Kickstarter Lesson #233: The Telepathy of Empathy

28 September 2017 | 35 Comments

There was a time when I had very little empathy. Then I stumbled into a way to learn it, and I’d like to share that method with you, as I think it may significantly improve your relationships with backers, customers, and people in general.

Way back in 2007, I was just starting a new job as the Director of Operations at a facility located within a local university when an employee approached me with a problem. They were confused and frustrated, and this manifested in them yelling and crying.

Because of what I perceived to be an extreme reaction to a minor problem, I had a really hard time relating to the person. The more emotional they were, the calmer I became. I prescribed a simple solution, told the employee to try it, and moved on.

As you can tell, I had very little empathy in this situation. Instead of trying to see through the other person’s eyes or walk in their shoes, I almost relished in how calm I was compared to how irate they were. By doing this, I put more distance between us instead of trying to close the gap, whether or not I agreed with their stance.

This wasn’t a one-time occurrence. I had several employees who would respond similarly when they were stressed, frustrated, or had a difference of opinion. I couldn’t understand why they were letting their emotions get the best of them, and that lack of empathy prevented me from getting to the heart of the issues.

Then one day on a whim, I tried something different: I pretended to care. My intent wasn’t all that good–really, I just wanted the person to calm down. So I acted like I was relating to them.

This superficial approach yielded unexpected results. As I pretended that I cared, I realized that I did actually care all along. I had genuine compassion and concern for these people all along, but I was letting our different personalities and approaches to problem solving get in the way. As that wall came down, suddenly I was able to see the situation from their perspective.

It took time to hone this method, to grow empathy where there was none. But it made me realize that empathy isn’t an innate characteristic that you either do or do not have; rather, it’s a skill that can be learned, even if you have to fake it until you make it.


Why does empathy matter for Kickstarter creators and entrepreneurs? Part of it is simply having better relationships with backers and customers. They want to feel heard and respected. But the other part is that I’ve learned so much from customers when I’m willing to relate to them instead of putting up barriers between me and them. I’m far, far from perfect at this, but I try.

Now, in the above example, I described how you can become more empathetic with someone you care about. What about someone you have no connection to? Say, a complete stranger who has just posted a comment about some aspect of your product they don’t like. It’s easy to ignore or get defensive when that’s how someone chooses to interact with you.

Here’s a trick: Pretend the person is your best friend. Like, actually picture your best friend in that person’s place, and respond to them in the same way you’d talk to your best friend.

In the moment, this will result in a better interaction than if you view the person as a stranger or a troll. But in the long run, if you do this over and over with lots of different strangers, you will start to develop true empathy for them. You’ll no longer be pretending–your care and compassion will be real, and many of these potentially negative interactions will turn into productive conversations. A potential customer may become a long-term fan.


I know this is a somewhat nebulous topic, but what do you think? Do you consider empathy to be important for business? How have you learned to be more empathetic?

Also read: Kickstarter Lesson #103: There Is No Perfect Pickle


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35 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #233: The Telepathy of Empathy

  1. The point of view that behind the need for empathy lies the need to feel appreciated leads to another bridge to persons who provide stinging criticism. This approach, which I think of as the “look-for-the-golden-germ-of-truth approach,” comes from my former career as a practicing psychologist, where the therapeutic situation is conducive to clients’ perceptions of the therapist being distorted by their own problems. But I found that no matter how wildly “off” those perceptions were, they almost always contained the golden germ of truth!

    Applying this approach to what seem to be blanket criticisms of our creative products, looking for and finding the useful germ of truth therein makes us appreciate both it as a (perhaps not immediately obvious) gift and the person who cared enough to provide it. Hopefully, telling critics specifically what we found useful makes them feel appreciated. Beyond that, our heartfelt appreciation for whatever enables us to improve our products feeds back into our zeal to look ever harder for the next golden germ of truth that comes wrapped in prickly packaging.

  2. Good point. Some people have a family relationship like Chazz (Will Farrell) from Wedding Crashser, “MOM!!!!! WHERE’S THE DAMN MEATLOAF! MOMMMM!!!”.

  3. “Pretend the person is your best friend”, I found this very helpful with receiving email and comments from people you don’t know. But I will imagine it is my grandfather instead. To your friend sometimes you can say “f-off” in a fun way or punch them on the arm and they will laugh. But you can’t do that to a stranger. So I will adapt it to my grandfather. Sometimes he is spot on, sometimes he is just grumpy, and some times he is senile just like some people on line. But you will react with respect and kindness to all of them in a more careful manner. Thanks for another great tip.

    1. Perfect! Whomever works for you. I figured that people might have different types of relationships (some more sensitive than others) with family member, but the vast majority of people have a good friend.

