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How to Build Empathy: Interview with Rob Volpe, CEO, Market Researcher, Empathy Expert
November 18, 2022

How to Build Empathy: Interview with Rob Volpe, CEO, Market Researcher, Empathy Expert

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Side-by-side image of Rob Volpe, beside a copy of his book Tell Me More About That.
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Meet Rob Volpe: CEO, Author, and Empathy Expert

Omaralexis Ochoa: Today I'm excited to introduce you to Rob Volpe, an empathy expert, drawing on his many years of experience in market research to establish the Five Steps to building empathy. Rob is going to talk to us today about how we can be intentional about building empathy with others: both in the workplace and the queer community.

We will discuss his book. "Tell Me More About That," which was released earlier this year and outlines his Five Steps framework. But before diving into today's topics, let me give you a brief introduction to Rob:

Rob Volpe is the CEO of Ignite360, a market research firm focused on insights, strategy, and creative storytelling. He has worked with the world's leading brands across a range of industries to better understand their customer's families, relationships, and needs. 

Rob is also the author of "Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time" in which he recounts his experiences in the field. He uses these stories to illustrate his Five Steps to Empathy and teaches you about how you can build your empathy. 

Rob is an expert in empathy who has contributed to Entrepreneur's leadership network and has spoken frequently on empathy at business conferences. He currently lives in San Francisco with his husband and their three cats. 

Rob, thank you so much for joining me today. How's it going?

What is the empathy crisis?

Rob Volpe: It's going well. Thank you so much for having me. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, definitely. I am really glad that we're able to just sit down and chat. I'm really excited to jump into today's topic on just building empathy, specifically empathy in the workplace and in our queer communities.

I know that you have published a book. "Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time". I just wanna jump right into that. I've been listening to it on Audible. I wanna dig into the title, the "The Empathy Crisis". What do you consider to be this empathy crisis? Is it in our society? Is it in certain industries? What demonstrates to you that there's a crisis of empathy?

Rob Volpe: Great question. I think there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that we all probably see in our day-to-day life in the way that we're interacting with others. You know, from within our community, which could be the queer community or the neighborhood that we live in, or our workplace, or just society in general.

When you think about the polarization that we we're going through on so many different issues, and that inability to connect. So you see it anecdotally, but then there is actually some evidence of the decline of empathy that people have. There are two studies that I'll cite:

The first is from 2010 and the University of Michigan did a meta-analysis of campus- life surveys. They looked at 76 universities from 1979 through 2009. And what they found, they looked at the question: "Are you able to easily see the point of view of your classmates?" And they found a 40% decline in people's ability to agree with that answer from 1979 through 2000.

And then the last eight years of the study, it didn't, it didn't rebound, but it also didn't get any worse. So what that meant was: compared to to student college students in 1979, students in 2001 were 40% less likely to have empathy or as much of an empathy muscle as other people. That was really alarming to me when I first heard about that study years ago.

And then the second one: my work as a research firm, Ignite360, asked that same question but of American adults. I was really surprised because we found that one-third of Americans are unable to easily agree with that. Like agree with that statement that they can easily see the point of view of other people, which was so just disheartening, surprising. Because just think about that: one-third of the people that you are going to interact with today are not gonna be able to easily see your point of view and understand where you're coming from. And if that doesn't make it a crisis, then I don't what does.

What research is out there regarding empathy?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Very well said. I wasn't aware of any of the ongoing research in the space on empathy specifically. So I think this makes a ton of sense. We'll definitely have to dig into the studies that you had cited, but you mentioned that you were able to conduct your own study with the research firms that you were working with.

What other questions did you all get at? Was it focused specifically on empathy or was it just one part of a larger study?

Rob Volpe: We've been doing a larger study that started in April 2020. There was a little pandemic that was getting going back then. In the moment it was like, "Oh gosh this is gonna change the way people are shopping," and everyone thought it was gonna last for three months and that would be it. And what's happened over time, we've kept the study going and, we really now are looking at and understanding values and behaviors among American adults. (Through the lens of current events: the pandemic, the presidential election, George Floyd's murder, January 6th, multiple waves of COVID, and now into inflation and, supply chain disruption, war in the Ukraine. All the things that are going on. 

And so within that, we've done some digging into empathy itself. We started to look at, okay, well who actually has challenges with getting to a place of empathy? What gets in people's way? Are there differences in all the different demographic ways you could look at data? From age to gender to ethnicity. Are people more challenged with dismantling their judgment when they're younger or older? Or does education level make a difference? Does age make a difference? Who has more issues knowing what questions to ask or how to actually listen, and a lot of different things like that. 

