Applied Empathy:Leading Through Understanding

Ramesha Perera
Mon 08 Jul


 “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” – Henry David Thoreau


Michael Ventura is the founder and CEO of Sub Rosa, a strategy and design practice that helps organisations tackle existing challenges so they can go back into market better than ever.

In fact his first book, Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership, offers up the agency’s operating methodology and gives shape to how empathy can be used as a very effective framework for problem-solving.

But what is empathy? 

The discovery of the mirror neurons, in the mid 90s, changed the way we think about ourselves, and is considered one of the most important finds regarding the evolution of the human brain.

Spread throughout crucial parts of the brain, neurons act when we perform an action and also when we watch someone else perform it. These cells activate in response to chains of action.

This is what happens when, for example, a baby starts to cry because another baby close by is crying. Or in the case of laughter, which spreads in a group even if people are not aware of why others are laughing.

If you see someone emotionally afflicted for whatever reason, the mirror neurons in your brain will simulate affliction. You automatically feel empathy for the other person because you, literally, feel what they are feeling.



The logic of psychology has concluded that empathy is an identification process, where someone puts himself in the place of someone else and, based on his own suppositions or impressions, tries to understand the other’s behavior. It’s part of a deep emotional intelligence. Empathy allows those who possess it to see the world through the eyes of others and understand their perspectives in a unique way.

It’s helpful to note that empathy is not the same as that golden rule that states “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This recommendation is based on our own self interests and not related to another person.

A quote from an Irish romantic playwright illustrates these observations well. It says: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” And that is precisely the point. Empathy is about discovering these different tastes.

Ventura champions that empathy sits at the core of finding the right solution to organisational problems. Now more than ever, brands need to step into the shoes of their customers and consider how their organisation is positioned within today’s deeply diverse culture. When problem-solving, question whether innovation is happening in a vacuum. Are you pulling in subject matter experts, research from the outside world, contextual cues, and customer insights to inform your strategy?

Of course, trying to absorb and apply every single piece of information from every available source won’t result in a clear and innovative plan of action. Instead, it’s about stepping back and honing in on the most essential themes from this variety of perspectives to pursue.

This requires a redefinition of how we view empathy in relation to business practices; not as a gesture of sympathy, ‘being nice,’ or pandering to people’s every need, but as a way to use deeper understanding as a competitive differentiator.

The way we find this balance is through a structured application and ultimately, practice.

To learn more about Michael Ventura’s Applied Empathy methodology and how you can integrate it into your corporate innovation activities check out his book now