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Empathy: The What, The Why, The How

2017 has begun and with it, its list of New Year resolutions to be healthier, to be more productive – to be a better you. I’ll admit my list includes ‘writing more,’ and already with only one and a half sentences in, I’m struggling with this New Year’s resolution stuff. I’m sure from past or present experiences; you know how I’m feeling. It can be daunting, but here I am with a topic way too fitting for these feelings, so I’ll write on.

Empathy. Everyone seems to be talking about it lately or at least using it in their vocabulary. Back in September, CreativeMornings even used Empathy as their monthly theme. So what’s the big deal about Empathy? Well, let’s first start with a definition of what Empathy is. Empathy, in short, is the ability to relate to another person’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, as if you have experienced them yourself.

Empathy image

Why do I believe we are attracted to empathy and make such a big deal about it? Because we all have an innate desire to relate to others, to feel like we belong. The problem is, while it may be easy to understand, it’s harder to practice.

Practice Makes Perfect

So how can we practice Empathy? The problem is, many think practicing empathy means staying ‘in touch’ on social media or smiling at a stranger in a grocery store. Or if you’re a business, it means more demographic studies or user testing, where users are asked a bunch of predefined questions to have ‘unbiased’ data. Not to say these are not all great, but they aren’t examples of empathy. At its core, empathy is about choosing to build meaningful connections. Yes, I’m talking about those deep, sometimes uncomfortable interactions with ACTUAL human beings. Anybody who tells you this is easy is lying. Now, by no means am I an expert, but after scavenging through blogs, podcasts, and talks, I have extracted three key elements on how to practice empathy through creating meaningful connections:

  1. Suspend judgement and prejudices
  2. Listen
  3. Communicate with vulnerability, humility, and authenticity

Suspend Judgement and Prejudices

Everyone has a story. Everyone has a struggle. Everyone has something invisible that [they] are dealing with and every single time we interact with someone we are seeing one sliver of that person’s life and we are getting feedback from all the rest of their life underneath that sliver.“ – Ginamarie Marsala

We are hardwired to make judgements, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Judgements help us to assess risk, make decisions, and formulate our own values and tastes. Even at our jobs, we are hired for our judgments. As Gregg Henriques Ph.D. puts it, “the difference is between making judgments and being judgmental.” Take Ginamarie’s quote for example, throughout our lives we meet thousands of people, but most of the time we are only interacting with them for a small portion of it. If we are judgmental on that small sliver of their lives, we lose the ability to empathize. How can we relate to their feelings if we choose to ignore the rest of their story hiding beneath, their untold perspective?

Social Media is an excellent example of this. It is a lens through our peers only see a small portion of our lives. Sadly, it’s a very tiny sliver, as we are losing our willingness to be who we truly are on social media due to our fears of judgement. Ronnie Polaneczky in a CreativeMornings talk explains how “these mediums invite us to expose ourselves, which we do, and then they invite others to judge us, which they do.” It’s a condition of judgement rather than communication, blocking us from creating meaningful connections. So creating the environment where judgement and prejudices are suspended AND others actually feel that judgement is not being passed is key to being able to start the process of connecting and empathizing.

Listen

If we can suspend our judgements, we have a small chance of being able to accomplish the next step – listening. Although it seems natural, I bet most of us would admit we often fail at truly listening in our daily lives. We’ve heard things like ‘to be a good listener, you should look people in the eyes, read their non-verbal communication, and don’t interrupt them while they’re talking,’ but is this enough? Ronnie Polaneczky had another remarkable point on this subject explaining that to be a good listener, we need to give up our need to be right.

Ouch.

No wonder most of us struggle with this. She doesn’t stop there though, not only do we need to give up needing to be right but, we also need to be actually interested in what others think and why they think that way, instead of just listening and telling them what we believe about what they just said.

In this RSA shorts video, we can see this idea being played out. In the video, we have an empathetic bear who is taking the time to climb down into ‘the hole’ and listen to a fox. Then an antelope appears, and although sympathetic, just tries to fix the problem. The antelope heard what the fox was saying but wasn’t truly listening to understand the fox’s needs. The video continues giving us this advice, “rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.” Too often I believe as individuals and companies; we only listen to fix the problem at hand instead of actually engaging and creating connections to recognize and understand the users or people around us. We need to start engaging at an empathetic level.

Communicate with Vulnerability, Humility and Authenticity

We can’t just listen, because let’s be honest, people don’t want to feel like they’re talking to a robot – most of us spend way too much time doing that already. Although in the RSA video, all the bear said was “I know what it’s like and you’re not alone,” this isn’t enough in real life. To complete the circuit, we need to be vulnerable, humble, and authentic. If you haven’t yet, I would highly recommend Brené Brown’s TED Talk on “The power of vulnerability.” In her talk, she shares how we must have the courage to be vulnerable, show we are imperfect, and be humble enough to admit when we make mistakes. By being who we are, we can create a connection based on authenticity where others feel comfortable to open up and allow for deep, meaningful connection. From an organization’s perspective, this can be a frightening and uncomfortable prospect, but it’s necessary if we want to create trust and make meaningful connections with our teammates, clients, and users.

Empathy Alone is Pointless

Wait. What? You’re probably thinking, ‘why did I just waste my time learning about practicing empathy then?’ It’s not that empathy is wrong, it is just incomplete. Empathy, by definition, is only about relating to others. But, as the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.” That’s why we need empathy AND compassion. Compassion refers to both an understanding of another’s pain AND the desire to somehow mitigate that pain. Compassion is the action, and if we truly have a desire as a society to create a better world where everyone feels a sense of belonging, we can’t just relate, we need to take action and create change. An RSA Animate video called, “The Power of Outrospection,” shares the concept that history is not decided by the rise and fall of civilizations, religions or governments, but moments of empathic growth and empathic collapse. Then, as a collective empathetic force, we can create a revolution of human relationships and change the world. So as 2017 begins, let’s not just talk about empathy, let’s create a New Year’s resolution to practice empathy, and together we can change the world.

Resources – Check out these great sources; some you’ll find mentioned above, others were great affirmation and stories I just didn’t have time to fit in.