Empathy and Business Storytelling

“ I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”

Alan Greenspan

From empathy to influence

You're sitting in the meeting room with a potential client.

The meeting is going great. You take the last chocolate cookie from the plate and flush it down with what must be the most aromatic coffee in years.

The coffee dances a wild dance on your pallet.

It tastes bold, strong, and robust – with just a hint of a bitter aftertaste.

When you look up, your eyes meet the steel blue eyes of your potential client, and you realize: So is he.

The look in his eyes is not unfriendly, and you can sense his amusement, for he could not help but notice your love affair with the coffee.

You did everything right. You established a relationship, your potential client looks relaxed and feels comfortable.

Earlier, he shared his true agenda with you – the critical information that's not listed in the RFI/RFP.

With a high EQ and the accompanying listening and empathy skills, earning the trust of someone, understanding what makes them tick and creating an emotional connection is easy for you.

But then what?

From “liked” to influence

You could convey that you are a likable and trustworthy person. So far, so good. Your conversation partner will give you permission to talk, and he will listen.

Being liked or even trusted does not mean you will allow someone to influence you.

But that your conversation partner trusted you enough to share his emotions and agenda with you, puts you in the ideal position to do so.

"Influence is a transfer of emotion."

Mike Bosworth

How does transferring emotions work

Emotional intelligence provides you with a set of skills that allow you to become more influential. For instance, listening skills, empathy, communication skills.

You'll have a good sense of what makes someone tick, and the information you gain allows you to build a vision for your potential client.

Or perhaps he already has a vision, and you can add to it and make it even greater.

Stories are an effective medium to transfer emotion – unless you make that one mistake.

Relatability in storytelling

There are several reasons storytelling doesn't work for many people, for instance:

  • The storyteller is not controlling the outcome while telling an emotional story
  • The story is not relevant to the listener
  • The structure is wrong
  • The emotion isn't strong or appealing enough

Or: Your listener did not feel the vision, did not see the picture.

But today I want to point out one important feature of a story that leads people to act. 

Let's look at empathy and altruism and when we take action. I apologize for using somewhat extreme examples to make my point.

Empathy and Altruism

"As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation."

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Empathy stems from the ancient Greek word empatheia (passion.)

Our interest in understanding the moral implications of understanding others goes way back. In his book “The theory of moral sentiments” from 1753, Adam Smith established that sensory input alone is not enough for us to act.

Empathy in this context is more specifically understood as a phenomenon of “inner imitation,” where my mind mirrors the mental activities or experiences of another person based on the observation of his bodily activities or facial expressions. Empathy is ultimately based on an innate disposition for motor mimicry.

Adam Smith

Why do we sometimes care and sometimes not?

If a sick brown haired boy from Tampa who's favorite toy is a plush unicorn needs 10K for a surgery that might prolong his life for 6 months, many people will help to donate graciously.

Do we care less about 3 Million kids who died from hunger in Africa in 2011 (source: BBC)?

Looking at the cost situation in the US, the money for a surgery here could go a long way in Africa. Rationally, money donated to hungry kids who are not sick could make a bigger difference.

Or is this number just too abstract? As little as a change in wording to “one kid dies every 15 seconds” makes at least a  small difference.

If people see in a movie theater how the genitals of the main protagonist are being tortured, the majority of male watchers will cringe.

In the first 24 hours of 2017, 210 were killed or injured by gun violence. Yet, we are more moved by mass shootings.

How much we care has more to do with how well we can identify with a situation than its actual severeness.

It's called the identifiable victim effect.

People are likely to take action when the information they receive is tangible and not general and abstract.

To put this back into the business context: The “what's in for me” question must be answered, and it must feel good. I have to literally see a picture of me gaining what I want from doing what you want me to do.

Self-referential processing and vivid vision

When transferring emotion via storytelling, it's important that your prospect or conversation partner sees or feels (emotional intelligence enables you to know which) a clear vision with as many colors as possible.

Storytelling works. If it doesn't work for you, you could check if your story is:

  • too abstract
  • not told with the listener in mind (taking his beliefs and desires into account)
  • poorly targeted due to a lack of listening skills

If the vision is vivid enough and complies with the listener's ideas, he will act.