October 25, 2023

Minter Dial on organizational empathy, augmenting with AI, empathic curiosity, and connecting to reality (AC Ep16)

“The beauty of life is dealing with challenges, not pretending that it’s perfect.”

– Minter Dial
Robert Scoble
About Minter Dial

Minter Dial is a professional speaker on leadership and transformation and the award-winning author of four books, most recently Heartificial Empathy, recently released in its second edition. He hosts the Minter Dialogue podcast and is author of the featured Substack Dialogos, Fostering More Meaningful Conversations. He previously held senior executive roles including as CEO of Redken Worldwide.

Website: www.minterdial.com

White Paper: Making Empathy Count

Books: https://www.minterdial.com/books/


LinkedIn: Minter Dial

Facebook: Minter Dial

YouTube: @MinterDial 

Twitter: @mdial 

What you will learn

  • Developing empathy and emotional intelligence in leadership (03:16)
  • Distinguishing between sympathy and genuine affective empathy (04:21)
  • Understanding and practicing compassionate communication (06:44)
  • Addressing empathy burnout in the modern workplace (08:38)
  • Challenges in fostering organizational empathy (12:00)
  • Role of curiosity, humility, and self-awareness in empathy (13:37)
  • The impact of reading fiction on empathy development (14:20)
  • Emphasizing the influence of one’s perspective on AI utilization (20:27)
  • Exploring empathic AI solutions while maintaining authenticity and consistency in customer service (23:47)
  • Clarifying intentions and ambitions before implementing AI solutions (29:33)
  • Exploring the connection between societal disconnection and AI development and perception (32:26)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Minter, it’s a delight to be talking to you.

Minter Dial: Ross, it’s always fun to chat with you. I’ve enjoyed following your work, reading about it, and having you on my podcast. Thanks for having me on.

Ross: You have worked with leaders in all guises for many years now. Leadership encompasses cognition, its array of making sense of the world to be able to act effectively in it. It’s a very big topic but what are some of the ways in which we can, as leaders, enhance our cognition or to help leaders to enhance their cognition, breadth, and scope of their ability to think and act?

Minter: Ross, it’s an interesting way to go into this topic by referencing empathy, which is a strong or very important skill that leaders of today and tomorrow need to have. Typically, we divide empathy into two different types. One is cognitive and the other is affective or emotional. To be a little bit out of left field, one of the things that leaders could do to improve their cognition would be to have better self-awareness and a higher emotional quotient. In other words, better understanding of their emotions, better acceptance of them, and eventually, a better showing of them. That’s where I’d like to start.

Ross: Let’s dig into the theme of empathy. How do you define that? Let’s bring this idea of empathy to life.

Minter: Essentially, there are many different schools of thought as to what empathy is, but broadly speaking, it’s about being in someone else’s shoes. More specifically, it’s about understanding someone else’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences. If you break that down, that means that I can understand what you’re thinking, I can understand what you’re feeling, I can understand your context experiences.

There’s a second piece of it, which is affective empathy, which is actually I feel your feelings, which takes it to another level. If you’re sad, I feel sad, I don’t feel sad for you, which is sympathy, I feel your sadness. In the way I approach empathy, I believe, it’s much more reasonable to think that you can learn cognitive empathy, but much harder to imagine learning or improving your affective empathy because if you don’t feel stuff, I can’t make you do it. On the other hand, in the case of cognitive understanding, open questions, thoughtfulness, observation, and taking time, are things that you can control, if you wish.

Ross: A lot of this happens in the creation of a prosperous workplace, but just to push to an edge case, if you have to lay off a bunch of people, does that mean you have to cut off your empathy? Because if you’re feeling the pain of many people, that’s a massive burden. Maybe you should be feeling that burden, but how does one manage in this kind of an example, when there’s no other path for an organization to survive, to be able to cause that kind of pain?

Minter: Whether or not it’s the only thing, it is the thing you’ve decided. The reality is that empathy isn’t about being nice, which is one of the big misconceptions people have. Empathy is about understanding someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I’m going to get back to the emotional side of it in a moment, but let’s say that I have to deliver to you, Ross, some bad news. For example, I might have to cut your salary, or maybe I have to demote you or move you to a place, you’d go rather than stay with me. If I understand your context and the impact it will have on you, not just at work, but maybe in society, with your family, then I might be more suitably arranging the way I express it. “Hey, Ross, this is going to be hard. Please, do you have a moment here? Take a seat. This is going to be some bad news for you. I know It’s going to be bad news because of your situation.”

