Empathy & the Emperor's New Clothes
Brené Brown, one of my heroes and favorite writers, recently shared this image below I rather liked (possibly tapping into a childhood fondness for PBS?)
DesignHaus creative studio said of this graphic they created for Brené :
empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
What really struck me about DesignHaus's interpretation of empathy was the acknowledgement that there's always going to be some difference, a gap, between what we feel & experience and what another feels & experiences. Our understanding of each other's perspectives is always incomplete. Furthermore, the practice of empathy includes accepting those differences; "I know we don't see this the exact same way & I accept that I can't fully understand your unique perspective". I think this perspective is integral part to true empathy, and by extension, good design. The application of this radical empathy to both our collaborators, our clients and our audience can allow for the kind of nuanced work and speech that makes room for those shifting perspectives. This empathy cautions us to avoid assumptions about either that causes both working conflicts and PR disasters.(Bic for Her is a personal favorite)
How does one arrive at this kind of radical empathy? I think its best summarized as genuine curiosity applied to others.
curiosity: a strong desire to know or learn something
Thats not the same as saying "What is her problem!?" Thats the exclamation of someone frustrated with 'the gap' between what they feel and another feels. Real curiosity is best illustrated by a child who asks why all day. Often they ask really hard ones, frequently silly ones, but they aren't ashamed to ask them until they understand. Their sense of self isn't built on a facade of 'expertise' or dogma; they're comfortable in the space outside of ideological bunkers (stealing terms from Brené left and right here).
When we truly empathize with our audience and team, we can design the most effective solutions. Design that ignores its user looks like a door that is a push when you really needed a pull; its a trending aesthetic that harms legibility, its a designer who doesn't ask the client who their audience even is. It frustrates, confuses and alienates. Bad design kills people.
So if empathetic design is so key, whats our roadblock to curiosity as adults (and therefore true empathy)? (Aside from the often complete lack of good data on users & an preoccupation with novelty over innovation...)
Radical empathy is not possible when our focus is on projecting & protecting who we are instead of focusing on understanding others.
This place is where we are ashamed of our questions (or others) & one-upmanship trumps understanding. And its not a mystery why- who hasn't sat in a meeting or lecture thinking "What are they even talking about?" and looked around at everyone else quietly nodding (or vaguely hiding their confusion) and remained quiet. We are easily caught in a game of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' trying to protect ourselves from being exposed as the dumbest person in the room - or even worse, the odd man out. (Not ironically, in that story, it takes a child to point out the King is naked.) Projects are pushed through the process without a lot of important questions being asked. The critical steps of questioning and exploration may be challenging, tedious, maybe even at odds with everyone's assumptions (including your own), but paired with kind heart and a listening ear, you will achieve better design solutions (and relationships).
In a place where we ask questions, challenge assumptions & really listen - we choose to foster a culture of curiosity over ego. We choose understanding. The beauty of this can change our social contract (the one that silences each other when we see nobody else raising their hand), it is written by our individual behavior in a public setting. It can take only one person to rewrite the rules.
Step out of your ideological bunker.
Openly acknowledge what you don't know.
Be genuinely curious.
Really really listen.
Be kind towards differences but never settle for indifference.
Further reading (from actual experts) on the subject of empathy, curiosity, critical thinking and design. Of course, if you just want to read about the process of being a curious vulnerable human, read any one of Brené Brown's books.