Podcast: How can cognitive empathy make us better at work?

Rob Volpe talks to Heatherly Bucher about cognitive empathy, and our collective empathy crisis, to find out how caring more about others can make us better at work.

The full transcript can be found below:

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Alice Corner: Hello, I’m Alice Corner, producer of Work Reimagined: a Conscious Culture podcast. In today’s episode Heatherly Bucher, Executive Director of Conscious Culture, talks to Rob Volpe, author and empathy activist, and asks him the one big question.

How can being better at cognitive empathy make us better humans at work and in our personal lives?

Rob Volpe: Hi everybody I’m Rob Volpe CEO of Ignite 360 and I get to go into stranger’s homes and poke around and see how they live.

AC: This is Work Reimagined.

Heatherly Bucher: Today we have Rob Volpe joining us. He is the author of Tell Me More About That: Solving the empathy crisis one conversation at a time. Rob is the CEO of Ignite 360 where he leads a team of creative and strategic professionals conducting innovative, qualitative market research for the world’s leading brands. He’s a thought leader in the world of empathy and marketing in the workplace, speaking at conferences, corporations, and colleges.

Rob welcome to Work Reimagined.

RV: Hi Heatherly, thank you so much for having me on the show, I appreciate it.

HB: You know I feel like the introduction that I gave doesn’t really explain well your field of qualitative research, and when I read your book this weekend - which was delightful - it read much like an autobiography, right, of this truly fascinating career you’ve had where you like, you’ve said you’ve gone into peoples homes. To me, like a cultural anthropologist or sociologist to understand the behaviors and preferences and actions and now you do this for brand clients who have questions about product market fit, target market motivations and such, but how do these experiences in your career lead you to an understanding of empathy?

RV: Well at first, I’m so happy that you enjoyed the book and enjoyed reading it, and I set out to write it that way so that it would be engaging with stories and we can talk about that, to your question like how did a career in market research turn into an understanding of empathy?

Well, you know you get frustrated when your clients aren’t connecting with their consumers. You’re hired to go out and find how people are thinking and feeling and you spend a lot of time and energy doing that, and then thinking about what’s the implications of this? What does this mean? How can my clients do better in their business through what we’re hearing from their consumers?

And then to have the consumer’s voice negated because of the judgment of somebody in the corporate office, they don’t like the way the respondent looks, sounds, just they’re different, they’re not the vision that I had in my head of who our brand champion would be, therefore I’m rejecting all of this. It’s really frustrating and they’re not - they, the clients are missing this tremendous opportunity and so we started to think about how could we better connect our clients and what was getting in our clients way from connecting with their consumers and what could we do in the way that we were telling the stories that we were hearing. How could we evolve that so that our clients could actually hear the message.

And that involved looking at our own behavior and understanding what got in our way, and so in the book I used my own experiences of my failures where I let judgment get in my way, and some of my successes where I was paying attention and all of a sudden I saw things that revealed so much more about one of the respondents. All those things, you know you have to look at yourself and then think about how does that play back for the clients, and so we started to identify these five steps to empathy and we coached that, we introduce it before every one of our projects so that our clients go in with just awareness.

And having that self awareness in their behavior allows them to make different choices when they are faced with that information from their consumer, and hopefully see that and then be able to take action on it.

HB: I think that’s a beautiful kind of closed loop or circular motion, I hope your clients appreciate the added value that they’re getting from engaging with your company, beyond you know what they’re thinking of as the outcome.

RV: And I think for me what I ultimately hope is that they take that understanding of empathy and take it beyond just, oh just that one research project where I learned about a consumer, but then start to think about how am I engaging with my colleagues, and how are we moving through the world there? How am I engaging in personal life when I’m outside of the office or my office time, my work time? That’s to me the sort of next level of this and part of why I wrote the book is to help bring awareness to even more people about how to be more empathetic.

HB: If we fast forward towards the end of the book you have a chapter titled ‘What are you willing to sacrifice’ where you explain what cognitive empathy is, and I’d love you to read and excerpt from that and then we can talk a bit about it.

RV: Cognitive empathy is the tool to use to get to know people who might be ‘other’. Whether its based on race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, religion, political affiliation, or any of the other traits that divide society; using solution imagination, getting to a point of seeing the perspective of someone else, can foster conversation, understanding and tolerance. And even bring people together. Empathy can also lead you to take action. Some call that radical empathy which I believe comes from either cognitive or emotional empathy, when the connection you’re feeling is powerful enough that it motivates you to action, usually out of compassion.

Using solution imagination is that moment when you move beyond, say, recognizing that other people like vanilla ice cream and get to the point of ‘getting it’. You can see their point of view, that they like vanilla because it’s got gentle, warm floral notes that don’t overpower the taste buds. You’ll have reached that when you’ve successfully dismantled your judgment which is step one, and you might if, you’re being judgmental, you might go “vanilla, ew”. But you dismantle that and then you ask good questions. For example, what do you like about vanilla? Step three is active listening, so you might actively listen and notice how their eyes lit up when they described their favorite flavor. And then step four is integrating into your understanding, which is recognizing there is more to the world than chocolate, as heavenly as it may be.

