We, the design community, talk (and write and speak) a lot about empathy.1 We lament the empathy deficit in our companies and clients and cry “something must be done about this.” We tout personas, empathy maps, experience maps, and other methods as empathy deficit reducers that lead to better experiences (and profits). Some, at the extremes, position human-centered designers as Platonic figures releasing stakeholders from the shadows of opinion and faceless analytics into the reality of human emotions, needs, and desires.
We talk a lot about other people’s empathy. But what about your own? What about mine?
How empathetic am I?
“Mantra: Empathy for infrequent fliers. Empathy for infrequent fliers. Empathy for infrequent fliers.” —Me via Twitter while boarding a plane
I ask myself this question often. I fundamentally believe empathy is a foundational soft skill in design practice. And in service design–with its aim to connect and orchestrate people outside, inside, and across organizations–empathy is the first skill I recommend to people2 to build and sharpen. A few years ago, Sarah B. Nelson elaborated on this point in her post, No Designer is an Island:
“As designers (in the broadest sense), we focus a lot of energy on technical skills but often neglect or downplay the softer ‘people’ skills. Daniel Goleman calls these skills ‘Emotional Intelligence.’ They are as important to our success as IQ and technical proficiency. Qualities of emotional intelligence include, amongst others, social skills and empathy… Empathy includes ’the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people’ and ‘skills in treating people according to their emotional reactions.’ We talk about empathy with our users but we also need to cultivate empathy for our stakeholders, too.”
Cultivate means ‘encourage the growth of <something>.’ My whole career, I’ve encouraged the growth of empathy in others, and to a large extent, taken my own empathy for granted. Like any skill, one’s ability to empathize broadly and deeply can weaken when not actively practiced. If you’re like me, you likely spend time each week honing your hard skills, like modeling, sketching, and writing. But do you regularly reflect on how empathetic you are in your life and your practice? And, regardless, do you work to strengthen your empathy skills outside of the project at hand?
I’m hoping some of you will answer ‘yes’ to those questions and share your methods in the comments below. As for me, I have been reflecting on my own empathy lately and exploring how it can be cultivated. Below are four methods that I or others have found help build and strengthen empathy. I hope you will try some of these and report back if they have made a difference in your personal practice and your organization’s success.
1. Read stories which emotionally transport you
I often cite my humanities training in general and my BA in English Literature specifically as playing the most crucial role in the development of my personal practice. I’ve been pleased to see some research recently that puts some data behind what my gut has been telling me. It turns out, reading fiction builds empathetic skill.
In their paper “How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation,” Bal and Veltkamp report:
“The current study investigated whether fiction experiences change empathy of the reader. Based on transportation theory, it was predicted that when people read fiction, and they are emotionally transported into the story, they become more empathic. Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story. No transportation led to lower empathy in both studies, while study 1 showed that high transportation led to higher empathy among fiction readers. These effects were not found for people in the control condition where people read non-fiction. The study showed that fiction influences empathy of the reader, but only under the condition of low or high emotional transportation into the story.”
So, every once in a while, mix some fiction in with those design books, blogs, and tweets. If you’re not getting carried away by the story, put it down and try another one. Find stories and novels that invite you into a new world or culture you don’t interact with on a daily basis.
2. Practice listening
While design has its moments of heads down, in-the-zone making, the process of moving from framing a problem to concept to reality involves numerous interactions with stakeholders and users. These interactions occur one-on-one and in groups; in the office and in the field; in moments of calm and when all hell breaks loose. Whatever the context, being present and open to listening is crucial to building empathy and is a skill that can be honed.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey describes the difference between empathic and lower levels of listening:
“When another person speaks, we’re usually ‘listening’ at one of four levels. We may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all. We may practice pretending. ‘Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.’ We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain parts of the conversation. We often do this when we’re listening to the constant chatter of a preschool child. Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said. But very few of us ever practice the fifth level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening.”
He goes on to say, “When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm. Empathic listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.”
So how do ensure you are capable of performing empathic listening with more frequency and consistency? Work on the fundamentals.
Like many skills, listening can be broken down to smaller units of activity that can be individually practiced. In The Zen of Listening, Rebecca Z. Shafir outlines three components of what she calls ‘mindful listening’:
Relaxation: Empathetic listening requires you to clear the internal noise of the mind. Practicing daily breathing exercises and mediation can help you develop relaxed attentiveness, which is especially helpful in moments of stress or when entering an new environment or context.
Focus: Active listening means being able to consistently focus on what is being said and training the mind not to wander. Shafir recommends first learning to focus on individual activities, such as walking or doing the dishes, with extreme focus and catching yourself if your mind wanders from the task at hand. Then applying that skill to conversations with co-workers, friends, and family.