By trying to do that, by showing that you’re considerate about the situation, it obviously doesn’t take away the pain of the final mandate, which is, “I’m firing you”, however, what I’m going to do is, because I know your situation, I’m also going to think about having thought about that, what impact it’s going to have on you. Considering your situation, Ross, and this bad news that I have to give you, here’s what I’m going to suggest, or here’s how we can position it. For example, with regard to your family, you will keep your title for another six months while you’re searching, or I don’t know. There are different ways to land the news in a way if you can be considerate about the person’s situation.

I just want to get back to the affective side. Because surely, feeling everybody’s pain is difficult. There is a pathology called being an empath, where you are constantly, totally sensitive to everyone’s feelings all the time. That is hugely draining, it’s a real problem. It can make you unable to make any decisions or act because you’re fretful about making someone unhappy. That said, in business, we tend to make a separation between professional status and this other area, which is personal, which includes emotional status. In today’s world, there is much evidence to show that a lot of people in human resources are suffering empathy burnout.

This comes from two things. One is a hugely difficult economic situation and business environment, except for a few lucky ones, but on balance, a lot of uncertainty, whether it’s war, economics, global climate, whatever. It makes everyone nervous. People are having difficulties and strapping down, so a bad news environment, fear factors, and bosses are saying, “You better batten down the hatches.” The people who are the intermediary, generally relaying the information from the executive suite into the employee workforce, for example, letting go of people, are the HR team. They are also having to deal with, for example, the movement from or not whether to have flexible work hours, or work from home, and how all that is supposed to happen. They’re trying to do that with humanity, all the while being whipped and pressurized because performance is difficult, and the outlook is uncertain.

Ross: I want to get to the theme of your book “Heartificial Empathy” and some of the ways in which technology plays a part. But first, in the short time we have in a podcast conversation, how is it that people, leaders, and anybody can move to have more functional empathy? Empathy is enormously valuable for all sorts of reasons. You can’t sell anything to anybody unless you really understand the situation, you can’t engage, you can’t motivate. These are very powerful and pragmatic capabilities but also ones that give us a richer life. Are there any ways in which we can develop our empathy?

Minter: They most certainly are. If someone’s listening to this, they’re kind of nodding their head already, “Oh, it’s like Ross said, it’s great for business, it’s helping management, it’s going to allow you to sell, it’s going to be great for customer interactions, and so on.” Then you’re drinking the Kool-Aid. But the challenge and reality is that a lot of businesses struggle to have, let’s call it, organizational empathy. Part of that is the culture, but also the people in the C-suite. Are they modeling the behavior? Wherever you sit in the organization, is your boss, is the executive team, modeling empathy? Or are they struggling to deal with the pressures? Because there are two things that kill empathy in organizations. The first is stress related to performance issues, in large part, and and lack of time; because I’m running from meeting to meeting, I don’t have time to listen to you, park that for another time, and ultimately, never allowing that time to happen.

If you’re interested in becoming empathic, I’ll get to the concrete methods in a moment. But first of all, understand why you want to be empathic, because empathy is just a tool, and it can be used for good and bad purposes. Ask a sociopath; that’s their primary tool. Why do you want to become more empathic? How truly aware are you of your and your organization’s empathic levels? Some say, “Oh, I’m already empathic.” In the studies I’ve done, year after year, between 72 and 80 percent of individuals will describe themselves as being above average in their level of empathy. Problem! This issue of self-awareness is genuinely important, especially in the higher ranks.

One of the key qualities of being empathic is being curious. One of the key elements of being curious is having the humility to absolutely wish to understand or learn from somebody else. Because if I know it all already, then I’m going to start cutting you off, I’m not going to listen, I’m going to be thinking about what I’m going to say next, and that doesn’t allow the other person to feel heard. Having that self-awareness is important. Then understanding, genuinely, where you are as an organization.

Finally, just to come back to your question, Ross, the things that can help you generate or be more empathic? Assuming you’ve got the self-awareness, one lovely idea is to start reading much more fiction. I don’t know about you, Ross, you and I write nonfiction for the most part. But fiction, when it’s well-written with great dialogues and the development of personalities and characters, allows you somehow to get into the minds of other people, people who are not like you. For example, it can be a woman, or it could be someone of another race, religion, or country. If it’s well-written, it allows you this nuanced, complex understanding of how other people are. That’s one very lovely, and easy thing to do. There are, of course, many others.

