EMPATHY – a powerful marketing and business tool to innovate & create.

Brainstorming ideas marketing

As a designer, communicator and marketer, I have spent the past decade translating human needs and desires into workable marketing solutions.

Incorporated into my work are design thinking practices, a five-stage framework – Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and then Test. These stages are completed in iterations, in a non-linear process. It starts with empathy, which is also a mindset incorporated into the entire process.

When sitting down to create a solution for a business need, the first question should always be “what’s the human need behind it?”

Empathy as a design thinking process, facilitates getting underneath surface level wants and desires, to unearth what the true need is. Additionally, empathy assists with creating solutions that truly benefit the humans they were designed for.

After all, your audience is made up of real humans, not data points. Real people, messy and intriguingly complex


wEoQm1DC8jkw2EoOtsohw0pRtt6LiOCASbCotbzp 768x622 1
Design Thinking as a non- linear process – www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/design-thinking


Empathy is the ability to feel other’s emotions. It differs from sympathy where you pity and feel sorrow for a person’s sufferings. Sympathy creates a detachment and superiority from the end-user, which is unhelpful for designing great products and services. Furthermore, sympathy does not allow for the absorption and deep understanding of the customer and interferes with the creative process. Empathy sees people as capable humans with needs and values. Of course, none of us can fully experience things the way someone else does, but in attempting to get as close as possible, we put aside our own preconceived ideas and choose to understand the ideas, thoughts, and needs of others.

Amongst the many types of empathy, there are three main ones.

Cognitive empathy:

This is not true empathy, it’s an intellectual understanding someone’s feelings. I am wary of cognitive empathy because it is detached from emotion. Additionally there are people that use it for negative purposes, such as to manipulate people who are emotionally vulnerable. Be aware and have caution around negotiators who encompass cognitive empathy.

Emotional empathy:

True to the definition of empathy, this involves the activation of Mirror Neurons (type of brain cells). When an empath sees somebody experiencing an emotion they feel it like it is their own. Sounds overwhelming but for creators & innovators, it’s gold class consumer research, once you learn how to leverage it.

Compassionate empathy:

This quality not only enables feeling the emotions of another person but also taking appropriate action to help them. Generally, people wanting or needing your empathy don’t just need you to understand (cognitive empathy), and they certainly don’t need you just to feel their pain (emotional empathy). Instead, they need you to understand what they are going through and, crucially, collaboratively create solutions, the positive actions to resolve the problem, which is compassionate empathy. Being a natural empath, I used to feel emotionally overwhelmed, experience over time has taught me how to capatalise on compassionate empathy and genuinely help people.

empathy 300x271 1

How to use compassionate empathy to innovate & create.

As a business tool, empathy can be used during business model design, product or software development, campaign development, content creation, interaction design, improving customer experiences, gaining an understanding of an issue and more.

 Some empathetic techniques include the following;


Is it right to be wrong or wrong to be right?

In order to use empathy productively, one must be super self-aware of their own assumptions and biases. This ensures objectivity and immersion in understanding our audience’s inner worlds. This requires honest self-examination, observing the situation and being prepared to question what you think is absolute. Ensure you are not infusing your own assumptions into the audience’s experience.

Read the following to find out some biases that hinder innovation: How to identify biases

And here is a superb article outlining how design thinking interrupts bias: 10 Biases for innovation to overcome


Curiosity mixed with empathy helps innovators set aside personal assumptions and biases and fully understand the human need they are creating for.

While compassionate empathy is grounded in emotional resonance, curiosity deals with the facts of the matter. Curiosity invites exploration of issues. This allows us to crack the surface on assumptions and get to the heart of the matter.

Curiosity invites us to pause before making an assumption and gently ask probing questions that often lead to the ‘pot of gold’ in innovation.

Next time you feel a resistance, stop for a moment and dare to question your narratives. Have a curious conversation to shift your perspectives and step into the realm of possibilities.


Bringing a beginner’s mindset to daily living is an idea originally articulated by Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen monk, teacher, and author of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

“If your mind is empty…it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” -Shunryu Suzuki

People who are experts can risk being trapped by their experience into retracing old routes over and over, seeking assurance in what has worked in the past or for others.  A beginner’s mindset isn’t about how to do better or even do different; it’s about an eagerness to explore, without preconceptions.

It’s not innovative to assume the old ways of doing things will work. Rather than accepting the word of experts as gospel, start with questions you have from your own observations and come to your own conclusions. Notice and be aware of your expectations when going into meetings or starting conversations and then try to ‘deactivate’ them.

Another way to embrace a beginner’s mindset is to detach from your ego’s desire to be seen as an expert. The ego likes to protect itself by knowing things and being right. But being right is rarely the real goal. Focus instead on seeing reality as it is, without bias. Read more on beginner’s mindset here


This involves listening without interrupting or deviating the conversation from the speaker. With active listening, one must be utterly attentive to what the other person is saying and avoid offering solutions. The listener will ask open ended questions, listen and reflect on what they are hearing to ensure they understand. Active listening is not a natural skill to master, mainly because most of us would rather talk than listen.

The success of active listening depends on psychological safety. The speaker must feel safe and comfortable to share without trying to look good.


Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and instead, require the respondent to elaborate on their points. They help the speaker process and have awareness of their own inner worlds. Additionally they enable hearing and a deep understanding the customer’s perspective.


Too much thinking can be detrimental to a project. It is easy to complicate an otherwise simple project by over thinking critical and posing questions when not required.

Carefully formulate questions with focus and intent on reaching a solution. Questions that deviate from your objective will only overcomplicate matters and chew valuable resources.


Why? Why? Why?
Questioning questions is an empathetic laddering technique that unearths insights. It works to get under the surface of why we do what we do.
The idea is that empathic laddering can ladder up (or down) to ‘deeper’ emotional drivers for better understand another person’s emotional world.

Try it, find something you hold to be true and ask yourself – How do I know that? Repeat 5 times and see what you uncover.




Once you have done your research an empathy map is one easy way to articulate and digest your findings.

Empathy Mapping Diag 1
image credit: /www.mindtools.com/pages/article/empathy-mapping.htm

Creating an empathy map provides the emotional information you’ll need to understand your prospective customer’s worldview. It is an easy way to illustrate user attitudes and behaviors. Usually done as a team or in a workshop setting it is a fun way to explore and collaborate.

While traditionally used for design, empathy maps can also be used to develop a deeper understanding of peoples’ needs in other contexts such as product development, engineering, content creation, interaction design and improving customer experiences. Once created, it provides a source of truth throughout a project and protects it from bias or unfounded assumptions.

You can read more about empathy maps and how to create them here:

 To deliver a truly customer-centric approach it’s critical to infuse compassionate empathy as well as data intelligence into marketing or any business development activity.

If you need help unearthing the needs of your next project or business activity, a Whisk Creative Marketing Consultation will facilitate a deep dive to crack the surface and unearth underlying needs. Lets work together to connect, communicate and change the world around you!

Share the Post: