design trends

The Amazing True Story of #BIF2015, Empathy Fatigue, and, um, Me

October 14, 2015
by Ken Gordon

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I like to hear personal revelations as much as the next guy. Maybe more than the next guy (I am, after all, a lifetime English major). If someone, in the course of spooling out a colorful, knotty, autobiographical yarn, allows me to see the pattern of her true self, I’m psyched. Understand that I recently attended the superb 2015 Business Innovation Factory Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, Rhode Island, in which a skilled collection of storytellers gathered to recount meaningful narratives of ideas, innovations, and organizations. I learned a good hillock of things at #BIF2015, but perhaps the most lasting lesson was this: Our capacity for empathy has its limits, and that it’s important to recognize where limits are and what happens when they are reached.

It was one intense #BIF2015! One story after another after another, each testing our capacity for feeling. Suffering! Cancer! Prejudice! Near suicide! Mental illness! Failure! (With the occasional gorgeous sounds of a Latin American Carmen thrown in for good measure.) It was a lot to take in. The sum total of which prompted my new buddy, Adam Hansen (@adhansen)—who sat next to me for the two days of #BIF2015—to say: “I expect intellectual stimulation when I attend an innovation conference, but I don’t expect to cry.”

Confession: After a while, I stopped getting emotional and started getting critical. I had no choice but to take up arms against the sea of feeling and start looking for narrative patterns, analyzing each speaker’s rhetoric, preparing for the personal devastation and then the inevitable triumph.

Truth is, you can lean too hard on a listener’s empathetic good will, and in doing so, call forth walls of defensiveness and critical thinking that make it difficult for a personal story to be received in the proper manner.

Empathy, I must now blurt out, is the primary color of the palette here at Continuum. We know how to hear what people are really saying and how to convert that understanding into good, useful, meaningful products and services. Empathy is our ethos, as it is for so many others who practice design thinking.

Recently, however, a friend and co-worker of mine, Augusta Meill, suggested that perhaps empathizing with an individual isn't enough. “If there is a pendulum of corporate focus, the push for empathy is a welcome swing in the direction of human need,” she wrote. “But this need not be a one-dimensional push-pull. There are other ingredients that should enrich the conversation.”

The broader view is called for—and I found it by pulling back from #BIF2015.

In fact, I pulled all the way back to a former life, to the time before my daily innovation conversations, when I was a Teacher of Rhetoric. Yes, for a few severely underpaid years in the ’90s, I taught a specific brand of Rhetoric—Aristotelian with a Stephen Toulmin spin—to some nice children at The College of New Jersey, who more or less humored my attempts to be professorial. What I recall best of all from those years is Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle: ethos (the appeal to ethics), logos (the appeal to logic) and pathos (the appeal to the emotions). Of the three, the pathetic appeal was, to my mind, always the most pathetic.

You feel too much, too deeply, and you wind up missing the other stuff.

The sentimental person has a rather narrow view of the world. As the great novelist Milan Kundera puts it:

Homo sentimentalis cannot be defined as a man with feelings (for we all have feelings), but as a man who has raised feelings to a category of value. As soon as feelings are seen as a value, everyone wants to feel; and because we all like to pride ourselves on our values, we have a tendency to show off our feelings.”

Showing off our feelings was the m.o. at #BIF2015. Which makes sense. It’s how #BIF differentiates itself from other, similar events. Beyond that, it’s easy to understand how strong emotional stories are necessary to make serious transformations happen. Radical innovation needs stories that elicit deep belief. But to make sustainable change, to forge sustainable orgs, you need to emphasize all three sides of Aristotle’s triangle.

To be fair, the #BIF2015 speakers also had some non-emotional insights to share (see Irwin Kula’s great roundup here), but there’s no denying that the conference led with emotion. It might have been helpful to have more non-emotional moments programmed in there. A great example of that was the thoughtful, all-ideas-and-almost-no-emotions conversation between BIF’s Saul Kaplan (@skap5) and Boston Scientific’s co-founder John Abele.

Perhaps #BIF2016 will feature stories that take us not just to the outer limits of feeling, but to the equally interesting hinterlands of logic and ethics. That would be a truly great Summit to scale.

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