Ross: I’ve always been an inveterate reader of fiction. There are times when I’ve not read as much fiction, but I’m still reading as much fiction as non-fiction these days. It’s a delight in its own right. We are a part of the human race, and amazing writers make us see things, and tug on our heartstrings in wonderful ways.

Minter: One of the things I’ve been reading most recently is a couple of dystopian novels. They also have their place, all the more so in today’s world, where there seems to be this huge divide. In that divide, I see the do-good, positive intention version of the world, and on the other side, highly fearful, highly compartmentalized, and worried about the future, maybe more tribal in thought. If you look at the book that I encourage everyone to take a look at, which is about to hit its 100th anniversary in 2024, it’s Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We“, which was written in 1924, first published in English, and finally came out in Russian sometime in the 80s.

It is a tremendously interesting read because it fundamentally looks at this idea of who are ‘we’. What is ‘we’? When we belong, we belong to what? Where’s the place of ‘I’? Are we allowed to have ‘I’? Is ‘I’ good? Is ego appropriate? Then you have the narcissism on the other side. It’s a really interesting discussion. Part of the biggest paradoxes that we have to resolve or just live with, in business, and life, is learning this paradox between the need to feel different and yet belong.

Ross: That’s fascinating. This echoes my own quest over life, the role of ego, and how we create a world together. But to your point about the value of dystopian fiction, Margaret Atwood explicitly says that she writes dystopian novels to help us avoid the future she describes. She already has played a role by helping people recognize things that are happening, which echo some of her themes which have led to people being able to express themselves more clearly about what it is they don’t want.

Minter: It brings up the notion, Ross, of history. Margaret Atwood being rather well-endowed in history. I’ve had her nephew, Dan Snow, on my show a couple of times. The thing is, we’ve kind of lost the plot as far as studying history is concerned. If you don’t study history, how are you going to avoid repetition? Frankly, what I’ve been talking to professors of history, in universities here in England, as well as in the United States, their commentary is disheartening. We no longer wish to study history as facts and events that happened in a context; we only want to criticize it depending on today’s evaluation or more as of today, which is not going to give us a good understanding of what happened.

Ross: A very apt turn of phrase, I lost the plot, as in…That’s the plot that we have, which we’ve lived through as a human race, which can potentially inform our path forward.

Minter: Absolutely! Storytelling has a great value.

Ross: To switch on to the themes of “Heartificial Empathy“, your recent book which you’ve revised with the rise of generative AI, amongst other points, machines can express or engage us with emotion to evoke empathy, to express empathy in various guises. In a world where artificial intelligence, AI’s, can be empathic, or to evoke empathy in us, what are the things which we need to be thinking about the most?

Minter: I love your group about humanity and AI, by the way, Ross. I’m enjoying just the beginning of that. The first thought is that how you think of AI will inform how you use it. In other words, are you worried about everything, in which case, you’re going to be operating from a place of fear? Or do you have a positive bent? Then are you a little bit idealistic about what its potential is and putting your head in the sand as to what could go wrong? It’s important to have that as a beginning piece. My approach would be to think about what is strategically important for you and your business. Then, how can AI supplement and augment you and your human intelligence? That’s the general piece. It’s amazing how many things are out there.

Then you have to think about your ethical framework. How do you want to bring that in, in a way that’s appropriate? Are you going to be kind of too goody two shoes about it as in expected to have a higher standard of operations than we as human beings are? Or are you going to have a more realistic understanding of what you’re trying to achieve? Are you prepared to experiment, fail, test, and try again? You’re going to need a lot of that with humility, because, by the way, life is tricky moving along. Then basically, consider that a lot of employees are probably going to be worried about the impact of AI, so positioning it in a way that they hopefully, won’t sabotage, and they are willing to work with it and work with you, think of it as a skill acquisition, and do it.

Several organizations are considering how to use empathically and say, formatted, and coded artificial intelligence to help certain functions in business concretely, such as marketing, communications or CRM, and customer service. But it doesn’t mean removing the human being; it’s trying to augment, facilitate, and take out some of the nutty, silly tasks, making them better, and eventually, more effective by being sometimes graded for being more empathic in the way they are approaching their communications.

