Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist who is good at making complex things accessible
The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.
– David M. Kelley, design innovator who is good at making complex things accessible
Empathy is feeling with people, a kind of sacred space when someone is in a deep hole…and we climb down.
– Brene Brown, researcher and storyteller who is good at making complex things accessible
What do these things have in common?
Creating a resume that stands out.
Writing a winning proposal.
Being an effective parent.
Designing a product that sells itself.
Enjoying a long-lasting marriage.
Having loyal and satisfied customers.
Having loyal and satisfied employees.
Living a meaningful life.
The answer? They all depend on the successful utilization of our intuitive, biologically hard-wired ability to empathize. When we are successful in empathizing, we naturally activate in others their engagement, interest, and trust. When we don’t empathize, we are more likely to trigger frustration, criticism, and withdrawal.
Now I could be talking about marriage advice or product development. Either way, these truths would apply – because empathy is relevant to every aspect of human interaction. It is the skill in which we apply empathy that serves as the basis for our social competency, which in turn serves as the primary basis for successful relationships. It is also the substance of good design, in that what we produce is created with the user’s genuine needs in mind, capturing a “sense” of familiarity, connection, ease, thoughtfulness, and comfort.
The One Feeling That Effects Everything You Do
In my last year of residency, I was Chief Resident of the inpatient unit at UCLA’s Psychiatric hospital. In that role, I was an administrative liaison between the second-year residents who did the majority of the patient care, and the faculty and staff who ran the hospital. That year, there was a proposal initiated on the hospital side to combine inpatient services with consultation services under one treatment team, much like how other medical specialties functioned at UCLA’s main hospital.
I took it upon myself to form a proposal that would work to implement these changes in a way that I thought would be acceptable to the residents. What I came up with was something that I was admittedly very proud of, specifically because I believed that despite this being a mid-year change for the residents (which I knew they wouldn’t like) I had actually found a way to make some of the more challenging aspects of being a resident better (which I thought they would love) – three out of four free weekends per month! A predictable and manageable call schedule! Less work if your co-resident was on vacation, not more!
So I gave copies of my proposal to both the hospital chief and the resident class representatives and waited for their inevitable acceptance of my win-win solution. There were a series of direct conversations between the administration and the class reps that I wasn’t part of. To my surprise, it was decided that nothing would change and that all proposals would wait until the following year.
I was surprised because I had thought that despite the short-term changes, that what I offered was better than what they had. Why didn’t they want it? I heard after the fact that the hospital side did accept my ideas, but strangely (at least to me) the residents didn’t. So these residents continued working most weekends, had unpredictable call schedules, and worked twice as hard when their co-resident was on vacation for the remainder of the year. I couldn’t understand why they would want this when clearly they had a better option – my option! But they were happy with their result regardless. Why?
I used to tell this personally frustrating story as an illustration of people acting against their own best interests due to our human vulnerability to bias (another topic for another time) but now I see it from a different perspective.
Back then, I saw it from my perspective – “If I was a second-year resident again, I would have loved it.” And from my perspective, their choices didn’t make sense and left me feeling frustrated.
Now I see it from an empathetic lens, from their perspective – “If I were not me, but I was you, how would I feel? What would be most important to me?”
Here’s what I now recognize. They felt that any changes made would be unfair, especially as they were not involved in the initial decision. They felt invisible. So what was important to them was to be seen and heard. And they were, so they felt good about that.
They felt that they were already working hard and doing the bulk of the work on the inpatient and consultation services, and admittedly the second year of residency was by far the most demanding. So it was important to them to be appreciated. And they were, so that felt good.
They felt that others were making decisions that would affect their daily work the most, without their direct input, and that made them feel helpless. The workplace was unpredictable and unsafe. So in the context of those meetings that I wasn’t part of, their input was heard and ultimately the decision to not make any changes demonstrated that they had a determining voice. So they felt good. And even though the end result of “no change” was still very challenging in the typical way that residency is hard, there were no issues of bitterness, anger, or resentment that followed the decision to postpone any changes.
I remember that they were content with the outcome and that the experience was a positive bonding experience for them as a class. It ended up being a very problem-free year on the inpatient unit. The residents worked hard, and my tenure as chief resident ended up being pretty easy. Back then, I had thought, “alright, I guess you got what you wanted, but at what cost? How can you be happy with that?” But now I realize that they truly got what they needed at the time, and now their happiness makes perfect sense.
Where We Need It
Let’s break this down and talk about its relevance both on the personal side of life, and how it’s applicable to the workplace as well.
In our personal lives, meaningful and fulfilling relationships are the most reliable factor in predicting broad measures of life success – wellbeing, life satisfaction, accomplishment, and health. The still ongoing 78-year plus Harvard Grant Study shows this in a very compelling way.
This also makes sense when we understand how we develop optimally as human beings starting from our early life. As much as we need the physiological basics of air, food, and rest, we also know from research that human connection is also necessary to live and flourish. When premature babies are deprived of human touch, they fail to thrive. When people live in isolation, their health is drastically negatively impacted.
On the other hand, when young children feel safe, secure, seen, and soothed (the 4 S’s of Attachment Psychology) they experience optimal development of the regions of the brain that are associated with our highest psychological functioning – conscientiousness, impulse control, emotional balance, complex and integrated reasoning, empathy, and morality. When children don’t experience this, then all of these abilities are less developed – sort of how living through famine can stunt physical growth.
This also remains relevant in our adulthood because we continue to process all of our human interactions through these core needs – to feel protected from harm, to feel that we belong, to feel truly understood and not judged, and to feel good in the presence of another. Empathy is the means by which one person activates this sense of being truly understood by another. In the process, there is a fulfilling subjective experience that is shared and a spontaneous mutual motivation to reciprocate positivity towards each other.
