The power of empathy

The media marked the 50th anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy with features, analysis, reconstructions and special supplements. As with the previous 50 […]

The media marked the 50th anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy with features, analysis, reconstructions and special supplements. As with the previous 50 years, questions about his legacy went in the main unanswered, overshadowed by conspiracy theories, assassination fascination and the drama of his family life. One exception was Jeffrey Sachs’ book on the late President’s speeches, To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace.

Because his legacy is profound; in the 1036 days of his presidency he managed to push man towards the moon, deliver a civil rights bill, improve the economic standing of the United States, start the Peace Core, enact a nuclear proliferation treaty, and halt the threat of war with the Soviet Union.

What made all this possible was his core strength of finding commonality through empathy. It’s what helped get him into the White House in the first place, enabling him to appeal to voters across demographics, regardless of his wealthy family background, age and religion.

He also learnt the hard way that forgetting this strength hindered his leadership. The Bay of Pigs, an attempt to overthrow the communist government in Cuba dreamt up by the CIA and approved by former President Truman, was his first military action; it wasn’t his style and the outcome could have ruined his presidency.

However, his belief in the power of empathy became invaluable during the ensuing Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy had been in private correspondence with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev since he took office. They conversed on a range of subjects including their hatred of nuclear weapons and Kennedy soon realised that he and Khrushchev were in the same situation, despite their ideological differences.

Kennedy talked to their commonality, calling on Khrushchev: “to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction…”

JFK also recognised that he needed to give Khrushchev a win to take to his military commanders, otherwise Khrushchev, a similar man in terms of principles would be considered weak and be replaced, something Kennedy also worried about himself. So during the final hours of the crisis JFK promised to withdraw missiles from Turkey. This common ground appeased Khrushchev’s military commanders and all out nuclear war was prevented.

In June 1963, JFK delivered a speech at the American University, which asked the American people to look at themselves rather than casting judgement on the Soviet Union, to find commonality. JFK and his speech writer Ted Sorensen balanced the debate with these powerful statements:

“No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find Communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements — in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.

Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war…”

“…So, let us not be blind to our differences. But let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

The speech was allowed by Russian censors to be printed word for word in the Russian press, and Khrushchev responded by calling it “the greatest speech by any American President since Roosevelt”.

Empathy is powerful; it allows for collaboration, opens dialogue and finds a common goal. If you look at the history of brands (here’s the work related bit) – the most successful campaigns have empathised with their audience, found a commonality and built on it further.

Dove’s recent campaign Real Beauty Sketches tapped into this and currently sits as the most viral advert of all time with 114 million views, but what made it different to a well watched YouTube video was that it was heavily debated in the media, in our industry and most importantly by its target audience.

This has also led to the incredible success of PostSecret – the most visited advertising free blog in the world, bringing together peoples secrets anonymously. The power of empathy and commonality is evident if you go to an event, visit the supporting forums, or even watch the TED talk.

As we look to a new year and wonder what the big trends of 2014 will be – it’s worth looking beyond the mechanics of new technologies to what these technologies can inspire, by remembering that the people who moved the world didn’t tell others what they should think and feel, they empathised and found commonality.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela