they interact with in business settings. So perhaps it is time to remind your staff of the “you can never truly see into other people’s lives” type of thinking. That’s one way we can all get through this with our humanity intact.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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