Empathy to innovate


Among the soft skills recognized as indispensable for innovation is empathy. Like Jeremy Rifkin who erects it in “cure for a world in crisis” with its “civilization of empathy”, this soft skill is advocated as the central method of “design thinking”. From its etymology “em-pathos”, one identifies that it is a question of putting oneself in the place of the other, to share one’s feelings and thus to innovate, to identify one’s needs, expressed or hidden, and to create a solution that brings progress. It’s about running your left and right brain, your head and your heart at the same time! But empathy is not always n atural … when it is or to develop it, I propose these 4 rules:


1 Listening
Listening is the first of the attitudes to empathize with the others; to be able to feel what he feels. It requires quality listening, “active listening” as described by Carl Rogers, which gives the other this impression of interest in what he says and this intention to want to know more. The basis of innovation is already knowing the needs expressed, to find the right product or improvement that will make incremental innovation.

François Dalle, L’Oréal’s first boss, spent a lot of time in hairdressing salons in contact with hairdressers and customers to detect new hair products and guide research towards scientific leads for innovations that meet customer needs. He is described as a forerunner in innovation with remarkable empathic listening.

2 Expressing and urging to express

This active listening translates into the expression of shared emotions. Beyond the analysis of the left brain in the listening phase, it is to mobilize his right brain to listen with intuition and heart and to discover hidden needs and new uses. By expressing, reformulating the empathic listening process helps to overcome the conscious needs.

Innovations sometimes reveal hidden needs; we can cite the post it, a system that comes off originally refused by 3M whose core business is to create robust adhesives. It took perseverance from his innovator to impose it on 3M, who could have saved time and money if they had empathized with the innovator and the market.

3 Questioning
To know how to question is an art. The empathic question begins with the intention: curiosity for the displayed subject and interest for the person. Whether in face-to-face, interview or group form to generate collective intelligence, the management of the open question is key.

The questioning allows both to feed the convergent phase of the innovation process, to clarify the problem or to find solutions but also the divergent phase to animate a brainstorming session or visual design, methods at the heart of design thinking.

4 Practicing silence
This may seem surprising, especially at the time of the constant chatter of social networks, but the share of silence granted to innovation can be productive. During the break the spirits continue to mature, the listening becomes more intense allowing the weak signals to emerge.

This practice of silence implies accepting not to be knowing, not to criticize an idea that one would not have, to borrow a leadership of openness and benevolence.

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