Interestingly, if a feeling of empathy is activated in us, these same feelings of oneness and reciprocity can be attached to non-persons as well, which explains our connection to our devices, our sports teams, our alma maters, and our brand loyalties. In addition, the opposite can also be true, in that we can feel betrayed by a company, be angry at an unresponsive touchscreen, or feel slighted by a restaurant menu that has typography that’s too small. Why? Because we intuitively feel that there is a person behind these inanimate objects – a person that we assume didn’t take the time, make the effort, or even care to understand me. And this is why the topic of empathy is not just a self-help buzzword or only relevant for couples therapy.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, empathy is at the foundation of every interaction we have, because we react instinctively either positively or negatively based on whether or not we feel that we’ve received it.
So even in the seemingly impersonal productive aspects of life, empathy matters. It effectively facilitates the fulfillment of needs of both those that we service (our clients and customers) as well as those we collaborate with (our vendors, employees, and bosses). Its absence reinforces ambivalence in customers and creates disengaged employees. Empathy in design facilitates personal connection to products and loyalty to companies. Its absence makes sense as to why our amazing residency solutions are ignored and our technologically superior products warm the shelves.
Our Biological User Interface
Now one way to think about empathy and why it’s relevant to everyone is to recognize that empathy is our biological user interface – honed and perfected through evolution. Empathy is the functional ability to connect with what is going on with others. The outcome of successfully using empathy include: understanding the needs of others, mutual engagement, collaboration, and an intrinsic motivation to help. The experience of empathy is automatically translated in a language that we understand because we replicate and decode the perceptions, feelings, and thoughts of others in our own minds – through our own perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. In other words, in the act of empathy, we accurately read other people’s minds and then interpret their state in a way that is familiar to ourselves.
In terms of what empathy feels like, the giver and the receiver’s experiences differ. The giver of empathy experiences a subjective shift from their own state, to then mirror the state of another. This is very much an experiential phenomena, not an intellectual one. It’s not really that I “get” what you’re going through, it’s more that I “feel” what it’s like for you right now. As the experience is now shared, there is an intrinsic motivation to either join in the other person’s joy if the mirrored state is positive, or there is a drive to help relieve the other person’s discomfort. Empathy and compassion come together as a package.
Now the receiver of empathy has a different experience in that they “feel felt” – a subjective sense of being truly understood at a gut level. There is also a sense of oneness and relief, simultaneously creating openness and vulnerability, fostering trust in the other.
So how do we “do” empathy? First of all, since it is our hard-wired biological user interface, we do it without trying.
That feeling when you are watching that Epic Fail compilation on YouTube where someone takes a bad fall and you cringe? Empathy.
When you are watching a scary movie and you look away because the emotions are so intense? Empathy.
The feels that you get when you watch that clip on Facebook where they show that animal that was neglected and is slowly being nursed back to health. Right, that’s empathy too.
It’s that instinctive, involuntary “I feel what you feel” feeling that just happens when we are engaged with another. Now that’s not to say we can’t be intentional about being more empathetic, which absolutely can be developed and honed. Here’s how:
1 ) We need to understand the perspective of others. It’s not “if I were you, this is what I would think, feel, and do.” That’s a “me” perspective and puts us in a distant position of judgment, which is a hindrance to empathy. Instead, empathy is a “you” perspective – an attempt to inhabit the experience of someone else – “If I were living your life, this is what I imagine you are thinking and feeling.”
What facilitates this ability is when we connect with something within ourselves that we find familiar in others. This also illustrates one of the ways where personal growth and development also facilitates our skills with others.
- The more in tune we are with our own thoughts and feelings the better we can recognize the same in others – this is where a practice of mindfulness helps.
- The more vulnerable we are with ourselves, the more likely we can recognize the same in others – this is where emotional competency helps.
- The more that we acknowledge our own imperfection, the more likely we don’t make judgments when we see the same in others – this is where a practice of self-compassion helps.
For kids, we often say, “how would you feel if…” in an attempt to get them to empathize. We should say instead “how does he feel?” This works with adults too. This also works within ourselves.
2) We should hone into several important details – the emotion, the context, and finally the needs. This serves two purposes. The first is to better inhabit the other person’s subjective world and deepen our sense of connection and understanding. If we are successful, then the “you” perspective becomes a shared “we” perspective.
The second is that when we correctly interpret the person’s need while in a state of empathy, it naturally motivates our desire to help. In the context of relationships, the needs are the same four that we had when we were infants: to feel protected from harm, to feel that we belong, to feel truly understood and not judged, and to feel good in the presence of another. When needs are fulfilled, it feels good. Unfilled needs create discomfort. Share the joy or share the pain.
3) Like with anything new, we need to practice, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, make adjustments, then practice again. With anything that we do with enough consistency, what initially may feel foreign and awkward, eventually becomes our new normal. Learn from experience, make course corrections, be persistent. Fortunately, when we succeed in empathy, the process itself is inherently gratifying and the outcomes will be superior. It’s easier to keep up with something that feels good.
As a final piece of advice, the best place to work on your empathy skills would be in your personal life, where the dividends are the most meaningful. This isn’t to minimize the positive impact that empathy would have on your work life as well. However, since the goal is genuine personal growth, you will automatically be more effective in your work roles when you develop your empathy skills in everyday life.
We should all value and practice empathy. It truly affects everything that we do.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, empathy is at the foundation of every interaction we have, because we react instinctually either positively or negatively based on whether or not we feel that we’ve received it.