Individuals that are older do have a challenge dismantling their judgment, as do people that are more highly educated. I think that's partly because when you go through so much education, you're trained to kind of have an opinion and a perspective and defend that. People that are younger tend to have questions about what questions to ask. And men -- and this was like kind of the "Oh God guys really?" -- Men indicated they had more issues with listening than women. And that's the old stereotype of "guys don't listen."

Are there any stories you wish you included in the book?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Well, this sounds like very in depth and interesting research that I'll definitely have to dig into a bit more, and hopefully as I complete the remainder of your audiobook, will learn a bit more about.

As I've dug into your book, "Tell Me More About That" I've seen the beginning sections really focus on a specific event in your life and how that event has informed your knowledge of empathy. It starts first with your childhood, showing you the pain caused by a lack of empathy, and then later it delves into your work and how it helped you pinpoint different weaknesses in your empathy and how you could strengthen it. Were there any experiences you left out that, looking back, you now wish you included in the book? 

Rob Volpe: Ooh. Yeah. There are some stories that we had to leave on the cutting room floor. I grew up in small town Indiana. I was going into fifth grade, and I knew I was different. This is back in 1980. The kids also (my classmates) picked up on the fact that I was different and they started to tease me and decided to start telling everybody I was gay. 

 That became difficult and empathy actually became my survival skill. I used it to help navigate the hallways. Not as much in fifth and sixth grade, but as I got into high school in junior high, I used empathy to understand my classmates and connect with them because I would listen to them, I would hear their stories.

And I vividly remember (and this isn't in the book), but there was one woman, one student and we came in, it was like a Tuesday, and I was like, "Oh, hey, what would you do last night?" She was sitting right behind me and she proceeds to tell me how she drunk, like a fifth of Everclear, which is effectively grain alcohol. Which I didn't know what that was. So I had to ask, and she explained it. 

She had drunk a fifth of Everclear that night and "Wow. Yeah, it was so good." And I just asked her questions about it. I didn't judge her or anything like that, and she -- we didn't become friends, but, I think I became less "other" to her, less threatening maybe.

And so my rationale was -- well, when the next rumor gets started, or somebody wants to beat me up or whatever, not as many people are gonna gang up on me. Because they're gonna know, "Oh, Rob's a good guy. He's, he's leave him alone, whatever." It would take the bite out of the rumor mill.

And it's really sad. I was spending so much time thinking about these things when I was growing up. Because it was trying to learn how to survive.

Is empathy a practice? How do you strengthen your empathy skills?

Omaralexis Ochoa: That sounds like a very interesting defense mechanism to have developed at such a young age. Effectively turning to empathy as a tool for not only understanding other people, but also sort of befriending and bringing people to your side and essentially using it as a tool to protect yourself.

With that said, do you view empathy as a practice? Is it something that you can get better or worse at? And if so, what can you do to strengthen your ability to empathize? And simultaneously, what exercises or things might compromise it? 

Rob Volpe: Yes, it's something that we're all born with and the neuroscientists have found the parts of our brain that light up when we're experiencing empathy.

 There's two different types of empathy actually: there's emotional empathy, which is feeling the feelings of somebody else. And then there's cognitive empathy. And cognitive empathy is understanding the point of view of someone else. So where are they coming from? And it was cognitive empathy that I was expressing with that girl in high school who drunk the fifth of Everclear.

I was able to understand her point of view and that she had done something and she enjoyed it and told me about the experience and I listened to her. We're born with the ability to do all of that, but it's also like when we were born, we had muscles in our legs, but they weren't strong enough for us to enable us to stand, walk, or run.

And we had to be given opportunities for the muscles in our legs to strengthen up in order to support us. And empathy is very similar to that, where we have to create opportunities and situations and make the conscious choice to be empathetic and to dismantle our judgment and to do all the things to actually get to a place of empathy. The more that you practice it, the better that you get at it and the stronger the muscle becomes. 

What exercises can you do to build your empathy muscle?

Omaralexis Ochoa: So what particular exercises do you think can help someone strengthen their empathy? Is it just through conversation? Is there a way to be intentional about building your empathy or your ability to empathize with someone?

Rob Volpe: Yeah, absolutely. I mean the first thing people benefit from is by just bringing self-awareness and mindfulness to how they're showing up. How they're actually engaging. So thinking about when you're having an interaction with somebody, the way that you're speaking back to them, you know, is that the way that you'd want to be spoken to?

Are you being judgmental towards them? And if you are, like hitting the pause button and thinking to yourself like, "Well, where's this coming from? Why am I being this way?"

Another great one, the second step, is asking good questions. That's all about asking questions that are very open if you wanna understand someone's behavior or how they're thinking or feeling. You need to ask an open, exploratory, broad question. 

You don't ask somebody: "Why were you late?" because that's gonna put them on the defensive. And it has from the time that we were a kid and we drew on the wall or cut our sister's hair, or mom caught us in the closet in her clothes or whatever was going on. We would get these really accusatory questions and it would put us on the defensive and we would be quickly figuring out how to get ourselves out of being in trouble.

