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Author's profile photo Seung Chan Lim

Empathy, Touchy-Feely? Think Again.: How Empathy Begets Insight & Innovation

The Confusion


I’m going to assume you’ve already come across the word empathy. It’s certainly become a buzz word in recent years. In fact, having spent some time looking into the subject, I can also say with great confidence that there’s more confusion around the word than ever. So much so that, neuroscientist Daniel Batson writes in The Social Neuroscience

There exists in fact no obligatory connection between empathy and kindness, and no animal can afford treating everyone nicely
all the time.

frans de waal / ethologist

of Empathy that there are 8 different
ways people use the word.
8! Can you believe that? Sheesh…

What this means is that if I want a fighting chance at communication, I should be up front about the operational definition I have chosen to use.


Defining Empathy

So here it is for the purpose of clarity, the operational definition of empathy I use in my work:

Empathy is a word invented to explain our potential to experience an event, where we feel as if we are connected or at one with an other. 

There are many aspects to this definition worth pointing out, but for the purpose of this article I’d like for you to pay special attention to the fact that I’m defining it as a potential.1


Realizing Empathy

Now, if empathy is a potential, then empathizing is what happens when that potential is realized.


And what you get when you empathize is a subjective experience; one where you feel as if you are connected or at one with an other. A common way to describe this feeling is to talk about an experience where the boundary between self and other is blurred. If you’re familiar with the sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land, you may wish to think of it as an experience similar to grokking.




Empathy Realizing as a Reflex

So then, how does our empathy get realized? Well, sometimes it gets realized instantly almost as an involuntary reflex. In this case, there is no effort needed to realize it.


Think of a friend you’ve known for a long time. Think of a time when without him saying a single word, you were able to tell precisely what he was thinking, feeling, wanting, or needing. Maybe you finished his sentences or said exactly the thing that he needed to hear when he needed to hear it. Those are all examples of moments when your empathy was realized instantly and without effort.


Realizing Empathy as a Deliberate Practice

There are also times when your empathy does not realize automatically. Let’s say you’re walking down the street, and you exchange eye contact with someone you haven’t seen in more than a decade: a friend from high school you had a big fight with, and never made up. You immediately look down, hoping that he didn’t see you. But, to your surprise, he approaches you first, and the following dialogue takes place:


Him: Hi!

You: (feeling awkward) Hi.

Him: No, high as in up high.

You: Huh?


Needless to say, you’re taken back a bit, because you cannot understand why he would say “high as in up high.” Yet, he says it without blinking an eye, so as to imply that from his perspective it does make sense. This is called a paradox.


Every time we cannot understand someone, chances are good that we’re stuck in the valley of paradox. And when we’re down there, we often feel uncomfortable, because we don’t know how to reconcile the two seemingly conflicting points of views. This is known as the feeling of dissonance. A feeling that often times gives rise to tension, which we would like to resolve.

One of the ways we can resolve this feeling of tension is through judgment. For example, you can judge him to be an “idiot” or a “bozo.” When we hit the limits of our empathy, one of our default reactions is to judge.2 After all, wouldn’t it make perfect sense for an idiot or a bozo to be saying things that don’t make sense?Such judgment does wonders in resolving our tension.

But there is another way to relieve this tension. That is to engage in what I call an empathic conversation.


Conversing Your Way Out of the Valley of Paradox


How Respecting and Listening Begets Insights

To engage in an empathic conversation, you start off by respecting the other, which is to say that you proactively decide not to assume that they’re bozos, and decide, instead, to assume that you’re stuck in the valley of paradox. You assume that if you can only find a new point of view from which to look at and understand the other, the paradox will be resolved. “How do we do that?” You ask. You do it by listening.

Because we have been trained since childhood not to listen while another is speaking, but rather to engage in the preparation of a defensive response in case it is needed, we have lost the child-like quality of listening with all of our sense organs: ears, touch, taste, and smell. Children until they are told that it is impolite, listen with all five of the senses plus one other: their own feelings. h.d. johns / psychotherapist

People often confuse listening with the passive act of hearing. To the contrary, listening implies trying to learn as much as you can about the other, so as to acquire a better understanding. It is actually a highly active endeavor, because it requires you to pay a great deal of attention. Going out in the rain so you can feel the rain drop fall on every corner of your body is to listening, as getting wet because it’s raining is to hearing. In fact, it’s not even primarily aural, because it  implies being present enough to sense and make meaning from any and all signals you can perceive from the other that can better your understanding. For example, quietly observing is also a form of listening. So is debugging.4


And as you listen to the other, you also start to listen to yourself, and when you do, questions will arise: questions that you may label as  “stupid,” but  think will help you gain a better understanding. Respecting these instincts and acting on them by asking these questions is also a part of listening.