Ross: My framing around this is “humans plus AI,” as in how can humans and AI be better? How can AI amplify humans and humanity? Looking in our customer service context, of course, we can just have a human interacting with the customer, we can have AI interacting with the customer, or we can have the AI supporting the human, either way, some combination of them. Firstly, a lot of customer services are now automated. I’d like you to address that idea of to what degree should the AI express empathy? Whether that’s really felt or not? How can humans and AI together be more effective in expressing or living empathy?

Minter: I hear this regularly. This is like a consultant’s answer, but it depends. For example, if you’re in a B2B or B2C, and how B2C are you? Are you millions of millions of people? The need for some kind of scalable response system becomes all the more evident. What are you trying to achieve? How real are you as a human being? Then, how can you create a copacetic, or consistent with your culture, type of AI service? The reality is we are very far from having empathic AI. What we’re getting better at is trying to tag or identify more empathic responses. There’s a very important distinction that’s worthwhile bringing up, which is within empathy, there is the giver of empathy, the one who’s being empathic, and the one who’s receiving it.

I like to make this distinction because, in essence, sometimes someone can be the giver and be empathic, but the other person doesn’t feel it. That’s not necessarily bad; it might be just that the other person is there to be empathic, and maybe, for example, I’m a product manager thinking of a new product for a person like Mr. Dawson. What would Mr. Dawson really like? I think he would really like this, this, and that. That would fit into his day and really be useful for him. If it’s a pen, he’d like to have a nice click when it closes because that’s satisfying. There’s little user experience element to it. But when you use that pen, you don’t know that I was being empathic; you’re not going to say, “Oh, Minter, that pen designer was really empathic with me.” You might say, “Oh, this is a freaking great pen,” but you’re not going to associate it with the quality of empathy. That’s sort of an example of a case.

But other times, you might try to be empathic, but the other person doesn’t feel it; maybe that person is in a deeper or worse space. This notion of giving and receiving depends on what you’re trying to measure. In the case of customer service, which you brought at first, when you are responding to somebody, the question here is how much data you have on your customer base, and how much of the work that you’re requiring your customer service to do can be improved. For example, if a call comes in, oh, I can identify the call; that’s this customer. That’s the profile of this customer; this customer likes to be treated really quickly, just short sentences, wants effectiveness, and doesn’t do any niceties like “How are you doing, sir?” Go straight to the core and answer the question. Alright! That’s great. I’m informed as to how I should operate with this customer.

If the customer comes in as angry, oh, I didn’t expect that. The software can help me, Minter, relax! because this is how you’re going to deal with this. Here are four options for how you can reply to this. The first one is highly empathic but not very good for business. The second one is less empathic and a little better for the business and so on, so you can have different measurements. You’re not necessarily always going to take the most empathic option, depending on the culture and what your objectives are. Then you have these four answers, and they’re all pre-typed, you, as the customer service agent, have the agency ‘keyword’ to choose which of the four you think is best based on the criteria and valuations that you as an organization want to set up. 

This is something concretely that people are doing at Digital Genius, which is one organization that does that. By helping the agent to be more informed about the customer incoming, giving some tips on how to be a little bit more empathic, just attitudinally, because when the other person is spitting fire at you, it’s hard to be empathic at that moment, necessarily, and then come up with a pre-typed, so you don’t have to worry about typos or mistakes.

Ross: Pushing a bit further, one of the things that is fascinating is the degree of AI to engage us emotionally. We have Replika, and some of the characters in character.ai, and many others. I’ve forgotten the name of it, but there’s a Chinese service which has hundreds of millions of virtual boyfriends or girlfriends on it. In a way, that goes beyond empathy. Perhaps that’s one of the things that makes us be emotionally engaged… is the other person is empathic, probably a very important part of it. But it is essentially one of the frontiers that we need to explore and discover as in what happens when we become emotionally engaged? People are already falling in love with AI chatbots in various guises, and that will certainly continue. Where are we? What are the opportunities and challenges of these deeply emotionally engaging AI conversationalists?

