Empathy for knowledge translation: perceived needs vs real wants
Using empathy to understand and serve the people who will use your research lies at the heart of creating impact that is truly needed.
As researchers and research organisations, empathy is perhaps one of the most important personal qualities that we can cultivate in ourselves. When we empathise with another human being, we understand their thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from our own. Ultimately, being empathetic helps us deliver research that really counts for end-users.
Even though we know how intrinsic empathy is to our success in bringing our research to life, this quality often gets sidelined in our earnest passion to make a difference.
You may have heard people in our research community say – or even found yourself saying: “they really need” to do something, say something, or maybe change something. At some point in our life, many of us will have truly believed that we could help or even solve someone else’s problem.
The fact is that although we believe we know someone’s needs, it is not typically what they really need. We are simply making an assumption.
Are assumptions getting between you and research impact?
By making this assumption, we believe something is the case even without any proof. These assumptions are based on our worldviews. If we only operate on our assumptions, how will we ever really know if we are being heard, believed, respected or indeed having an impact?
“We all see the world through a lens. We look through lenses of age, ethnicity, race, ability – and that’s how we see the world.”
Our assumptions come from the lens that we see the world through. The lens we use is based on our insights, personal experience, history, family stories – and we all see the world through this unique lens.
How to use empathy to see beyond your personal lens.
Brené Browne is a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent the past two decades studying human experiences like empathy, courage and vulnerability. Brené says that we can’t put down our lens, but we can instead use empathy. We can take the perspective of other people.
To do this we must ask, listen and hear other people’s stories, and we must believe people’s experiences without running them through our own lens.
This is known as perspective taking. Without this, you can’t practice empathy and you are left with making assumptions about other people.
Let’s get real and find out what people really want.
What are perceived needs and how do they differ from real wants?
Perceived needs are the things we think that people want or should do, and these are based on our personal values and beliefs – that is, our lens.
Wants, on the other hand, are the things that people are willing to commit to and are ready to do. A person’s wants drive their behaviour to make a decision.
What would you do to help a homeless person?
Consider for a moment what a homeless person needs. Perhaps you are thinking they need a home, or a bed, some food or shelter. What you think this homeless person needs may differ from someone else because it is based on your own experiences and your own lens.
But instead of the things you assumed they need, maybe they want a job.
A job will give them self-worth, belonging, purpose and hope. This example held true for the social enterprise out of Melbourne, Australia called STREAT.
This social enterprise decided to tackle homelessness, not by providing houses or homes, but by instead training homeless people to work in different roles in cafes and pop up coffee stands in Melbourne.
STREAT is dedicated to helping young people who need a hand. It was created to help overcome youth homelessness, but not by giving them homes; instead STREAT provide a sustainable livelihood. Since 2009, STREAT has been giving homeless youth between 16-25 a job where they are trained and earn a qualification to become baristas and to run a café.
The feedback from the youths involved in STREAT paints a nice picture.
‘Today I graduate. Today I actually finish something I started, today I walk away with friends and knowledge but most of all I leave with hope… Sometimes you underestimate how much a course can do for you. I know I did but when I look back I can see that STREAT is one of the defining factors in my life.’
‘Staff make you feel really welcome when you walk in. Just a smile that means they know you and care. Simple stuff but it makes me happy to know I belong here.’
’STREAT has given me a sense of direction that I haven’t felt in years. Even just a year ago everything was chaotic – now I am getting on track. I am finally in stable accommodation, I am studying and have got motivation to do things again. STREAT has been an amazing experience for me.’
‘Trainees and staff are the first people in my life who accept me and support me completely.’
‘I’m so proud of myself and I never thought I would be proud of myself.’
These quotes highlight how their biggest wants were around feelings and purpose, in contrast to what many may assume they need.
Meet people where they are at for real impact.
If we want to motivate or influence someone, we need to a deep understanding of what they want. To do this, we need to understand their current frustrations and even their fears.
By listening, observing and learning about someone’s frustrations and fears we can influence and gain traction.
We can do this with empathy. Avoid running everything you hear through your own lens and try to understand it from another perspective. This requires a level of open-mindedness.
A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted this concept as ‘intellectual humility’, consisting of:
- respect for others’ viewpoints
- not being intellectually overconfident
- separating ego from intellect
- being willing to revise your own view point.
Unless you can understand someone’s world and connect with them on a deeper level, you are unlikely to understand what it is that they really want.
But we do this all the time when we make assumptions about what a person, a team or an organisation needs to improve something or achieve something.
The problem is that delivering what we think someone needs will rarely, if ever solve their problem. It’s not that the offering is not valuable or even relevant, although that too could be argued.
It is because if the receiver, be they an individual or an organisation, does not want your offering, they will not take the steps needed to implement or use it. Ultimately, you will not have the intended impact.
When translating our research or even engaging with end-users, stakeholders and audiences, we need to consider our messages in the context of what they want, not necessarily what we believe they need.
The best way to serve someone is to give them what they want, not what you think they need!