  4. When I started out building Arkon, I asked myself, “What can I do to expand the reach of Arkon and get people to follow and engage with my game?”. In a way, that is a very self-interested, although I would argue, natural, way the journey begins. Then I started to have conversations with founders and realized that even though I was early stage, I had found amazing artists, videographers, a manufacturer, graphic designers etc. and that knowledge was helpful to others. I also realized that my day job as a small business consultant for inbound marketing was valuable to these founders as well. I still produce content about the game but I have found that by being more empathetic and investing in other people on this same journey, I garner good-will and frankly, learn a lot myself from their feedback that they give me in exchange. As always, I love these blog posts and consider it many of the golden rules of the Kickstarter Journey. Even though we don’t know each other, I appreciate you Jamey, and the support you give me and the thousands of other founders on this gaming journey. Your advise and tangible, actionable insights really do make a difference.

  5. Jamey,
    On August 31st, my Kickstarter campaign ended without successfully funding. I’ve spent the last month taking a break from “all things gaming”. No blogs, No gaming, No working on Kingdoms Lawn Game. I’d highly recommend a break for anyone who has ran an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign. It gives you time to heal and clarity moving forward.

    I had many comments posted on my campaign page from complete strangers that were less than pleasant or very honest/blunt. I first took offensive, but after giving it some serious thought, I was grateful. These were people who had an interest in my product, and enough interest to reach out with their honest feedback/opinions. As Jonathan mentioned, if they didn’t care…they wouldn’t say anything.

    The feedback they provided and the conversations I started with those individuals regarding their concerns was so crucial going forward and will continue to be important as I consider a re-launch. If I had simply ignored them or responded in an aggressive manner, I would have lost support and valuable insight into the issues facing my project.

    1. Denny: Thanks for sharing your thoughts about taking a break after a campaign. I agree that it can be really helpful.

      I’m impressed that you were willing to view those types of comments as blunt. It’s really hard to do that, especially when the comments are worded to hurt instead of help. But it’s awesome you were able to see past that and turn them into constructive conversations.

      1. It does somewhat baffle me that strangers, even those that are interested in the project, can be soo blunt/negative, especially when it is unsolicited. It would be one thing, if I asked for advice, but I didn’t.

        I think the internet gives people an opportunity to share their true feelings without holding back due to the lack of face-to-face interaction and increased anonymity. But as a creator, there is no anonymity and acting out aggressively against any comments posted, could damage the project’s image and the community I’m trying to build.

        I can only imagine the extent at which you yourself have to deal with this issue on a daily basis. For the sake of empathy, I wish all Kickstarter backers had to run a campaign to see what it’s like from the other side.

  6. I think it’s really interesting that empathy was something that you had to learn and practice, because it’s one of the main reasons I enjoy reading your stuff! In both your book and your articles you talk so much about thinking from the customer’s perspective and trying to put them first, and I think that is one of the most important lessons I have learned from following this blog! And as always, I thought this was a really interesting article, and thanks for the tips!

    1. Caleb: Thanks! I’m lucky that I learned about empathy well before I started publishing games and putting stuff on Kickstarter–you said it well that it’s super helpful for thinking about things from a customer’s perspective and putting them first.

  7. Jamey,

    It’s absolutely essential…as a manager at the FBI, in the Air Force, and other positions throughout my life, I’ve been the quintessential “work in progress” in this area. I generally care a great deal about my colleagues, teammates, and those for whom I’m entrusted to lead. Trying to understand a situation, problem, or issue from their perspective can prove quite difficult at times, as my situation in life may be fundamentally different from them. I’ll never know what it’s like to have multiple children; or be a single mom (I’m a single dad, but it’s completely different); or ailing parents; or myriad work related issues based on personalities…but as a manager, you need to assist the person as best you can at that moment. As a leader, you want to assist the person for the much longer road ahead…to dream more, want more, and be more than they are today. That starts with understanding…and understanding comes from empathy.

    1. It took me a minute to find it, but it’s there! :) Click on News, and then you’ll see the word “Blog” at the top of the news page. Click on it and it’ll take you to the blog. That follows the same menu structure as the web version.

  8. Jamey, you and I know that empathy is especially critical when you are building community. This means that relationships > customers/backers.

    In the end, however, solid relationships can train an army of brand ambassadors, and thus my experience has been that empathy breeds trust, which is the epicenter of any positive brand experience.

  9. I can sometimes have a hard time with this. I feel kind of lost and frustrated when dealing with someone that has a very different personality when it comes do dealing with problems. I feel this on both sides of the problem. It came up recently when dealing with something that I considered a huge injustice and something very, very wrong that was done to a family member… almost evil.. and I was helping them deal with it. The person that I thought was supposed to care and listen had a very distant and unconcerned attitude and I found myself alternating between being furious inside and wanting to cry. I have also been on the other side of it and seen someone blowing something I considered very small so out of proportion and getting so worked up it was half sad and half comical to me.

    In both situations I was very unable to really put myself in the person’s place whose view on the issue was so very far from my own. I might need to try to think of ways to practice this.