Minter: We are moving along, and my quip would be to say that we’re in a very lonely society and people are very willing and desirous of having emotions because, heck, we’re not just lonely, we’re sad. The levels of anxiety and depression in the world are huge. People are very quick to run into no one has the time to hear anybody else, it’s all about me. On top of that, not only is it all about me, but it’s all about what I feel. Forget the facts. My feelings are the truth. My truth is better than Trump’s and yours. That’s a level playing field. But when it comes to organizing this thought, I have a three-part version. One is what are you trying to achieve? What is your ambition? What is your intention? The second is, what is your ethical framework that supports that? The third, which is important, is what is your business model?

You need to combine those three things as you look at what you’re trying to do with AI, whatever business you’re doing because you can make perhaps your AI better than you as an organization is, you can make it, perhaps more empathic than you as an organization is because there’s such a thing as organizational empathy. But is that going to make it for a better experience overall for your customer, or maybe you’re just looking to make a quick dime and sell the company in 18 months? In which case, the ethical framework is usually thrown out of the window. This takes into consideration what is your intention and what is your business model. I look at those three things as being important when you look at AI.

Ross: To round out here on this idea of artificial empathy, where machines, in many cases, will be effectively better at expressing empathy than many humans, or at least that’s a premise I would make, where does this go? In broader society, in terms of all of us, and how do we engage with that? What are some top-of-mind thoughts on what’s coming and how we should be thinking about this world where we do literally have artificial empathy in a very real way, as well as human empathy?

Minter: Here’s where I’m going to go with this, Ross. There’s a lot of artifice in general, not just AI or artificial empathy. I feel as a society, we tend to live through avatars. I use the word avatars as a metaphor for an alternative reality. We generally believe that my reality is the right reality, and we’ll promote everything to make me better and make me look good. In this idea of virtue signaling and looking good, I feel we’ve lost the plot again as to what is reality. The things we’re looking at, in certain cases, it’s all about making a quick dime, making a lot of money, flipping the business to some VCs or whatever. But worse than that, as a society, we are so grotesquely egotistical that we think we deserve to live forever, that we are the first generation that deserves to have immortality.

There are people in the transhumanist department who are thinking this, and they’ve completely detached themselves from reality, which is that we are mortal, highly fallible, imperfect beings. The beauty of life is dealing with challenges, not pretending that it’s perfect. As human beings, we’re disconnected from one another – loneliness. We’re disconnected from reality. As such, we’re making sense of things that are disconnected from reality. Have you ever heard of apophenia? This is a beautiful word, which means making sense of things that actually don’t have any rational sense underneath them. You invent sense out of the stars, “Oh, I see the stars; that must mean that tomorrow, I’m going to make money.”

We’re in a world where we lack true sense, with sense being the idea of rationality as well. We’re in this high-feeling mode, highly detached from reality, and desperate for sensing connection for true sense. We’re so desperate that we’re prepared to go for anything to have meaning. I would like us to focus on being a little bit more real, being a little bit more self-aware, not being so self-indulgent, and thinking more about community and thinking about actually what we mean by “we”, not in a naughty world where everybody is beautiful, and everybody deserves to belong because I think that’s a beautifully idealistic idea that has no base of reality. We have to learn how to find our limits, to say that good intentions can lead to bad outcomes, and be a little more realistic about the way we approach things, including, of course, the way we encode AI.

Ross: Yes, the nature of society is changing rapidly. There are some fundamentals to humanity, many humans with, as you say, human fallibilities brought together. Now we’re amplifying that in many ways with the technology we’ve created which, in a way, comes back to who we are in this world. Minter, what are the best places for people to find you and your work?

Minter: Generally speaking, it’s on a paddle tennis court because I’m a nut for Paddle Tennis. But if that’s not the way you work, I also like to write. I get up pretty much every morning and write about 1,000 words a day. Most of my writings, my hub is minterdial.com. There’s that little company over in Amazon that carries a few of my books. I’ve just released a white paper called “Making Empathy Count,” which looks at this notion of how you evaluate and measure empathy. That’s also available on Amazon. Otherwise, I’m out there on social media, still drumming but also listening. If you talk about mental models, spend more time listening than ranting. I’ve been ranting on this podcast with you, Ross. Thank you for listening and indulging me. But we should spend a whole lot more time listening with curiosity and with genuine humility, and not necessarily thinking about how I’m going to make the world better, but at least, putting effort into making your world, a little part of the world, a little better.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and your insights today, Minter.

Minter: It’s been a pleasure over a glass of scotch in London, but, thank you very much for having me on, Ross.


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