So you're giving a rationalized answer that's gonna mitigate potential punishment, and that continues to carry with us through school, through life. You know:

"Why are you late for work?"

"Why are you late with this report?"

"Why, why, why, why?"

And so instead, the challenge there, the exercise is to ask "why?" but use a different word: reframe the question, using who, what, where, when and how. And ask the question a little differently, and you'll be really surprised at the answers that you get. They're gonna be much more genuine, they're gonna be much more open. The person you're speaking with isn't gonna feel threatened. So that's another good one. That's a good one to do with a friend or colleagues at work.

 I've had client teams make that one of their exercises and have a little fun with it. Instead of a swear jar, you've got a "Why?" Jar. When you say it, you put a buck in.

How do you build empathy on social media? Is empathy different online?

Omaralexis Ochoa: That's definitely could definitely be something that one of your client teams can internalize, kind of take home with them after those sorts of sessions.

How can I reframe this in a way that allows someone the space and the grace to. Actually tell us a bit more about their thought process and their situation and, allows us to find common ground. 

Two questions branching off of that: In this empathy crisis where we find that on average folks are finding it harder and harder to see other people's points of view. Do you think there are any particular ways that you can start to build in empathy to your communications broadly?

Maybe not when you are communicating to one person, but something like social media when you're communicating to an audience or a network of people? 

Rob Volpe: Ooh, that's a really great question, and you didn't use the word why too. So, good job.

You know, with social media, Where you really have an opportunity is as you get into the comments and engage with people, that's where you can start to show more support and connect on a slightly more personal level. You know, easier said than done, but I think that's one way of doing it.

What is the first step to building more empathetic social media?

Omaralexis Ochoa: The only reason I bring up social media is just because in a social setting, a lot of platforms seem to really highlight and prioritize divisive content, which is more likely to go viral. How can we build more empathetic social media platforms? 

Where we aren't washing ourselves of being opinionated and having original thoughts, but we are making the conscious effort as a platform to build a network where people have mutual respect and nuance for different thought processes. 

What would you say is maybe the first step towards building a more empathetic digital, social media world? 

Rob Volpe: I love this question. And you know, social media is one of the things that -- there are many things that have contributed to the decline in empathy and the empathy crisis -- but social media is certainly one of them.

And part of it is because the way social media is constructed. Now, it's all about validation and liking my stuff. And then people will hide in that anonymity on some platforms more than others. Where they feel safe to go out and say disparaging, awful, ugly things. 

The thing to be mindful of is as you're approaching your social media engagements, don't think of it as just some, mass or digital nothing, but you're actually talking to another person and have somebody in mind when I'm recording content or writing something that you're gonna put out on social media. I usually have an individual or three in mind that I'm communicating with. And so I think that's one way to do that. 

You can be nice to everybody, I suppose, but then are you really gonna have a point of view? And you can still have a point of view. You can still do it though, with decency. The easy way out is to throw the cheap shot, but to actually put some thought into it and to frame your argument in a constructive way that might actually engage the other person rather than -- it's like we're playing whack-a-mole or something. We're trying to shut people up. Well, really what you're wanting to do is engage more people. It's subtle and it's not easy to do, but I think you can do it, but you've gotta do it with intention. 

How can hiring managers build empathetic teams?

Omaralexis Ochoa: So as it relates to intention, one of the questions I have, -- getting back to empathy specifically in the workplace -- it sounds like empathy is this elusive trait of emotional intelligence that you can't always see. Maybe you can experience it through a conversation with someone, but generally, empathy, being a core aspect of emotional intelligence -- a pretty highly valued soft skill in the workplace. How do you think that someone, like a hiring manager or a team lead or an executive can begin to look for empathy when hiring? 

Rob Volpe: Yeah, good question. So I think you're looking for how the candidate is showing up in the interview, how they're communicating. Ask them questions about a situation. How have they resolved a problem? Ask them about a time that they persuaded somebody for about something. How did they go about doing that? Get into the mechanics of it.

Cognitive empathy in particular -- seeing that point of view of other people -- is at the core of all of the skills that we use at work. From communication and decision making to collaboration and ideation. Building trust, forgiveness, empathy is at the key to all of that. So if I'm asking somebody, "tell me about a time that you persuaded somebody to do something," and you listen to the answer, what you're listening for is clues that, okay, they understood the point of view of somebody else. They understood what their need was, the challenge that they were facing, and how to support them, or how to help them resolve that. Versus just: "I know the right way to do this and therefore this is what you're gonna do."

You know, old exercise in sales, where, you know, my dad did this to me. My dad was in sales.

