Expert Feature: David Sauvage on Empathy

EvolvEd intern Annie Wang sits down for a conversation with David Sauvage, an expert on empathy and a trainer of emotional intelligence. He has consulted for companies such as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts about systematically incorporating empathy in their organizations. Read about his thoughts on the role of empathy in individual interpersonal relationships, corporations, marketing, and politics!

AW: To start off, I was wondering if you could tell me about your background and how you got into this line of work?

DS: My background is in film and television. I was directing commercials for many years. I discovered I had this real gift: my gift as a director was that I was really good at understanding people and what they were experiencing and helping them get that out in front of cameras. That led to me doing one-on-one work with people to help them process their emotions.

My superpower is that I’m really good at feeling what other people are going through. I started teaching online classes around empathy and the classes led to me consulting for different companies. I worked with Four Seasons, the hotel chain, to help them figure out how to scale empathy across all their hotels, how they could get their employees to treat customers with empathy systematically. I also did a big project with Coca-Cola to help them integrate empathy into their marketing campaigns. More recently, I’ve been doing online empathy training for companies. 

AW: So with that, how would you define empathy?

DS: Understanding the experience of another person.

AW: And do you think empathy is a skill that is intrinsic, conditioned, or a mix of both?

DS: A mix of both. Some people are going to be naturally more attuned to other people’s feelings and experiences. But no matter how attuned you are or aren’t, there’s always room to get better at it. A lot of people who think that they’re really bad at it or don’t think they would have any empathy at all or just feel clueless at the thought actually are very sensitive people who just shut down. So you can’t tell how much talent you have by how much empathy you have right now.

AW: I was interested in what you said earlier about ways to incorporate empathy in a systematic way. Do you think these come in regular habits at a company like making sure to check in with employees or how that affects the marketing content delivered to audience members?

DS: You can look at empathy in two different ways from a corporate standpoint. One is having empathy with your customers, just generally what your customers are experiencing. Do you really understand what your customer’s relationship to your product is on an emotional and intuitive level? The product can be a physical product or the product can be content. So if you’re putting out marketing, are you attuned to the experience of your target customer while they are watching this? Or are you instead just saying what you feel like you need to say, trusting that they’ll get what you need them to get. That’s bad marketing. That’s also known in colloquial terms as bragging. Effective marketing is some kind of communication that understands where your customer is emotionally and psychologically and then brings them authentically to where you want them to go without manipulating them. 

In Coca-Cola’s case, they wanted to integrate empathy itself as what they were selling. So they wanted to develop a marketing campaign saying “Hey, the world is missing empathy, let’s sell empathy” as a way to sell Coca-Cola. “How do you sell empathy” was the question I was tasked with. The answer that I started to provide–we got a little derailed by the pandemic–was around listening. So instead of telling people that they should be empathetic, what if you had a campaign that was around really listening and understanding people. Then you’re showing empathy instead of telling empathy. That’s on the marketing/communications standpoint. 

Within the company, the most important determinant of whether there’s an empathetic culture is the heart and openness and maturity of the leaders in the company. Nothing else really matters. No matter what procedures and practices you put in place like check-ins or leaving space for people to express their feelings, all that goes out the window in two seconds if the CEO is a cold-hearted asshole.

The fundamental question is in order to bring empathy deeply into corporate settings, you need to connect high level executives with their heart and overcome their resistance to being in their heart. There are things you can do on a lower level where you do online trainings or you help down below be a little bit more understanding and maybe what that does is build a more connective workplace, but it doesn’t do much in the long haul unless the executives at the top care.

AW: Do you think companies have increased or decreased empathy in the era of COVID-19?

DS: I think they have an increased interest in caring and care less. So you have a lot more effort into caring, and that’s because people grasp that employees need a different kind of support than they’ve gotten in the past. In the past, employees were in a physical space and interacted with the culture and felt like they were part of the team. Now people are feeling more isolated and their families are all over them, and also everyone (corporate or not) is going through major shifts and corporations know that. So there’s the knowing that there needs to be a greater understanding of employees’ experiences, but the practical thing is, unless your company happens to be doing really well right now–which is the exception, not the rule–what you’ll find is most companies that are struggling and confused, that are in a state of anxiety, the bottom line for everything else, become more and more closed off to people’s emotional and psychological needs.

