Empathy is Impossible
This post first appeared here on Medium.
When designing solutions for others, we must try to achieve empathy for their experience. I have a hunch that trying may be as good as it gets.
As a young student at the School of The Art Institute in Chicago, I was lucky to study with many gifted teachers, two of whom were so influential to my work that I regularly feel like a cheap plagiarist. Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulishwere those two. Performance and writing professors, they were also spouses and collaborators, which is probably why they spoke less about craft and more about creativity itself. Lin urged us to enter performance by learning to find beauty and build from its strengths. Matthew introduced collaboration by first teaching us about communication and community.
Those lessons in collaboration included a diagram of what Matthew called “the 4 points of distortion in communication,” which opens almost every presentation I give. The diagram consists of two circles that represent heads, each with a squiggly line brain, but one has a mouth, and the other an ear.
The distortion points are labeled:
What I Meant (brain)
What I Said (mouth)
What You Heard (ear)
What You Understood (brain)
I open with this to establish the fundamental need for empathy practice: that because these distortion points exists in every communication, there will always be a gap between What I Meant and What You Understood. But this example only addresses spoken words. Imagine adding variables of the unspoken:
And now imagine the case when multiple people are involved. When technology mediates. When there is invisibility. When there is spatial, cultural, experiential or temporal distance. Because of these gaps in understanding, we must practice empathy.
Yes, practice. Not feel.
Empathy is commonly misunderstood as a feeling of compassion or care. Call up any sci-fi, pop-psych or new age representation of the empath (our natural habitat, apparently), and you will see a bleeding heart, a co-mourner, a tender woman–and it’s always a woman–who weeps in the presence of suffering. There is even a consistent visual design style I’d call, “spiritual spa” with hearts emitting rainbows and affirmations in cursive.
But what about the people who become irritable in proximity to rage? Who feel jealous, inspired or vengeful after encountering the same? Are they not also empaths? One could argue they are. Empathy is simply* the experience of understanding and sharing the feelings of another person. For this reason, the range of its manifestations is as broad as the range of human experiences.
Now let’s address that asterisk. While feeling another’s feelings is “simply” what empathy is, feeling another’s feelings isn’t simple at all. Especially when we separate it from the more common experience of sympathy. To clarify, sympathy is feeling for a person from your own point of view, whereas empathy is stepping into their perspective and feeling as they do. It’s personal, but specifically other-personal. (For example, empathy is when I can join you being angry at your partner for lying to you, instead of sympathetically being angry again that my partner once lied to me.)
To regard empathy as a sense, like seeing or hearing, might imply that it is passive, automatic, or always on, and while that may be the case for some uncommon individuals, for the rest of us it is a practice that requires both intention and skill. Add to that an initiative to design, a deadline to meet or an outreach goal to hit, and the pressure is on to get this authentic-yet-strategic, other-personal, feeling-based-understanding on the move. And while there is often some interest in speeding it up or scaling it up, I’m here to tell you that will do nothing but eff it up.
At its core, empathy is human, intimate, and one on one. It can not be done by machines, or in bulk. Human-centered research practices that make way for experiential empathy offer our projects and ideas the largest possibility for profound impact. Because of its immersive, interactive, and small-batch approach, ethnography is the best one, and my favorite product to push. But it’s a gas-guzzler in the resource department. So, to those for whom a full-scale ethnographic study is inaccessible, here are some actions and processes that can build empathy into designed solutions:
Co-creation with customers
Invite a range of customers in to brainstorm with your team. Use a facilitator to get the most value out of your session, and be amazed at what they create.
Iterative feedback sessions
If your project will be in progress for more than a few months, schedule check-ins at key steps to get input and responses from prospective participants.
Short of in-person conversations in context, making a handful of phone calls and asking meaningful questions won’t take you long, and will take you far.
While you may not belong to your user group, you’re still a person. Try the product or experience yourself and see how it feels. Make notes and share.
Research technologies like dscout enable you to get input from users in real time, as they live their daily lives. Ask questions, give tasks and learn lots.
Write a dialogue between members of your audience and read it like a play as a team. Does it work? Is it believable? Do you connect? If not, try again.
Reframe challenges with the audience’s desired emotion at the center. “How Might We create [feeling] for [person] so that they can [action]?”
As problem solvers, the practice of empathy is fundamental to aligning our efforts with our intentions. For the same reasons we check a mirror before presenting ourselves to the world, we check in with our audiences and participants before taking action.
The impossible task.
In order to practice empathy, we must acknowledge that there will always be a distance between a person’s experience and what we understand about that experience. In fact, the moment I believe that I feel exactly what you feel, I am disrespecting your experience, which full-on misses the point.
How, then, could anyone ever truly achieve empathy? To be honest, I don’t know. I have come to believe it is not perfectly possible to do. Which is why I’ve dedicated myself to doing it.
From my former teachers’ writing on their work:
“We have set out to construct ‘impossible dances’ from a series of unperformable individual movements linked together by endlessly complex patterns and formulas, which challenge the limits of human ability.”
It turns out, Lin and Matthew had come to this edge before, and often encouraged us, as a performance directive, to give ourselves an impossible task. The purpose of the impossible task was to open possibilities which previously didn’t exist, to see gestures and hear sounds that may have never been made, had we not attempted the unachievable. It was an embrace of imperfection to the end of innovation. And it was beautiful.
In our professional aims at innovation, we, too, are called to this impossible task, to feel as others do — for the benefit of our audiences, certainly, but also for our own, as exposure to the experiences of others makes our perspectives more nuanced and dimensional, deep and true. We will fail every exacting standard, despite our most pristine intentions, but, like the dances my teachers composed so long ago, our efforts will fail magnificently, bettering the world of those who witness them.