Why are certain people better listeners than others? What is it about some of your friends that makes you want to talk with them when you’re feeling down? What quality do those special friends offer, who easily create a safe spot, a shoulder to cry on? A space to share what’s on your mind and in your heart. Maybe they offer a consoling word or two. Or say nothing at all. Their supporting presence is deep even without talk. You feel it. They care.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel like they do (even if it is an approximate simulation). It is a natural, instinctive kind of mirroring behavior. And it is actually wired into our brains. We all have “mirror neurons” that cause us to mimic the actions that we see. This triggers an emotional connection and rapport. And for many of us, it feels like the natural, instinctive thing to feel and do.
It’s a kind of gut reaction
When we open ourselves to empathy, we are caring. There are many examples of this. We see our kids helping each other. They respond when another child is suffering and sometimes even cry in sympathy with the little guy who fell from the swing. This resonates within us. We feel like we’ve experienced the same pain. Or joy. Or both. How many times, have we found ourselves holding back tears during a movie or while reading a touching passage in a book? It is a kind of gut reaction. An imaginative leap into strong emotions. When we are empathetic, we are identifying and engaging emotionally with another person, as if we were in the same situation.
Woman are said to be more open to empathy
Is this true? Woman behave quite naturally looking after the welfare of others. The large majority are caregivers and act as the emotional glue in a family. But actually, this assumption is biased since not all women are empathetic. And yes, men can be empathetic though they are more often sympathetic. This too is a kind of acknowledgment of another person’s feelings. How valuable (and helpful) when you have a doctor who can relate with a patient because he or she has been in a similar situation! And talks about it. Don’t you feel like the doctor understands a little better what you’re going through?
Affective empathy goes beyond sympathy; it is deeper. It is when feelings are emotionally experienced as one’s own. When we share what the other person is feeling. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.
We interpret emotions through body language
Social scientists speculate that affective empathy is a product of social conditioning (nurture), our innate DNA (nature) and/ or a mixture of both. Women seem more aware of emotions, recognizing needs and are often more comfortable in communicating emotions. Regardless of gender, our human capacity to recognize and interpret the feelings of others is identified first through body language and facial expression. Then through less direct inferences like tone of voice and finally content (it’s not what you say, but how you say it!).
According to motivation author Dr. Tony Alessandra,
“the basis for both sympathy and empathy is compassion. This is a blending of understanding and acceptance of others enhanced by knowledge and wisdom. Compassion recognizes the “me” in “you,” the shared commonality of feelings between individuals. Both sympathy and empathy imply caring for another person, but with empathy, the caring is enhanced or expanded by being able to feel the other person’s emotions”.
Who else cares?
Design thinkers care. We cultivate a felt understanding of what another person is telling us at beginning of the design or innovation process. Even companies care. Innovative companies want us to delight us. They want to show us how they care by discovering our needs, desires and helping us to solve our problems. They want us to love their products. How does Apple (here the Karaoke video) make us love their smart phones? So much so that we totally identify with it and feel as if it is a part of us? Do they look under the surface with empathy maps? Create detailed personas? Explore and test with prototypes? Iterate, iterate and iterate? All of the above!
Businesses more than ever before rely on anticipating customer needs.
Using data gathered with qualitative research methods is cutting edge practice. And it is standard practice. In Silicon Valley it is done by default. Interviewers observe people while they engage with the product, they ask open questions, they use empathy to put themselves in the lens of the customer’s emotional perspective. “Shadowing” people in real-time, talking with them in their environment are all part of the research necessary to understand how and why customers care. And what they need to be wowed. These enterprises approximate customer’s emotions, interpret signals using design innovation methods to motivate us to engage in a product’s vision. For me it is fascinating how today’s creative tech companies humanize their product designs.
And before we know it, we’re hooked and loving it!
P.S. Do you know this book by Jon Kolko; well designed: how to use empathy to create products people will love. Great read!