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Learning with Empathy

Why empathy is important, and a couple questions to ask to help.

This short, beautifully animated video from Brené Brown introduces us to empathy. It's hard stuff and requires intentional listening.

Pulling from my background in human-centered design, there are three phases to the design thinking process (discover, design, and deliver) with one thing in common: they all involve empathy. Each requires the perspective-taking and communication components Brené poses.

What, in my opinion, has made "design thinking" more than just a buzzword is its focus on empathy.

Empathy in each of discover, design, and deliver helps to approach problems with the right questions in order to understand needs and make connections. We need to ask questions.

While there are no perfect questions, Guy Raz has made a living out of being relatable and asking key questions. He creates a space for both his guests and his listeners on his podcast. This Subject Matter podcast episode (10 minutes) written by a writer and friend, Jen Vermet, reveals how Guy makes relationships feel understood.

He becomes intentionally empathetic with two questions:

  1. What's it like...?

  2. If I were you, I imagine I might feel...

Questions that start this way help us to shift to a place of understanding and curiosity. Like the video, we meet people where they are in order to exchange vulnerability. And as the deer says, don't start with "at least."

People make good decisions. To you it might feel like a bad decision, but empathetic questions allow you to cross over into outrospection and see for yourself just where the decision came from; I can use this cognitive empathy to understand perspectives, beliefs, and fears to create better products.

Similarly to Guy's questions, successful sales tactics are no longer about sleazy persuasiveness and abusing knowledge gaps. The days are gone where the customer is at the mercy of the salesperson for knowledge. We can find that and more online. It's now about using empathy to create a connection with customers. I recently received a package three weeks late, but was given a 50% code and a letter of apology. I'll be shopping there again because it felt personal, the company and I are in this together. In this way, as Daniel Pink says of sales, customers "become collaborators more so than puppets." Empathy and questions get us there.

So empathy isn't just about being a piece of the design thinking process. It serves as a lens.

We can learn about others to strengthen our relationships, design a more unified world, and even discover ourselves.