For example, you can imagine the following dialogue to follow our last one:

You: “Ha… That’s interesting. I’m curious. Why did you say ‘high as in up high’?”

Him: “Oh… Uh… I’m… I’m sorry. It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen each other, and it was so unexpected to bump into you like this. The truth is I was very glad to see you. For years, I’ve been meaning to apologize for what happened in high school. But once I saw you, I felt really awkward. So I thought I’d try crack a joke to relieve the tension. I wanted to be funny, that’s all. But, of course, all I could think of in that instant was that stupid joke.”


What happens at this point is that you are finally able to cohere the two seemingly conflicting points of views—a process known as bisociation5—which enables you to finally empathize with him.

I have coined the term “bisociation” in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single “plane,” as it were, and the creative act, which, as I shall try to show, always operates on more than one plane.
aurthur koestler / novelist


But that’s not all. You also end up with an insight; you now have a much better understanding of what is going on inside that other: knowledge you did not have before. You now know how he was feeling and thinking; he was feeling awkward, and thought he should make you laugh. You also know what he wanted and needed; he wanted to apologize and needed resolution.

But it need not end there. One of the beauties of acquiring an insight is that it can directly inform innovation.


How Considering and Acting Begets Innovation

Many people confuse innovation with novelty. Being novel means making something new. Being innovative, on the other hand, means making something that is not only new, but also meaningful and valuable to the context in which it is being introduced.

In order to innovate, you have to consider the context in which your offering is being introduced, and act so as to digest and reflect your understanding and consideration of the context in and through the offering, such that it resonates with the context.


For example, you can imagine the following dialogue following the last one:

You: “Oh, wow. I had no idea you felt that way. You know what? Do you want to go grab dinner tonight and catch up?”

Him: “Oh, yeah! That’d be great! Thank you so much for the invitation.”

As simple and as mundane as this may seem, this is an innovation. First of all, it is new. The other person did not expect this. It is a surprise for him. Second of all, it’s meaningful and valuable to him. How do we know this? By observing his reaction. If he did not experience a sense of resonance and gratitude, it would not have been an innovation.6


The Difficulties of Realizing Empathy

Needless to say, the dialogue used above was a simplification. It is rare for empathic conversations to be carried out so smoothly, because there are many hurdles that prevent that from happening.

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
richard feynman / physicist


For starters, we’re rarely even aware of being stuck in the valley of paradox. More often than not we live our everyday lives labeling others without thinking twice, feeling as if we know everything there is to know about them or what they are saying. Not only that, but also that we are right or even objective about that knowledge. Rarely do we question this sense of certainty. This is especially so for thoseof us who’ve been trained to be perfect, to be a know-it-all, to never fail.


But if there is anything we learn as we get older, it is that we know nothing. Yet, we forget this day in and day out. To become aware of this in any given encounter takes discipline and deliberate practice. It also takes humility and courage. In fact, when you get those two attitudes together, we get what I call a resilient sense of curiosity, which implies a sense of care crucial in aiding the realization of our empathy.




There are  also sensitivities, and technical skills we may lack in our ability to listen, consider, and act. Most of us go through our entire education stack without ever realizing that these can be learned, practiced, and honed. In fact, what I have learned from experience is that

I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer
josé ortega y gasset / philosopher

bits and pieces of great content pertaining to developing these abilities are scattered all over the visual, performing, and literary arts curricula. The workshops I recently ran at both Kwangwoon University and Brown University, are examples of taking these various pieces and organizing them into a coherent experience.


Finally, the environment we’re in can have a tremendous effect on our sense of space. And that sense of space is crucial to our ability to realize our empathy.




If we are unable to feel a sufficient sense of space, we can become overly tense, self-conscious, risk-averse, insecure, or fearful. In which case, we won’t be able to feel the sense of intimacy and dynamism required to realize our empathy. If anything, it will just push us to label and move on.


In Closing

I could go on and on about this, but I think I’ve written enough for one post. If there is anything I’d like to leave you with, it is the fact that empathic conversations can happen in relation to any “other.” It need not matter whether it is in relation to your teammate, your boss, your

Much of the design process is a conversation, a back-and-forth as [Steve Jobs and I] walk around the tables and play with the models.
jonathan ive / designer

subordinate, or your customer. I make this point, because it’s commonly misunderstood that the primary role of empathy in design is in the facilitation of user research.7 I just want to make clear, that based on my 14 year experience that cuts across science, design, and the arts, this is simply not true. In fact, I would argue that the design process itself is best understood as a multi-dimensional empathic conversation. A significant contribution to any kind of innovation comes from the various empathic conversations you can have with your own colleagues8in the organization you belong to.9

Alright! Well, thank you for your time and patience reading this article. I hope you found it useful.