    I like the idea of looking at others coming to you with problems as if they were your best friend. I think in some cases that could help. But since each situation is different and that wouldn’t have worked in the situation where I was seeking justice for my grandmother… I wonder if there are other stories we can tell ourselves to get in the mindset to try to see things from another point of view, that would work when you are on the other side of it too. I’m somewhat able to do that because I run a business so I understand some of the reasons why a business owner might not be able to do something others outside might think would be easy, but even I have difficulty sometimes trying to determine if what I think should happen is possible or reasonable.

    1. Cynthia: Thank you for sharing this. Like you, I really struggle with injustices, especially when they involve people I deeply care about. It’s one of the few times I get riled up about anything–this is a good reminder the tables are sometimes turned from the example I gave about my last job, and that empathy is important in those situations too.

      As for other stories we can use when the best friend method isn’t working. The only answer I can think of off the top of my head is to try to think of a time when I was in a similar position to the other person, even if the exact situation is different. That might help.

  10. Empathy is extremely important for business. I’ll be much more likely to do business with someone that engages with me as a consumer. Even if they don’t appear to “care” all that much, at least they took the time to respond.

    I had an experience like this with a Kickstarter game I just received in the mail this week. After playtesting it at Geekway in 2016, I wrote a review on the BGG page, and I pointed out 2 criticisms I personally had about the game, and a possible solution to one of them. It wasn’t meant as a complaint, but more of a “Here’s what I experienced, and something I think is worth looking at.” Never for a moment did I consider the designer would directly respond to the review, but he did — he explained why the decision had been made, but went one further by presenting the option I suggested to the next group of playtesters. I was stunned when he left another comment telling me the results of what they tried.

    In that case, I was just giving my honest opinion about a game that hadn’t even been published (the whole of the review was highly positive, as I LOVED the game). I wasn’t trying to change the scope of the game. With KS backers, so many questions go unanswered up front because the vast majority of the people backing the game have never played it, so their concerns are based on only the peripheral items they see in the campaign, or on BGG if they decide to do any research. In a situation like that, I can see where a designer might have less empathy. That’s why I believe it’s important for a designer/publisher to properly market the game so as to give the biggest overall picture of the gameplay, the components, and the fun factor. If a lot of those questions are answered up front, it communicates a great deal to the consumer by letting them know the designer cares about what the majority of the gamers want/need out of a game.

    1. Zach: Thank you for sharing your story! I think it’s awesome that social media enabled the designer to connect with you in that way. And I like your point about what a creator can do up front to address potential questions.

  11. Be the player, not the coach.

    You’ll often hear in life that the reason someone is pushing you or is hard on you is because they care, and because they feel or know you are capable of being or doing better.

    My daughter is about to wrap up her final year in college athletics. I’ve been right there every step of the way through middle school, high school, club sports and to a lesser extent, college; and have seen every coach’s style in working with their players. The worst thing for a player to hear is silence from her coach. It means the coach doesn’t feel the player is worth their time or effort. I always impressed this upon my daughter to let her know the coach isn’t picking on her. They are spending their valuable time on her because they know she’s worth it.

    If a customer is taking the time to tell you why they don’t like this or that about your product, it’s generally because they care enough to do so, particularly if they offer a solution to make it better. They are literally telling you how to earn the money they intend to spend on their entertainment. Listen to that.

    The best friend approach is a good one, but for me, I think of it more like coaching. I don’t know everything. Sometimes I feel like I don’t anything! I certainly could not hope to know how to meet the needs of every potential customer. I know I may not always be able to meet those needs, but I can always try, always learn, and always do better next time.

    1. Jonathan: I really like this: “They are spending their valuable time on her because they know she’s worth it.” I feel the same way about customer comments–like you said, if they’re taking the time to comment, it almost always means that they care.

      1. Yes! Tweek was going on about North Korea and his boyfriend finally realized he was trying to calm Tweek down instead of empathizing with him, telling Tweek his concerns were a big deal and getting him to move that anxiety toward a possible solution. :)

  12. Jamey, this is such an important topic, especially pertaining to Kickstarter creators and the board game industry. I particularly love your recommendation with regards to responding to negativity – “pretending that person is your best friend.” As a creator, it’s easy to feel like a negative comment or post about something I created is an attack on me, and my natural reaction is to defend myself. I’m certainly guilty of reacting too quickly to negative situations, and that is something I’m working on.

    I think reactions are largely based on “how we perceive”, and your idea focuses on correcting that. I would definitely be inclined to respond in a much different way by envisioning a negative comment coming from my best friend. I can imagine that it would also reduce the negative impact on how it makes me feel, which is very important too.

    Absorbing too many negative emotions from customers or backers can be draining. I consider myself an empathetic person but I’m also a naturally optimistic person and dislike negativity, so I’ve found that I’ve had to shut my emotions off at times in order to get a break and keep myself from feeling drained. I think though that I can retain my empathy and still not absorb other’s feelings, just by perceiving situations differently.

    1. Mike: I can relate 100% to this: “it’s easy to feel like a negative comment or post about something I created is an attack on me, and my natural reaction is to defend myself.” I hadn’t thought about the best friend method softening the blow, but it just might–I’ll keep that in mind the next time I do it.

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