We were talking about sales one day. This is when I was in college maybe, and he picked up the pen and he was like, "Here, sell me this pen." And I had no idea what to do. But then he started to ask: He took on the sales role and started to ask me questions about how I use pens in general. What sort of thickness did I like and weight, and what type of writing was I doing?

So he was understanding my needs and having empathy with those needs. And then he was able to convince me why the ballpoint pen that he had in his hand was the perfect pen. Using an understanding of my needs. Rather than just going into: this is the best pen in the world. It's got X, Y, and Z feature and function, and which may not actually align to what my needs are.

So you've gotta ask the questions and really listen to the answers. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: And I think anyone that's been in any kind of interview process can probably be familiar with some of the behavioral oriented questions where -- at least once you get to certain roles in a corporate sphere -- become less about the technical pieces and more about "Tell me about a time that you led a team or did a particular thing, or a time that you failed and how you handled it."

So these sort behavioral questions, I think become a lot more telling than any piece on a resume or educational aspect because ultimately building a team is not only about who you'd like to work with, but it's also folks you'd like to grab a drink with. Ultimately you guys are spending time with each other for much longer parts of the day than you are anywhere else. 

Rob Volpe: Absolutely. And if you're interviewing for somebody that's earlier on in their career -- and empathy is something it's interesting in the data -- people that are younger, college age, when you're in that space in your life, you're still figuring out who you are and it can be harder for you to have empathy with other people.

Because you're still trying to identify where you stand and what your point of view is on things. So in those situations if you're interviewing first time candidates you can still ask them how they've approached situations, but it may also then be about school. Tell me about a team assignment and when there was a challenge or problem.

Interpersonal problem. How did you work through it? And you'll hear how they approached or navigated the situation. And again, you're looking for those clues that, that they have some understanding of empathy. 

How can the queer community become more empathetic?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, definitely. So now switching gears into specifically empathy in the queer community, how do you think approaching empathy can come to life in a queer setting? Whether it's a club or a bar, or a dating app, or just spaces where queer people meet and interact. How do you think we can be intentional about showing empathy towards others? 

Rob Volpe: We are incredibly judgmental. And it's a defense mechanism, casting aspersion or, you know, "casting shade."

Sometimes it's done in good fun and amongst a group of friends, and that's okay, but you need to be aware when you're doing it. But then there are other times where we are casting aspersion against one another, whether we're considering somebody for a romantic encounter, entanglement, ignoring people -- there's just tons of judgment that's coming out, and it's a defense mechanism because so many of us are carrying our own wounds from our own childhood experiences or other parts of our life.

And that's just an instinct for us. But we're all "Other," and if you start from that perspective and that sort of foundational base -- we're all other and we're all looking to belong and feel included. If you can move from that place in the way that you reach out to somebody, you engage with somebody rather than just shutting them down.

It doesn't mean you need to be best friends with everybody, but there's a graceful way to decline somebody's advances. It's self-awareness. It's making the choice, having the courage to make that choice. It's dismantling the judgment. It's taking a moment to listen to somebody and understanding that we all have different points of view. Just because the fact that we're a member of the community doesn't make us all the same. So be curious about other people. Ask them questions about themselves. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, couldn't have put it any better. I think those are all really useful and intentional actions that folks can start to take when interacting with each other, whether it's in the workplace or in the queer community, where sometimes the situations can be a little different.

Signing Off

But ultimately sounds like empathy's really underscored about making the effort to ask questions, understand someone fully and not rush to any sorts of judgment. I'm really excited to read the remainder of your book and get a fuller understanding of your Five Steps to empathy.

Before signing off, did want to just give you the opportunity to say if there's anything else that you wanted to share with the audience or anyone listening. That you want them to take away ultimately about empathy or anything else we've talked about today?

Rob Volpe: Yeah. Two things. One, as, as you ponder the information and the conversation you and I have just had, I hope that people realize you need to have grace with yourself. You need to forgive yourself. And what's important is that you're trying -- you're not gonna get it right the first time or the third time, but it's that you try and sometimes you will get it right and every situation's a little bit different. And what's important is that you're making that effort and that you're forgiving yourself. So move through that with grace.

And I hope people check out the book. I'm really proud of how it turned out. There's some really fun stories that are in the book. It's a very engaging read, I've been told. It does include my the fact that I'm a gay professional. It is part and parcel of my experience, and it does play a role and how I view the world, how I move through the world. That journey is, is also wrapped up in the journey that's told in the book.

Omaralexis Ochoa: Incredible. Well, thank you Rob so much for joining me. I will make sure to make all the plugs for your book and see how they can reach you. Uh, but I've really enjoyed our conversation today. Thank you for being on. 

Rob Volpe: Thank you so much. I've really enjoyed this.

Photo of Omaralexis Ochoa, host of The Gay Pro, and author of this blog post.

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.