Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Empathy for Impact

Maddy Bell.
Or possibly Carrie Bradshaw
Maddy Bell joined the University of Kent in December 2015 in the new role of Impact & Engagement Officer in Research Services, after 6 years supporting academic clinicians at the Royal College of Anaesthetists in London.

In this debut blog post, she reflects on the past 7 months in her role and considers the important role of empathy in achieving impact in research, and in her own role at Kent.

When I first considered the idea of blogging, it took me back to the ponderings of Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw and her infamous column philosophising over relationships. Head balanced on my fist, gazing out of my window onto some cosmopolitan hustle and bustle, swish laptop open and contemplative pout at the ready. 

As it goes in reality, if I turn my head to an uncomfortable 90 degrees, my glance is met with the breeze block mass that is Cornwallis, and on the grass in-between, the remains of a furry animal apparently having met a dramatic end. My keyboard is scattered with mystery crumbs and the odd green tea splash.

That aside, the University of Kent in summer is the perfect place for pondering and contemplation. In the relative quiet and calm on campus following the end of term, I find myself reflecting on the last 7 months since my appointment as Impact & Engagement Officer in Research Services. Reflection, I believe, is how we learn and get better at being our best. My overarching aim at Kent is to add value; to have my own impact here and to engage colleagues in these agendas.

From this reflection, (in the words of Carrie Bradshaw), I couldn’t help but wonder whether the basic skills I will need to reach my goals are remarkably similar to those that my academic colleagues will need in order to reach theirs. For research to result in impact, we need to work with others, whether it’s in co-producing that research, or translating it for others to use. 

We all know that in order to work with others or to influence them, we need to communicate well. It sounds simple enough, but in the speedy blur that is life, we often get it wrong. I believe that a key starting point of effective communication is empathy. The ability to put oneself in the position of another and to consider things from another’s perspective.

Empathy: ‘The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ (OED)

There is one (and probably only one) unquestionable commonality amongst people: we are all different. We all have individual skills, knowledge, and experiences that shape us. This makes for a stimulating and creative environment. Being different means that we have preferences around how we work: how we are addressed, how we receive information, how our contributions are acknowledged or praised, and how we manage our responsibilities. Taking time to understand those that you are working with has real value.

In my first few months at Kent, my priority was (and remains) to meet people at every opportunity and get a sense of what is needed from my role. I had ideas: a website jam packed with guidance, frequent email updates and lunch time workshops. I had worked with academic clinicians for 6 years and this is what they wanted, so I assumed that people at Kent would be no different. But I was wrong; not for everyone (as everyone is different!), but for many. There is no time here to rummage through websites, and emails aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. 

People at Kent, it would seem, like people. Hearing from people over a coffee and a sandwich works for many of us. And I think people appreciate having their needs considered in this way; that someone has made the effort to think of them. I won’t always get it right, but I’m trying, and therein lies the value.

Apply the idea of empathy to research impact. Take policy influence. Without empathising with your stakeholders, how do you really know that the solution you (think you) are providing is what is needed to inform a policy at the right time? How do you know that your 500 word executive summary is the most accessible medium for those people? Do you understand how your stakeholder actually works – have you considered the pressures they might be under? Is the impact evidence that you hope to gather from them realistic or might you need to compromise? 

The most straight forward solution here is to ask them. But unless you empathise, you won’t think to ask those questions that will allow you to work well together. Once you have this information, it will positively influence your relationship with them.

Empathy will not solve all of the challenges associated with the impact agenda, but it’s a sound basis for our professional relationships, fostering trust and mutual understanding. In fact, in all of our relationships.

For me, maximising impact and engaging the public meaningfully with research relies on good relationships. Perhaps there isn’t such a rift between Carrie Bradshaw’s world and mine…

Follow Maddy on Twitter (@MadelineRBell), or contact her by email at for help and support on planning for and evidencing research impact and design, or delivery and evaluation of public engagement with research activities.

Look out for more from Maddy in the autumn.

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