Desire to learn another’s perspective: This last component concerns the curiosity one has for wanting to out themselves in the shoes of another person and see the world as they see it. For designers, this means more than customers and users. It means actively seeking to understand the perspective of stakeholders of all kinds. Shafir recommends a technique called ‘What’s their movie?’ in which you approach vicariously living through someone else telling their story with same self-abandonment you would watching a movie (or, as noted above, a good book).
Empathic listening is the synthesis of relaxation, focus, and the desire to learn. Frequent and consistent empathic listening is a skill very few people master. My advice: carve out a little time each day to build your fundamentals.
3. Take an improv class
Earlier this year, I took improv classes3 as an activity to become more comfortable speaking and facilitating. I’m good at both, but as an introvert, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with being the focus of attention and the enervating effect it has on me. Improv classes are indeed helping me in the ways I would hope. And it has an additional benefit: I’m more empathetic.
If you have ever seen the Groundlings, Second City, or “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” your impression of improvisation may center on funny people being funny with no script. Comedy improv, however, is but one of a few flavors of improvisational theatre that vary in form (short or long) and intent (be funny or be whatever emotions and story develop). Regardless of the type, improv combines the fundamentals of listening and the freedom to be creative into a supercharged empathy building exercise.
Kat Koppett, author of Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning, explains the connection between improvisation and empathy:
“When it comes down to it, [improv] is mostly about building trust among a group of performers. Trust grows through acknowledging the discomfort, establishing and enforcing ground rules, and engaging in an activity together…. Most of improv rehearsal time focuses on creating trust–helping individuals become more focused and empathetic, and providing the group members opportunities to build rapport… In this context, empathy, the capability to understand, identify with, and care for others [is critical to increase trust].”
From my experience, Koppett is spot on. In a beginning to intermediate class, everyone is going through the same process of getting comfortable with being in the moment, exploring boundaries, trusting their instincts, and saying “yes, and” to each offer and interaction. Concentration, listening, and empathy are skills quickly strengthened as part of this process. I’ve found I leave class each week a little more attuned to the world around me and more open to pushing through my own thoughts and emotions. If you’re interested in building empathy as a skill, improv is a fun and rewarding way to accelerate your training.
4. Be an empathic adventurist
“I can’t afford to be numb. I have users to help. I have problems to solve. I have got to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.” —Sara Wachter-Boettcher on Pastry Box
Writer Roman Krznaric proposes in his visual essay The Power of Outrospection, a new focus on humanity’s empathic potential to solve wicked problems and achieve the utopian goal of the good life. During his compelling argument, Krznaric gives one example of where we may draw inspiration on raising our levels of empathy:
“George Orwell, who you might think of as you know, the author of 1984, Animal Farm… was also one of the great empathic adventurists of the 20th century. You may remember or might know that he came from a very privileged background, he went to Eton, he was a colonial police officer in Burma. But what he realized in his twenties was that he knew very little about his own country, particularly about the way that that those people living on the social margins really experienced life. So he decided to do something about it and conduct one of the most brilliant empathy experiments, which was to go tramping on the streets of East London. He wrote about this famously in his book, Down and Out in Paris and London. But the important thing about Orwell’s experience was that it not only expanded his moral universe and became more compassionate person, but it also cultivated his curiosity about strangers. He developed new friendships. He gathered a whole lot of literary materials he used for the rest of his life. In a way this empathy adventure it made him good, but it was also good for him.”
I recommend viewing the whole video above. I’ve been quite taken by this concept of the “empathic adventurist.” As a consultant, there’s a little bit of this adventurist spirit built into my job. I explore new and different corporate cultures. I conduct field research in different communities and homes very different from my own. I teach and speak on strategy and service design in different parts of the world.
Yet, as personal as I take my work, I think there’s value in bringing that empathic adventurism beyond my projects. For example, Adaptive Path recently hosted a service design jam to produce innovative concepts for helping solve the shortage of fresh and healthy food in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. I’ve walked through the Tenderloin occasionally but working with residents from the district and being able to see their community from their perspective made me more curious about the Tenderloin and its residents. As a recent transplant to the Bay Area, it helped me feel more like a resident and start to see the city in new and different ways.
Being an empathic adventurist is about deliberately getting out of your daily haunts, out of your comfort zone, and into the lives of others that broaden and deepen your understanding of people and the way they look at the world. It’s about moving from a casual observer to an active curiosity seeker. It’s about, as Krznaric says, “stepping into somebody else’s world. Almost like an actor looking through the eyes.”
And, it’s about practicing (more) what I preach (a lot). More empathy helps lead to better experiences for us all.
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