lost again

I had gotten lost for the third time in as many days. In 2008, I found myself in Shinjuku, one of the busiest districts in Tokyo. In front of me was a gigantic neon Epson sign. I knew my hotel was diagonally behind that neon sign, but I couldn’t find my way there. A bit of background information: this was in a pre-smartphone era, and in Japan, it’s not unusual to navigate using large buildings, many of which continue underground. Without speaking the language and without map apps on a smartphone, it apparently was a huge challenge for me to navigate from point A to point B.

As mentioned, for the third time in a row, I was stuck. I probably looked a bit defeated. Until, at one point, a Japanese man approached me and asked if he could help.

The reason I tell this story is to illustrate the concept of empathy, more specifically the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy (with ‘E’ as the fifth letter of the corporate culture alphabet) is perhaps one of the concepts with the most untapped potential.

Empathy means being able to view a situation from another person’s perspective. If a friend’s cat dies, your reaction might be: “Oh no, terrible news. I once lost a cat too, and I was devastated.” That’s compassion. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how you would feel. Empathy, in this case, would mean wondering how that person feels. Without reflecting it back to yourself. How does that person feel? Why do they feel that way? How long have they felt like this? Etc.

To come back to my Japanese debacle. If that man who approached me had only felt compassion, he might have thought to himself: “I’ve been tired before, so tired that I just stood still in the middle of the city.” That wouldn’t have really helped me personally. The fact that he wondered why I was standing there looking bewildered, without reflecting on what it would mean for him, ultimately led me to my destination. He was kind enough to give me detailed directions and walk part of the way with me.

I’m telling this because I think empathy and compassion are often confused. Both in marketing and in human resources, I advocate for an empathy revolution.

By breaking away from “how would I feel in that customer or employee’s place” and moving towards “how does that person feel,” just that.

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