Thanks to Marilyn Pratt for inviting me to this wonderful community. It was a pleasure speaking at and interacting with the people at the 2012 SAP TechEd Las Vegas and Bangalore. To be honest, I had no idea such a passionate community of technologists existed. Since my core interest lies in the intersection of the arts and technology, I feel lucky to have had this chance to write a guest post here on SCN and to further engage with the community.


With gratitude,


Seung Chan Lim (a.k.a. Slim)

f: realizempathy

t: @realizempathy



The content for this post has been adapted from the book Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Making.





1 You will never hear me saying things like “have empathy for that person” or “I feel empathy.” Those phrases often mislead people into confusing empathy with sympathy, which is to feel sorry for someone, or emotional contagion, which is to “catch” someone’s emotion. Oh, and if I hear one more person who thinks empathy is about being nice to people, I swear I’m going to kill another kitten.

2 There are unlimited ways in which we can label people or things: “right,” “wrong,” “particle,” you name it, they’re all labels.

3 This is also known as  blaming or justifying.

4 This is not to suggest that we are trying to debug people when we’re listening to them. It simply means that a similar kind of focus and attention is required to learn about what is going on inside another person, as it is required to learn about what is going on inside the computer.

5 Bisociation is what forms the basis of what we  call creativity. It is often accompanied by a sense of “a-ha”!

6Now, this was for one person. How many people share such experience of resonance and gratitude determines how popular your innovation is. History is littered with inventions that were novel, but not sufficiently innovative, because the general populous of the context didn’t find it valuable or meaningful. We often say that those inventions were “ahead of their time.”

7 Another misunderstanding is that it’s sufficient to have a set of design methods as a substitute for the attitudes discussed here. Unfortunately, no matter what amazing methods you employ, if the attitude you embody while utilizing those methods does not include the qualities discussed thus far, it’ll be underutilized, if at all.

8 Empathic conversations don’t have a specific “form.” From the outside some empathic conversations look like heated arguments. The conversation that Steve Jobs talks about in this video is  an example of that.

9 And feel free to step outside the innovation circle for a second and think about how consciously realizing your empathy can help you document your code such that other people can better understand it, design your API such that other people can better understand and use it, develop your productivity tools such that it can be shared and reused by others so as to not duplicate effort, etc..


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      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      We are privileged to host your contents here Slim.  I hope in all the excitement of ASUG/Sapphire and with the "soft launch" of this new Design Thinking Community, your piece will find eyes, ears and attention.  I love that you write in regard to empathy:

      You also end up with an insight; you now have a much better understanding of what is going on inside that other: knowledge you did not have before.....But it need not end there. One of the beauties of acquiring an insight is that it can directly inform innovation

      It sounds like empathy leads to insight leads to innovation ability.  As a community of developers, designers, engineers and customers we should all take note.

      Author's profile photo Raquel Pereira da Cunha
      Raquel Pereira da Cunha

      Great blog Slim and welcome to SCN as a blogger!

      Thank you very much for sharing it with the community. It's a great opportunity for those who could not attend the Empathy event at Teched 2012 to learn a bit with you.

      And lovely pictures 🙂

      It was a great pleasure and privilege to meet you in Vegas and thank you for the nice conversations we had after that. I hope we can have a chance to meet again.

      Author's profile photo Seung Chan Lim
      Seung Chan Lim
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks, Raquel. I hope so, too. 🙂

      Author's profile photo Tom Cenens
      Tom Cenens

      Welcome to SCN and thanks for this blog post! Great read!

      I watched the replay of the session The Role of Empathy in Design Thinking at SAP TechED 2012 and I had some exposure to empathy as a topic at SAP TechED Madrid 2012 and I really found the topic to be interesting.

      As such I voiced for the content in a blog post shortly after:

      This definitely is a wonderful community and it's not limited to bits & bytes.

      Author's profile photo Seung Chan Lim
      Seung Chan Lim
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Tom. Yes! I read that post. I remember feeling your excitement. 🙂

      And you're right, this is definitely a wonderful community, and it's most certainly not limited to bits & bytes.

      Author's profile photo Kumud Singh
      Kumud Singh

      Great blog Slim! I can't comment for everyone but I can vouch for developers that we need a deep and huge amount of empathy in our conversations and dealing with people and teams. I have also felt many times that things does not get delayed due to lack of skills but mostly due to gaps in understanding between different teams involved in any project.

      I am sure if these facts are taken into consideration, things could move smoothly and fastly (for a change without HANA here 😉 ) . The question in my mind is when would factors like 'Empathy in work', 'Design thinking', 'Open thinking' etc. would occupy a centre stage at many work places and in the heart of people?

