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Why empathy requires listening on a meaningful level

By August 29, 2023February 6th, 2024Insights

Language, listening and cultural context: why words matter 


Much of creating, understanding and improving customer experience, particularly at the point of research, is about listening. What’s said, what’s not said, the words that are used and the context in which they’re said all have relevance which makes gaining insights from team members or customers vastly more than a question of running a survey.


Real listening is about empathy 


Henry Ford once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” 


People are grounded in the now, so when you ask them a question about what they want, it’s as much about reading between the lines as hearing the words. For example, if they had told Ford they wanted faster horses, what they would really have been saying is that they wanted to be able to go to places faster, or take the hassle out of travel. 


In essence, customer research is about understanding people. That might sound obvious, but listening on a meaningful level is nuanced. Friend of CGA, Lawrence Gould, former Head of Consumer Insights, Experience Strategy and Innovation at Samsung Electronics, reflected on this in a conversation about the value of empathy. He said: 


“Empathy is a given if you’re trying to understand what your customers are really saying to you. Often in customer research, if you ask people what they want they will say ‘I need this thing delivered in six months for x amount of money’, but that’s the how, not what they want to do. Do you want to make a marketing campaign that actually makes money? Do you want to please your boss? Or change the way we do innovation? It’s about digging into the underlying motivations.”


Assuming cultural context


Lawrence also raised an interesting point about language and what it really means to listen. Listening means considering the terminology a customer uses when talking about your product or service – the words, the phrases, the context, and remembering that within your business you’re in a silo when it comes to how you yourself perceive it. 


Having worked in different countries and speaking different languages himself, Lawrence noted that this creates particular challenges for international brands because many of us assume the cultural context of certain words and terms is known.


He said: “Translating between languages is easy but translating what people mean is hard – that’s not a function of translation, that’s understanding cultural context. At Samsung we would talk about ‘breaking silos’, but the people we were working with were always speaking to us in what was a foreign language to them. We eventually realised that this phrase we were using makes no sense in Korean because they don’t cultivate grain. The equivalent terminology would relate to lobster pots!”


That realisation places a whole new perspective on how people communicate with you about a particular thing.


At CGA we work with clients to challenge insight teams and insight gathering processes, ensuring they’re fit for purpose and provide meaningful return on investment by really resonating with your customers. If you would like to find out more about how we can help your business get in touch – we’re here to listen.