Getting Raw About Empathy in Life and Work
December 7th | 2016

Those closest to me would describe me as hardworking and stubborn.

I have high standards. I respect authority but am deeply curious and always challenge the status quo. I work to find efficiencies, but not at the expense of the best work. I don’t often tap into my emotional side, and when I became a mother, my biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be nurturing. I have little patience for people just sitting around and talking about their feelings, devoid of action. I don’t say a lot, but what I do say is thoughtful and intentional. My Myers-Briggs type is an ISTJ. I’m introverted, sensing, thinking, and judging. Really, really judging in fact. Those with the same Myers-Briggs type are Darth Vader and George H. W. Bush. Yes, this is pretty fucking scary for me too.


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Feelings are fine, but I’m more interested in what you’re going to DO as a result of how you feel. This attitude and ability has served me well at Zeus Jones, because in addition to all the above characteristics, I think I’m also known as someone who gives others the space they need to react to things — a change in management, some crushing client feedback, a less-than-ideal election result — but I’m someone who will rally people around me and help us do something about it. I’m a producer, and at Zeus Jones that means we work to create change.

I came back from maternity leave in late August, at the same time that Zeus Jones was introducing our new business creds deck as a new way to talk about what we do, since we often can’t quite articulate it. Slide 3 reads, “We combine strategy, design, creativity, and empathy to help businesses unlock the potential in people.” “Whoa,” was my reaction.

Empathy is now a core discipline and equal in importance to creative, design, and strategy.

But being who I am (see first paragraph), I decided to take this on as a personal challenge. I want to master everything that I’m asked of, so as usual I took this new focus pretty seriously. I started reading about emotional intelligence, compassion, sociology, vulnerability, and even Buddhist teachings to get at the heart and soul of what empathy is and what it would mean for me.

Then I went about putting empathy into practice. And here’s what I did:

  • I stopped making assumptions about people.
  • I started asking them about the motivations behind their actions instead of just making suggestions about how to do something the right way.
  • I worked to better understand their context — all of it, not just the one slice that I was seeing.  
  • I put myself in their shoes and asked myself what I would do if I were them.
  • I stopped pushing people to just make the work better.
  • I opened up to people, let my weirdness out, and started telling people about what I thought and felt  so they could understand me better.

And I’ve learned a lot.

It’s exhausting. It’s hard work — at times harder than the actual work we do in creative, design, and strategy.

It takes practice to be good at it. I assumed that some people are good at it and others are not. The end. As with most assumptions, I was wrong.

It’s not a means to an end. I don’t practice empathy and vulnerability to understand others in order to manipulate them. I do it because it builds real connections, and that feels good! And if we just need to sit and talk about our feelings for 30 minutes and there’s no actionable insight or next step, that’s okay.

It’s worth the investment. My brain is totally exhausted, maybe even more so than before, but my heart is full. Giving me the energy, capacity, and strength to keep going. To keep working with my peers to find the right answer.

You must have empathy for yourself before you can have empathy for others. And this is the thing about empathy that’s been the most eye-opening for me. It’s true, I am all of the things I mentioned earlier in the post, and, yes, I might have some traits in common with Bush and Vader, but that doesn’t mean that’s everything I am. I’m also patient, kind, generous with my time, constructive in giving feedback, and helpful in allowing my teams to have a lot of fun while getting work done — I mean, Hermione Granger is an ISTJ for Pete’s sake. I’ve realized that to be empathetic toward others, I first have to be gentle and kind to myself — that there is beauty in my complexity and my so-called flaws.


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Since making a concentrated effort to be more empathetic, I’ve had to become comfortable with my vulnerability as well as the vulnerability of others. Empathy and vulnerability are dependent upon each other; you can’t have one without the other. And this is where it all comes full circle for me. 


To solve the tough problems — problems that haven’t really been answered before — you need to take a leap.

The first step in doing that is admitting that you don’t know the answer, which means being vulnerable. Once you’re vulnerable, true empathy sets in and becomes a tool you use, and then eventually a natural part of all your interactions. When you’re  willing to say “I don’t know” and let your guard down, new possibilities emerge and you see potential in ways you didn’t before. This is why empathy is a core focus for us — because vulnerability and empathy are required in order to solve the toughest challenges. And those questions without easy answers are the problems we at Zeus Jones want to solve.