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 eight different ways people use the word.
Eight! 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.
So here it is for the purpose of clarity, the operational definition of empathy I use in my work:
Empathy is an explanatory principle for our relational potential to experience an event, where we feel as if we are embodying or understanding the context of 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
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 embodying or understanding an other. A common way to describe this feeling is to talk about a sense of connection, 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 not much different from grokking.
Realizing Empathy 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.
Realizing Empathy as a Conscious Effort
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:
You: (feeling awkward) Hi.
Him: No, high as in up high.
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.
One of the ways we can relieve this feeling is through labeling. For example, you can label him as an “idiot” or a “bozo.” When we hit the limits of our own empathy, our default reaction is to label.2 After all, wouldn’t it make perfect sense for an idiot or a bozo to be saying things that don’t make sense?3
But there is another way to relieve this dissonance. 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.
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.
Seung Chan Lim (a.k.a. Slim)
Designer/ Researcher/ Speaker/ Coach
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..