The Invaluable Role of Empathy in Research: A Must-Have Skill for Researchers

Sep 11, 2023

For some jobs, empathy may not be that important, but market researchers don't fall into that category. Empathy in research is essential to build relationships in the market and get usable, actionable insights from consumers.  

"Empathy is perhaps the greatest skill for a human insights researcher," said Jill Burnett, a global insights leader. "We all see and process the world through the lens of our own lived experiences. Human insights using empathy require that we set aside our personal lens and observe, notice, and make connections through the lens of another human being. This is hard, challenging work."  

Certainly, empathy in research is an industry buzzword right now. It’s the shiny new toy, just like artificial intelligence and all those other new tactics and technologies. But it's also more than a buzzword!

We know that because empathy is not a new approach. We’ve practiced empathy from the beginning of our 50 years in business. For those decades, we've made friends for a living, and to make friends, you have to be interested in each other. That means being truly mindful and meaningful about how you engage with participants and make them feel good about themselves, or at the very least, safe in your presence.  After all, empathy is not about the moderator, the marketer, the company; it's about the consumer.

"A researcher without empathy is akin to a chef who doesn't taste their own food along the way," said Khary Campbell, vice president of consumer research and insights at Comcast.  

So, let's get cooking!  

In this article, we discuss the following:  

  • What is empathy in research?  
  • Better insights through empathy  
  • How researchers can develop empathy skills  

What is empathy in research?

Empathy in research, which can also be considered empathy in communications, comes down to truly understanding the other person's viewpoint. It's not just about what you want to hear but what is being said and what it means.  

Empathy in research is the cornerstone of good qualitative research. Unfortunately, many times research can feel clinical, regimented, and even cold. When it feels like research, that's a sign empathy isn't present. Instead, it should be a life experience for all involved. It must make participants feel good and that it was a productive use of their time, and that is why using empathy in research is synonymous with success.  

Where does empathy in research show up?

For research to drive results, empathy needs to be included in these three areas:

  1. Research Design: Keep the consumer's emotions and needs in mind when designing the research project. Even though you aren't talking to the consumer in this stage, still understand them and design questions based on where they are.
  1. Participant Engagement: Engage with participants in a way that makes them feel comfortable, relaxed and understood. Be in the moment and show them you care about them, about their experiences in their greatest details.
  1. Debrief & Result Share-out: Whether it’s a presentation, one-sheeter, or a video, empathy still matters here as well. Sharing insights in a way that caters to the research users is essential to drive meaningful action.

"Understand that empathy is just the starting point," said Isabelle Landreville, President & Chief Insight Seeker at Sylvestre & Co. "But it is only with empathy that you will make the right decisions to ensure success. Without empathy, you are blinded."

The types of empathy

There are three components of empathy to consider:  

  • Cognitive empathy: The ability to understand another person's perspective.  
  • Emotional empathy: The ability to share another person's feelings.
  • Compassionate empathy: The ability to care about another person's well-being.  

All of these take practice and time to master. And at times, they can be overlooked because researchers are so busy with the tasks of setting up the research, finding respondents, and then asking all the questions everyone would like to ask.  

"To truly be empathetic as a researcher, it has to be second nature; it has to be ingrained in how you work and interact with people," said Isabelle. "That's why the team at Sylvestre & Co. makes empathy in research a top priority in all projects so results are most useful and impactful for our clients."  

Better insights through empathy

When you understand consumers better and more accurately in your qualitative research, that gives you better insights - insights that can influence and drive better decisions.  

After all, market research shouldn't just be a "check that box" activity. "Oh, yes, we did the research." But it should be about understanding what's going on in consumers' lives, asking questions that give us a peak into their experiences, and then evaluating the information gathered and analyzed to drive your business forward.  

And empathetic researchers also help their stakeholders understand how empathy leads to insights and stronger, better business decisions with more successful outcomes.  

Developing empathy in research skills

To develop empathy in communication with consumers, consider these steps provided by Jill:

  • Self-awareness: The self-awareness to recognize your own lens - your own judgments and biases.  
  • Setting your lens aside: Approach the question or situation from an attitude of curiosity and exploration.  
  • Making human connections: Develop common understandings and links that exist beyond and below the veneer of limited personal experiences.  

Empathy in research takes awareness, practice, and realistic check-ins on whether the researcher was empathetic.  

It really comes down to making it all about them and not you. Stop thinking about what you will be saying next, what you will be asking next, and be there in the moment. Be patient, gracious, generously mindful, and fully absorbed in the moment.

We get it. There are objectives, stakeholders, and other tasks and deliverables. But researchers must own their empathy and how it fits into objectives.  

At the end of the day, nothing can pull you away from that participant. It has to be unconditional, undivided attention.    

"It's critical to remind ourselves to take a step back and contemplate the why behind the initiative," said Raina Rusnak, a consumer insights leader.  "Ultimately, we all benefit from staying plugged into the true experience and reminding ourselves to see things from the customer's point of view."


Ways to be more empathetic as a researcher

Learning empathy as a researcher comes back to the following:  

  • Be open-minded and non-judgmental.  
  • Listen actively and ask clarifying questions.  
  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes.  
  • Be mindful of your own biases.  

Of course, this is easier said than done. Even when researchers understand their biases, think they are open-minded, and listen actively, they still need to ensure to practice empathy.

But to get the full picture of what research can do, it’s important to have empathy across all stages of the research process. At the end of the day, it takes empathy to build empathy.