Bart Simpson Taught Me Everything I Need To Know About Human Empathy

Bart Simpson can teach us all we need to know about perceived human empathy

A young mother, sitting at the park and typing into her smartphone instead of watching her toddler; a young child, throwing a screaming fit at the grocery store, that college student with the pink bejeweled iPhone case; what do all of these images provoke? Judgement. If you paid attention when you read each description, chances are, you have an image (and a preconceived notion) about each of them. And chances are, they’re not entirely true.

What if that young mother was a single mom, trying her hardest to multi-task but still find time to be with her toddler? What if that screaming child was, in fact, dealing with the effects of severe OCD? And what if that college student was doing everything she could do to fit in because she battled severe anxiety or loneliness? The reality is that we never know.

People are icebergs. Very little of what they’re composed of rises above the waterline. Most of what makes us who we really are comes from a combination of dozens of hidden factors. Understanding this and accommodating for it is the definition of human empathy. Let us not confuse this with sympathy. We are not feeling sorrow or pity, we are understanding. Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.

To truly understand how to communicate an idea, convince a customer to buy, affect a corporate culture to exhibit positive behaviors, or to activate a strategy; we have to understand how our message resonates within the hearts and brains of our listeners — not ourselves. Let me restate that, again for posterity. Empathy is the single most important aspect of any message. Speak wisely and speak with the voice of your customer. Now, let’s put that in a business context. And let’s pretend Bart Simpson is our customer.

Passing Judgement

As a consultant and advisor at XPLANE, I do and have often encountered the challenge of conveying the importance of empathy. I first arrived at this idea when I was preparing for a conference a few years ago. Because the crowd was so large, I needed to find a person that everyone knew and everyone could judge (and I needed someone I could draw. Considering that the only real fictional person I knew how to draw was Bart Simpson — and that’s debatable — the selection was pretty easy.) Who better than Bart Simpson?!

I began by asking the audience to give me words to describe Bart. They fired away with vitriol and verbiage such as: “smartass, troublemaker, loudmouth, disrespectful, obnoxious, clever, brat, risk-taker.” You could sense the disapproval of this fictional kid, all over the crowd. Nary a disagreement among my inaugural group of nearly 300 conference attendees. Then came the work of testing our judgement.

Dissecting the Character

The next step I took was to employ a classic and fundamental exercise in the XPLANE consultant toolkit: The Empathy Map. A simple approach exercise that many of us consultants do in our own unique way. I use a version that employs an image of a ‘big head’ surrounded by the words, See, Say, Hear and at the top and bottom of Bart’s head; the words, Think and Feel; the two most powerful.

I then asked the crowd to tell me the things that Bart might HEAR, day-to-day. The list included things like, “mockery and bullying, disappointment, his parents arguing, Lisa playing her saxophone (perfectly), the baby crying, judgement, and disapproval.”

Next we moved to what Bart might SEE. The list included, “violent cartoons, a lazy father, an overachieving sister, a father with no ambition, an unhappy mother.”

Then, on to how Bart might voice himself. The SAY category of our Empathy Map. The crowd said, “Don’t have a cow!”, “Cool your jets, man!”, “I didn’t do it! Nobody saw me do it!”, “Aw, maaaaaan!”, and “I’m bored…” These lists were starting to sound like warning signs of a troubled child…

As we completed the lists of things that were present, things that could easily be read on the outside, we began to dig a little deeper, this time asking ourselves, “What might Bart THINK, day-to-day…?” The answer started, “It doesn’t matter.”, “It’s not fair…”, “I just want to have fun”, “Dad’s a loser.”, “Lisa is perfect… I’m a loser.” All of a sudden, the Bart we all knew without hesitation was starting to seem entirely different.

We dug even deeper, took advantage of our co-creative environment and assembled all the pieces we’d put together and truly asked, “What does Bart really FEEL, every day?” The stuff he won’t share, the internal narrative we don’t get to hear. They began to, in a more muted tone, share: “Alone. Unloved. Overlooked. Despair…” Then silence in the conference hall.

Bart Simpson: overlooked, unloved, and in dire need of a strong father-figure!

Every time I teach empathy, at the end of this list, I always just stop and let the silence overtake the room. They were so wrong. We were ALL wrong. Our one-sided viewpoint, our judgement and perception — it led to overlooking a clever young man that was acting out to likely just get a little overdue attention. A young man that was lacking a strong father figure. A poor child that felt he could never achieve the same way his peers had, felt that he was destined for failure. We completely missed it. At the end of a session in Washington, D.C., out of the silence of this list, one woman in the crowd said, in a somber voice, “I kind of want to adopt him…”

What We Learn

The truth (and the frightening part) of this exercise is that Bart is a two dimensional, made up character that lives only an hour a week in a well-crafted storyline on our televisions. Imagine the complexity of the real, living, emotional humans that we call customers, bosses, employees, friends, executives, and partners — all wrapped up in their own lives, jobs, financial woes, relationships, and personal struggles! How much more could an empathetic viewpoint help us reach them?

Slow down your judgement, understand that each of us is a complex composition of the intricacies of our world; then, communicate to the heart in a language they’ll understand. In our work at XPLANE we always begin with Empathy. It may be a customer, an employee, a supplier, or business partner. It might be the boss, it might have been you. Beginning with empathy always leads to insights that impact the success of every project or initiative. At the end of the day, we’re all people with our very own, unique story.

Put Empathy Mapping to work on your next project. The results will astound you.

Learn more about Empathy Mapping at
Tanner Bechtel is a consultant, advisor and VP of Accounts at
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