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Can Empathy Survive the Echo Chamber?

Note: In the aftermath of last week’s Presidential election, we at Sustainable Brands were struck by the parallels to a recent, similarly polarizing political situation abroad with an equally shocking result – the UK’s Brexit referendum – and how Andy Last’s astute observations at the time, about the breakdowns in communication that led just over half of Brits to vote to leave the EU, seem applicable to us here in the States now. We share it with you below – enjoy.

One of the many things that brought me up short in the aftermath of the Brexit vote was the analysis that so many people had voted out because they were surrounded by calls to leave, especially on social media - surrounded by friends and strangers, all calling for the UK to vote itself out of the EU.

I had the opposite experience. Virtually none of my friends, family, colleagues or neighbours talked about leaving; and my feeds were almost entirely full of passionate calls to stay.

I know we all live in an echo chamber to some extent, surrounding ourselves with like-minded voices – but I have to say I hadn’t realised quite how insulating that chamber was, how different the UK actually is to the one I assumed I lived in. This is almost more worrying than the economic, political and social uncertainties of Brexit – that we are a divided nation that doesn’t recognize its other half. It’s a phenomenon of course that’s playing out beyond the UK, notably in the Presidential race in the United (or not so) States.

We are a society not only split by the effects of globalization into rich and poor, but blinded to that split by media fragmentation that allows us to share views, opinions and reference points almost entirely with people like us. We’re not blinded to it anymore. We often talk about the importance of empathy, but it’s not empathetic to be able to understand and share the feelings of others when ‘others’ is restricted to people like ourselves living in the same echo chamber.

If it wasn’t clear before June 23rd, it is certainly clear now – that none of us can afford to confine our conversations and connections to people like us. It doesn’t work politically and it doesn’t work commercially, either. Marketing teams know they have to get into the hearts and minds of their consumers. But that has to go beyond market research and focus groups to genuine connection and understanding, to talking directly to their consumers wherever they are and truly understanding their lives - even more important for people working on global brands to be able to hear more than the voices in their head office echo chamber.

Sales teams know they have to listen to their customers’ needs. But that has to go beyond parroting rehearsed questions and trigger words to something more like genuine empathy.

And corporates and civil society know – in their minds – that they need to partner with each other more in the future; they talk of shared value and shared agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals. But they have to go further than understanding the rational case for partnership, to connecting with their hearts, too, and making a sincere effort to empathise with those who don’t share their own views and don’t have the same starting point.

Maybe I’m searching for a silver lining where there isn’t one, but I will certainly be trying to extend my own reference points beyond people like me from now on.

This post first appeared on the SALT blog on June 27, 2016.