Of course, we all know that the bigger issues that divide us don’t have to do with desert.

HB: Cognitive empathy being a tool that we need in life; so at home, in our communities, at work, sociopolitical stages when we talk about things like immigration and it’s such a powerful idea and so I guess my question, for people who haven’t read the book, there are hundreds probably of self help books or how to build communities or how to do business well books on the market, and tools and frameworks that promise better life or more impact or a successful business.

What can we do with cognitive empathy that you see we’ve struggled with or we’ve failed at as human beings with each other. Why is cognitive empathy, from your experience, a critical tool?

RV: Why is cognitive empathy a critical tool? It would be like, imagine trying to ride on a gas powered engine without any oil. Cognitive empathy is the lubricant that enables things to work, it enables the pistons to fire, to move around, it enables all of the inner workings of whatever machine or device to actually function. Empathy itself, and there are two types of empathy as I mentioned in what I just read, and as you were alluding to; there’s cognitive empathy which is the first perspective taking and then there’s emotional empathy which is feeling the emotions of somebody else.

Cognitive empathy is what we use with people outside of our immediate family or very closest and dearest of friends that we just know so well, and have very similar values, rituals and beliefs. You can have emotional empathy, you can feel what they’re feeling.

Cognitive empathy is what we use with people who are ‘other’. And by ‘other’, yes it can be people of different races, nationalities and backgrounds but it’s also the people that are at work. They’re not the ones that are living in your house, they are ‘other’ to you and you need to have that empathy with them in order to more successfully communicate, collaborate and have critical thinking conversations, reach decisions, to ideate new products and services, just create a better environment to respond to the needs of your consumers, to understand that, to have compassion with others, to reach forgiveness with somebody, you need to have cognitive empathy. It helps you get to all of those places.

And that’s why I liken it to the oil in the machine, it enables everything to function, and without it you can still do those things but it’s kind of like that engine where, and i’m not an engineer or a mechanic, but without oil the engine will seize up pretty quickly, and that’s what’s happening in our society. We can still kinda do the things, but it’s seizing up and people aren’t as effective and as impactful as they could be if they were strengthening their empathy skills.

HB: When you talk about empathy skills, when I read the book, the five steps, in the back of my mind there was this awareness that it takes work. It needs to be conscious, it needs to be purposeful, you need to prioritize this right? It’s not something that’s just going to happen. And I know that’s probably why you wrote the book, to get people to do the work.

But that’s the sticking point for me, you know even work that delivers, it is work, right? It’s something that you have to choose to do, it’s something that takes time, it’s something that takes effort and I think when I look at empathy work in particular it’s an emotional labor.

RV: It is, it’s hard. I mean somebody, an early reader of the book when I was still in revisions and drafts described it as: the five steps look simple but they’re not easy. And they do- each one of them requires awareness and work and concentration and, you know as you were just talking about that I was thinking about “yeah, but remember when you learned a yoga pose, or whatever sport or hobby that you have, a complicated stitch in crocheting or knitting, making sourdough bread - how in the world were you going to keep that starter going and alive and is that going to work, and how are you going to knead dough?

And the first time round you maybe didn’t do a great job, maybe it didn’t turn out, maybe the bread was really dense or if it was a yoga situation you were trying to do crow but you fell forward and fell flat on your face. But you tried it again and you had awareness of “well maybe if I do it a little differently this time, or a different posture, maybe I need to dry my elbows off because I’m really sweaty right now and I’m trying to get into crow, or I’m really sweaty while I’m kneading this dough. Maybe I’m over kneading it.”

But it’s having that awareness and continuing to make the effort, and having the courage to continue to try. And to ask yourself what if I can? What if I can be more empathic? What would that mean? What would - how would I move through the world differently and what would that do with my world around me?

And that’s what I hope people can take away from the book. And I open the book and I close the book pretty much just saying, I am not perfect. I am human just like everybody else and I struggle with empathy on a daily basis, largely with my judgment but I can catch myself now, I’m mindful enough of it that I can catch myself when I’m in that moment of being judgmental and about to say something and go “where’s that coming from, why am I wanting to say that?”

HB: That’s great. I still cannot do crow, but I-

RV: I haven’t tried in a long time!

HB: I do feel pretty good about my sourdough skills, and I think more importantly as you mentioned it’s being vulnerable, realizing we’re not perfect, continuing to practice empathy and then see, you know - be able to incrementally see progress, right? Or what it yields, and then be able to go back and say “ok, I can keep doing this, I’m going to invest this time”

RV: It’s just doing these very little things and trying to put them into practice. Another friend of a friend who I’ve never met, marketing VP, she heard about the book through our mutual friend, read it, and she said she’s already changed the way she interacts with her CEO and it’s made her a better people manager, because she’s got mindfulness of it. And so she can kinda stop herself and ask questions in a different way, listen, be present in a different way. Integrate it into understanding, make sense of it, not be judgemental when maybe she had been.

HB: You know, if we look at a company level, we were talking about individuals and what individuals can do. What can companies do? What do you think companies can do to help employees?

RV: Leaders should let go of their concern, worry, fear that by being supportive, being more empathetic in my organization that people are not going to be productive. That is absolutely not the case, what you’re actually going to be doing is enhancing the loyalty and the dedication that people have to your company.

I’ve always- my parents were science majors so maybe that’s where these analogies come from sometimes but I’ve always thought of work as like a symbiotic relationship, and it has to be working for both the employer and the employee. So what we’re seeing right now with the great resignation is that it’s not working for the employees, and they’re saying buh-bye, and they’re pulling away from that and going elsewhere.

So how do you support the individual and I think leaders that have that hesitation need to get over it because there’s plenty of data thats showing and studies that are out there that show that employees that feel like they have empathetic leadership will be more innovative at work, and almost exponentially more so than employees who don’t have it.

90% of Gen Z, there’s one study that came out last year, 90% of Gen Z are more likely to stay at an empathic organization than one that isn’t, so the benefits to your company are going to be huge. So don’t be afraid but, yes let’s recognize that yes, you’re trying crow for the first time and you’re, you know… bend your elbows, get down..

HB: You might fall and hit your head but…

RV: Might fall and hit your head as you try, knees on your elbow and balance. And so don’t be afraid to make mistakes, is part of that.

I was just having a conversation earlier today, ironically with my yoga teacher, about leadership does not mean you have to have the right answer, leadership means you have to make a decision and hopefully it’s the right decision or the right decision in that moment, but you have to be willing to try, you have to have courage as a leader to try to do something.

And so how do you create and it starts, I do believe, especially with empathy, it starts at the top. So if you are sending emails or you are on Slack over the weekend, even if it’s just to your direct reports, it’s telling them that that’s ok and I’m going to pass that down.

Encourage and foster more conversation in direct meetings, you know one on one updates, add some vulnerability into it. Don’t be afraid to be human. Share how you’re feeling about something, not just about the latest sports tournament that’s going on or the Academy Awards, but talk from the heart about how things are affecting you, or something that’s going on in your life, show up as a human and others - you will be giving permission to others to show up as human as well.

HB: That’s great. Your book is set up with reflection questions at the end of every chapter.

RV: Yes

HB: So what drove you to that format? Or did you have a vision of how readers were going to use that?

RV: I wanted people to not just read the chapter and, you know, laugh or cry or feel whatever the feelings were that were intended with that story, but I wanted them to then start to twist it and turn it and look at it from a different perspective. Look at it from the other angle, and think about themselves.

And so that’s where the idea of the empathetic reflections came up was to provide people with the chance to then pause before they go into the next chapter, and just pause and think about “how does this show up for me, how would I have handled this situation?” or “how might I address, or when have I been confronted with something similar?” because you know they’re very, some things are a little bit unique others are very common human experiences. And I wanted people to have that opportunity to pause and reflect and think about themselves.

There’s actually a corporate reading guide that we put together, so if you’ve got a corporate discussion group, that’s available on our website which we’ll have in the show notes so people can download that. I’m also available for showing up at those, dialling in or whatever and having those conversations, and other speaking engagements. So it’s been really cool, there’s a movement afoot with some different corporations where they’re all reading the book, or leadership teams are all reading the book and they’re having conversations about it.

And it’s done in such a way that it’s not, and this is why I did the empathetic reflections, it’s not just didactic me lecturing “you should do this and you should do that”, it’s all stories so they can talk about the stories and the experiences that I had, and they’ve just read about, and it will then foster their own reflections on their own life.

HB: Thank you so much Rob! This closes out our time with you Rob Volpe, change catalyst, empathy activist, author and CEO. As a reminder you can find Rob’s book at major distributors and book stores including Amazon and Barnes and Noble in print, digital, and audiobook formats. I found it here on the island of O’ahu and we have very few book stores.

RV: And at an independent bookstore!

HB: An independent bookstore yes, big shout out to the independent bookstore Bookends Kailua on the island of O’ahu and you’ll be able to find more information about Rob on our website at conscious.org and in the show notes.

Thank you so much for joining us, before we let you go I always love to hear what authors are reading and would recommend.

RV: Well I think a book that’s related to my work is the book Honestly Speaking by Andrew Blotky and it’s all about how to have honest conversation and communication, largely in the workplace but also in our personal lives.

HB: Rob thank you so much for joining us today.

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