      Even as I write this comment, I think I myself need to understand and practice these in many situations! Thanks.



      Author's profile photo Seung Chan Lim
      Seung Chan Lim
      Blog Post Author

      The idea that much of the delays are in misunderstandings rather than skills resonate with me greatly. I read a great book called "Tyranny of Words" by Stuart Chase where he argues that much of world conflict stems from misunderstandings caused by the assumption that we know what the word used by another person means.

      This has been a daily practice for me constantly reminding myself to respect, to listen, to consider, to act... Even knowing the theory, it's still not easy. There has to be a continuous collaboration between the individuals' attitude (i.e. willingness to practice), the environment (i.e. the organizational support), and the language (i.e. the technical skills of respecting, listening, considering, acting) to make this work.

      Did you have any particular example in mind at the kind of delays happening due to gaps in misunderstandings? Would love to hear more.

      Author's profile photo Kumud Singh
      Kumud Singh


      I tried to give a short answer but that ultimately turned out to be this blog . Thanks.



      Author's profile photo Seung Chan Lim
      Seung Chan Lim
      Blog Post Author

      Awesome!!!! I absolutely love it when comments turn into blog posts. 🙂 Empathic conversations tend to inspire people to reflect and to make things based on that reflection. It's one of its amazing side effects.

      I don't know exactly what the difference between delivery level and handling unit level is, but it sounds like no empathic conversation took place between the developer and the functional consultant to facilitate a better understanding of either party.

      The developer didn't feel understood by the functional consultant:

      From her perspective, the FS clearly said that it should be at delivery level, and so that is a good reason why she should code it that way. But the functional consultant seemed to be ignoring that for no good reason. The developer wants to do things for a good reason (i.e. the "right" thing). So unless the reason becomes clear, she will continue to feel not understood.

      The developer didn't feel she understood the functional consultant:

      From the functional consultant's perspective, based on her past experience, it only makes sense for it to be at HU level. But the developer doesn't have the same experience she has. So unless she makes the effort to share a similar experience (i.e. showing her a collection of past projects), the developer will continue to not understand her.

      As a result, there was a paradox. But, alas, it never got resolved.

      Am I understanding you? Please correct me if I'm wrong.

      I would imagine that the fact that the paradox never got resolved lead to a sense of distrust. Was that at all part of what lead you to ignore her, and do what you thought was right?

      Your second story is another great one. It also gets to one of my pet peeves about specifications, which is that they're written in words.

      This is where considering comes in to play. If you're considering the reader or the user of the spec in the context in which they will be reading/using the spec, it would be best to make it using a metaphor that minimizes such misunderstanding. Although, the metaphor could be words, a far more effective and efficient means of communicating when something happens (temporal), and also within what boundary (spatial) is to use visuals. I wonder if you have had any experience with specs constructed in such a concrete visual manner?

      p.s: Speaking of the same word being interpreted differently. "Womenizing" is a word ripe with potential for being misunderstood in the U.S. 😉

      Author's profile photo Kumud Singh
      Kumud Singh

      Thanks for adding your thoughts here, Slim. You got it the right way 🙂

      The paradox was resolved but at a later stage. It certainly lead to a sense of distrust that continued even after that piece of development.

      I have seen specs with visuals and they certainly add value to explain the process.

      Thanks for hinting me on the word else I would never have thought in other ways unless accidentally!



      Author's profile photo Raquel Pereira da Cunha
      Raquel Pereira da Cunha

      Hi Kumud,

      I loved your blog, you described a situation in which I have been many times.

      I wish you could have been in Vegas during the Empathy event with Slim. I had the chance to participate as one of the invited speakers and I described one of the situations where Empathy was missing at one of my projects and marked me deeply, but reading you blog I see that I had many other situations where I had, as Slim mentioned in one of his comments, "misunderstandings caused by the assumption that we know what the word used by another person means".



      Author's profile photo Kumud Singh
      Kumud Singh

      Hi Raquel,

      Thanks for adding your comments. Any links for the Empathy event in Vegas where you shared your experience? Personally I have made it a point not to make assumptions in any conversation as far as possible and fall victim of "misunderstandings caused by the assumption that we know what the word used by another person means".  Thanks.



      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      what a fabulous article!  thank you for your extraordinary insight.  at its best, all life, and certainly all designed and thoughtful life is empathy training.  it's such a critical articulation--the one you offer here--and the real medicine and magic at the heart of this think (oh the thinks you can think) called design thinking.  thank you for your masterful articulation.  i will use it enthusiastically in all the design training facilitated sessions i'll be leading for the palo alto campus and with our partners across north america.  !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! your voice is a joy to hear here!