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The Empathy Experiment: An Innovative Approach to Training Empathy

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Media.Monks creative director Beryl Chung on the process of developing a training tool to foster empathy in the workspace

The Empathy Experiment: An Innovative Approach to Training Empathy

Social movements have radically shifted the expectations of consumers, who now seek genuine contributions to society that go beyond superficial attempts to appear “woke". Good marketing isn’t good enough any longer, and brands need to back up what they say with what they do and how they run - especially in their aim to deliver more diverse work.

When we talk about diversity it’s often in terms of representation: ensuring a campaign or platform ticks all the demographic boxes. But while representation is incredibly important, it’s only half the battle. True diversity is about inclusion. This means establishing a working environment in which intended audiences are actively involved, are given resources and responsibility to shape the experience, receive credit for the work they put in and are at liberty to challenge key messaging to any level of seniority.

Building these inclusive workplaces starts with empathy. Employing our experience in digital, how can we innovate in new ways to give people the space to hone their skills in being more empathetic? We began with an experiment. Here’s how it came about - and what we learned along the way.


Practicing Empathy

The Empathy Experiment is an interactive, animated microsite that asks participants to navigate a series of scenarios in which a colleague confides in them about a workplace interaction that made them uncomfortable. It plays out like a point-and-click adventure game, giving participants a series of dialogue choices for how they may respond within each situation. As nuanced conversations take shape, the participant can also look into the thoughts of the confidant for insight into the effect of their responses.

The experience is designed to be a self-contained, safe space where people can choose and test different responses —there aren’t a series of prescribed “right” or “wrong” answers. By playing out each scenario with different choices, participants can gain a greater understanding of their level of empathy and how to be more conscious of the effect their interactions have on others.


Empathy is a Skill You Can Hone

Empathy isn’t an inherent trait; rather, it’s a skill we can all practice and improve. This is important to realise because our level of empathy is a critical factor that impedes or advances one’s progress toward diversity and inclusion. Experiences like the Empathy Experiment can become important tools for people and teams that aim to be more inclusive in the way they communicate or engage.

But what is empathy? For many of us, it’s hard to tell the difference between it and sympathy. In developing our own understanding of empathy, we referenced  the work of Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, who outlined four attributes of empathy. According to Wiseman, empathy is about perspective-taking, staying out of judgment, recognising the emotion of others, and communicating back that emotion. Each of these informed our approach of creating situations where people can roleplay and practice these traits, ultimately honing their skills in empathy.


Universal Experiences Transcend Labels

Before creating the Empathy Experiment, we established the WoMMen in Tech resource group and content series in 2018 to foster more inclusive spaces within our organisation. We wanted to profile accomplished, experienced women we work with every day through a video series and audio podcast, making their diverse ways of working and approaches to leadership more accessible for junior and incoming talent. While we designed the series to discuss the universal experience of inclusion, we encountered a roadblock: many were focused on the idea that it was about countering gender imbalance, which inhibited their ability to relate with the content.

This disconnect inspired us to reassess our objective. How could we illustrate the universal feelings of inclusivity and exclusivity in a way that removes labels and biases from the conversation altogether, making it more approachable for everyone? 

The Empathy Experiment aims to overcome this barrier by creating an opportunity for shared understanding through relatable and universal experiences. Examples include listening to a colleague who is hurt by a personal joke or responding to a client whose off-hand remark may belittle a direct report’s experience. Ambiguity also plays a role here, with character designs that intentionally transcend demographic labels and non-verbal interactions that encourage people to read between the lines.


Representing a Broad Range of Experience Requires Input from All

Creating the Empathy Experiment relied on bringing together a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines. We benefited greatly from building an inclusive process in which everyone could bring their experiences to the table to make the interactions more relatable and the final product more polished. This included rolling out tests across offices that make up our international team, ensuring the scenarios rang true across a wide spectrum of colleagues. 

In addition to bringing in insight from our own organisation, we also collaborated with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) specialists. Dr. Kimberly Nenemay, a clinical psychologist specialising in holistic mental healthcare, gave us consultation on the dialogue and interactions in the experience. Talking to Dr. Nenemay allowed us to build an experience that reflects how human behaviour and the mind works with diverse range of empathetic behaviours and responses. We also collaborated with the Diversity Standards Collective, based in London, who helped us develop characters that any user could see themselves in to reinforce the goal of creating a universal experience.


Innovation Starts with Empathy

As creatives and marketers, we wield a great amount of power to reach millions of people. And we owe it to our audiences to approach them with accountability and  responsibility. Unfortunately, the current state of media and technology doesn’t have empathy baked into it. To truly innovate toward diverse and inclusive systems and teams, we must empower people with new ideas - people who will likely challenge each other and disagree on a lot of things. The first step in doing so is to create an environment where people feel supported to do their best work, and this is only possible where we understand and accept each other through empathy. 

When we try to offer support and be empathetic, we often default to responding in ways that we think would comfort us, but this can often be counter to what would comfort others. While our intentions may be in the right place, the way we communicate may present a gap - when what the other person really seeks is for someone to recognize the individual challenges they’re dealing with. Just three to five minutes of experimenting with empathy can open up these discussions. So what are you waiting for? Take a moment today to practice honing your own empathy skills!

Try the empathy experiment here.

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Media.Monks, Tue, 22 Mar 2022 08:18:23 GMT