So basically I would say that companies that are thriving are becoming more empathetic. Companies that are struggling are becoming less empathetic which is basically the way empathy is looked at in the corporate setting: as a nice-to-have but not a must-have. So it’s nice to think about how to treat people well if we have the space and the bandwidth and the money, then sure. But if things are grinding and it’s hard, then let’s just get to the bottom line. 

AW: So, a priority on productivity. 

DS: Cash flow, I would say. Not productivity.

AW: I think it’s been interesting to hear some politicians begin to emphasize empathy as a part of their platform to appeal to marginalized communities and those hit hardest by the pandemic. Do you think this is an effective tactic?

DS: No. I don’t think that empathy is an effective–empathy itself is effective–but calls to empathy are not effective. Calls to empathy are ways of demonstrating moral superiority and the purpose is not to be empathetic, it’s to demonstrate that the other person is not empathetic which is in itself not a demonstration of empathy. So when Obama says “We need empathy” or when Biden says “I will be empathetic,” he’s talking to a very small subset of already left-leaning people who agree with him and say things like “We need a more empathetic culture” but the rest of everyone who either is on the fence or doesn’t agree hears that as patronizing liberal nonsense, and they’re not wrong. 

The way to make empathy central to your communications and platform is to actually demonstrate empathy. For instance, instead of saying “We need a more empathetic culture” (which is a way of shaming Donald Trump supporters, what if he said: “I understand why Donald Trump won the election. I understand that white middle class voters are feeling priced out. I understand that the Democratic Party has lied and betrayed you thousands of times. I understand you want to tear the whole thing down. I hear you; I get it.” That would be true empathy, and everyone that they’re trying to appeal to by saying they’re more empathetic would actually be felt and seen. 

But their intent is not to feel and see, it’s to demonstrate moral superiority, which is the opposite of empathy. So it’s terrible. And the vapidness is demonstrated by Obama’s call to empathy which led to nothing more than Donald Trump supporters’ survival. Obama makes this great call to empathy as the central tether to his politics. But actually it makes the country less empathetic on the whole. We are more polarized, less empathetic. That’s partly due to the lie that the call to empathy leads to more empathy. If he had been more empathetic to white working class voters in Wisconsin, we wouldn’t be in this mess, but instead he prioritized banks, etc. 

AW: That’s an interesting perspective. I wonder how effective these strategies of calls for empathy and calling out incompetence are for gaining voters on the fence, to get those voters who didn’t vote or voted third-party in 2016 because they didn’t like Trump and Hillary. 

DS: It’s counterproductive, self-sabotaging. It was one of Hillary’s big mistakes calling Trump supporters deplorables and racists. Not that they aren’t deplorable racists, but if that’s what you’re focused on, you’re losing the debate. Their primary critique is that you’re elitist and out-of-touch. You’re actually proving their point. And you’re fighting them in a place where they have more tools and weapons because they’re actually fighters. People claiming empathy are bad fighters and bad at empathy. It’s a losing proposition. 

AW: That’s all of the questions I had for you today. Do you have anything to add in regards to the current climate or your work?

DS: Yeah. I think the question is “Why would one want to increase one’s empathy? What is the point of learning empathy on an individual level?” (since I imagine the ones signing up will be individuals).

I think the reason you want to increase empathy is because you want healthier and more loving relationships. That’s the primary reason. There’s an argument to be made that empathy increases productivity for the bottom line, but I’m not interested in making that argument. The bigger argument is that if you’re going to be going into work every day (whether digital or physical), wouldn’t you want those dynamics to be healthier and more joyful and more flowy and more positive? Isn’t that a better energy to be in when you come home from work every day? Wouldn’t you like to understand your partner instead of shut them out? That will save you a lot of frustration and energy down the line. Every minute you put into increasing your empathy will spare you a lot of distress later. 

AW: How do you see that working in a one-on-one format. Let’s say that I’m a prospective student coming to you and I want to increase my own individual empathy. How would you approach doing that? Would you look at my response to certain scenarios, my habits?

DS: I would look at whatever interpersonal dynamic is alive and challenging. I like when there are stakes and it counts. That’s when the shift happens. If your boss and you don’t get along like “I don’t understand why my boss doesn’t understand me” or “They’re such an idiot” and you just can’t get past your conception of them and you just keep grinding–whoever that is in your life. That’s where I want to work and I want you to understand where they’re truly coming from, and I want you to understand why you’re having trouble understanding where they’re coming from. Like what’s going on in you and what’s going on in them, and from that place healthier communication is possible. 

Learn empathy from David at!

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