The beating heart of empathy

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says to Scout: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Of all the things that make us human, our capacity to empathize with each other might be the most important. To not just walk around in someone’s shoes, but to get a glimpse into their heart. To achieve what our teams call “peak emotional empathy” — that moment when, with respect and humility, we reach such a level of understanding about what another person is experiencing and struggling with that we can offer them real compassion.

In our business, there are many methods we’ve seen people use to try to achieve empathy — from donning pregnancy suits to feel the weight and fatigue that comes with carrying a child, to riding in wheelchairs to gain a clearer picture of the obstacles and frustrations people face when trying to navigate everyday life. In our approach to design research and critical thinking, we try to move beyond this type of “cognitive empathy” and into peak emotional empathy so that we can make meaningful, powerful recommendations for change and improvement.

Emotional empathy is not about how we, as outsiders, attempt to document the ways in which something works so that we can suggest how to do it better. To build emotional empathy, we seek to understand what someone is actually going through. Their actions are important but their motives and circumstances are even more so. By closely interacting with them — seeing how they approach challenges, listening to their stories, learning the processes they follow as the move through their day — we begin to understand their world. We are always mindful about being humble and non-judgmental in our empathy journey. We put our own egos and expectations aside, and move into the mindset of the person we are studying.

One of our biggest revelations around the power of empathy emerged during our project with a children’s research hospital whose mission is to advance the cure and prevention of pediatric diseases through research and treatment.

The hospital asked us to help them design a better way for caregivers to navigate the hospital, prepare for appointments, and interact with the care-team of a child in treatment. We were allowed to exhaustively tour the facilities, speak with staff, and immerse ourselves in the processes and procedures of the hospital. In this initial stage of our work, we achieved our first milestone: peak cognitive empathy; the perspective of a caregiver navigating a complex landscape while caring for a sick child.

And then the hospital introduced us to parents who had been through this process. Mothers and fathers who, in the midst of the most stressful and anguish-filled moments of their lives, had to attempt to understand a morass of programs, procedures and decisions surrounding the care of their child.

During our sessions with these parents, we heard about their journeys and their pain. They told us about being scared, confused and overwhelmed. In these interviews, one of our goals was to get feedback on the prototypes we were building based on our initial research. Our team instinctively understood that, while this feedback was important, it was not important enough to interrupt their stories. These parents needed to be heard. So we closed our laptops and listened, holding back tears as they shared. Somehow we got through all the sessions, and they were revelatory — they helped us see the same halls we walked through the family’s eyes. We had achieved peak emotional empathy.

Looking back, hearing these stories was some of the most valuable time we spent on the project. Yet, it could have easily been skipped if we felt pressured to stick to the script. By achieving emotional empathy we weren’t fighting for our prototype features and functionality. We were thinking about how a parent would try to schedule their next appointment, or book a hotel room in advance, or order medication for their child. Our revelation was that the experience we were creating was not the center of the universe. We needed a sense of humility in order to provide as much guidance and comfort we could through the improved experience we were designing, and then gracefully step out of the way.

In design thinking we use a variety of techniques to figure out which problems to solve. Empathy is often mistaken as simply a tool for understanding. But it is so much more than a tool. True empathy is an intimate experience, a primal feeling. It’s part of what makes us human; a key factor in our survival as a community. And it’s not just the use of, but the experience of empathy, on a deeply personal level, that gets you to the heart of the matter.