Excerpted from No More Status Quo: A Proven Framework to Change the Way We Change the World by Heather Hiscox © 2023 (forthcoming). Reprinted with permission.
This excerpt comes from my forthcoming book, No More Status Quo: A Proven Framework to Change the Way We Change the World, and is aimed at addressing common feelings of disillusionment within the nonprofit sector. The book tackles hard questions about whether passionately created programs really transform lives, or why nonprofits so often jump to solutions and waste resources, often without a process to guide their decision making. All of this is written with an eye toward creating tools to illuminate better paths forward. In this section, I take a look at empathy—and how to connect with others authentically, a critical component of so much social sector work.
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Empathy is complex, and there are several very important elements to consider when you are thinking about how you might understand another person’s perspective.
It is a myth that you can, through conversation or by mimicking another person’s experience, truly understand what it is to be them. We often hear about “walking in someone else’s shoes,” but I question if this is really possible. I like the idea that many share about how we need to “remove our own shoes before trying on another’s,” but I think there is tension and significant uncertainty within empathy that must be explored.
In an excellent article called “Stop Bastardizing Design with False Empathy,” Ovetta Sampson, VP head of design machine learning and responsible artificial intelligence at Capital One, says, “As a Black woman in America, I can tell you that few people in the world can know what it’s like to ‘walk in my shoes.’ And if you think that the result of empathy in design is all about you trying to really understand what another person is going through while leaving you unchanged[,] then you are an empathy offender.”
In the article, she goes deep into the many forms of empathy and how empathy transforms us. Sampson discusses the work of Daniel Goleman, who coined and defined the term “emotional intelligence,” and the three levels of empathy.
The first level is cognitive/intellectual empathy. This is the empathy most folks are familiar with and mistakenly refer to when talking about empathy in human-centered design. Cognitive or intellectual empathy occurs when we know what others feel and what they think. If you think about this in terms of the design process, this happens in the story telling phase, [t]he “what we heard” phase of our design research shares. In this phase, designers talk to people, write down what they said and share photos and quotes to communicate what they heard. A lot of folks stop here and expect this to build empathy.
The second level of empathy is emotional empathy. Sampson writes, “This is when you feel physically along with the other person, or feel what they feel, as though their emotions were contagious. Empaths famously have this ability. But research shows though we’re neurologically wired to have emotional empathy, that instinct can fade over time.” […]
The third level of empathy is compassion empathy, or empathetic concern. This is the level of empathy that moves you to action, as you not only understand what someone is facing and how they feel, but you want to try to do something about it. You can listen and not be motivated to do anything, or you can listen, and it lights a fire under you to be better, learn more, and cocreate. […]
While our positionalities can limit walking in someone else’s shoes, you can and should try to experience something similar to what stakeholders might be experiencing. Not in
an attempt to convince yourself that you have achieved full understanding, but to create a deeper connection between what you hear and what you do to support that person. For example, when the financial collapse that was caused by COVID-19 hit the United States, more people than ever before had to navigate government websites, bureaucracies, and delays to apply for unemployment benefits and loans. Some said that, for the first time, it exposed many wealthier Americans to the painfully frustrating and demoralizing experiences that many community members have endured to gain access to government benefits.
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If you cannot or have not experienced exactly what someone is experiencing, like applying for government benefits, you can still connect with the feelings of confusion and powerlessness. Maybe consider how you felt when you got your first loan from a financial institution, when you filled out your first job application, last did your own taxes, or maybe filed for divorce. You probably weren’t sure whom to talk to, what questions to ask, what information to include and where, and you probably had some apprehension about the outcome. While the experiences and instances are different, the emotions are similar in many ways. You can add layers of imagination to this exercise if you envision that the only paperwork you can find is not in your first language and think of how you might solve the problem of finding support from someone to help you. Maybe consider what you might do if you had another significant barrier, such as lacking a social security number or ID. What do you do then? One response could be just thinking, “Yes, filling out paperwork can be confusing,” and another could be to connect the dots of the emotions embedded in other people’s experiences with something that was challenging, confusing, infuriating, and defeating for you.
Connecting empathetically is about opening your mind and embracing complexity. At its root, empathy is about understanding that your perspective is just your own and that you are providing space for another person’s experience and their truth to live alongside your own. To be successful empathetically, you are not only connecting to a feeling within you that is the same as or similar to the feeling of another person, but also detaching and untangling your own emotions and experiences from theirs. When you connect with stakeholders, you will hear stories, ideas, justifications, experiences, and explanations that might be very different from your own, and you must be open to challenging your own immediate judgments and assumptions. Without acknowledging this attachment-detachment dance, you might listen to the experience of another, unintentionally compare it to your own, form judgment, and potentially dismiss, undervalue, or even develop contempt for that person. Sadly, this happens every day, and we are all guilty.
I experienced a gift when I first started doing this work that totally shifted my thinking about empathy. I was coaching a multiday event with an organization, and there was a woman on a team who seemed really grumpy about having to be part of the training. She appeared distracted, short-tempered, and easily frustrated. My brain immediately went to judgment. I made the assumption that she was pulling back from the work.
I judged that she was not participating in the ways I thought she should to really demonstrate commitment to the process. As the training continued, I decided to check in with her, so during a break, I strategically lined up next to her at the snack table and asked her how she was doing.
She told me it was her first day back from maternity leave. It was the first time she had left her infant in childcare, and she was in pain because she needed to pump breast milk and was trying to find a way to do that in the rapid flow of the workshop. She was feeling very mixed emotions: excitement about being back with her colleagues but also tremendous sadness and anxiety about being away from her baby. This interaction stopped me in my tracks, and I have never forgotten the shame I felt at that moment as a fellow mother who has felt those very same feelings. I was so ashamed that my judgment had created a story about and for this woman when I was totally uninformed.
Just as we all are biased, we all need to do internal work before we can be positioned for optimal connection fueled by empathy. We must acknowledge that what we think we know about a person from what we see on the outside might be in no way connected to what is really going on with a person on the inside. There are many times when the joyful person I have shown to others masked pain, sadness, and grief, and I think this has been true at some point for most of us.
We must also do the work involved in experiencing the shame, disappointment, and discomfort we might feel when we misstep, as this is an essential piece of self-empathy and self-awareness, which are key to connecting empathetically with others. I felt awful and was so angry with myself after I had wrongfully judged this new mother, but I sat with and processed those feelings, and the experience imprinted a powerful lesson I will never forget. None of us is perfect empathetically, but when we do the work to hone our empathy skills, not only will our potential solutions and organizations be elevated, but we will also be transformed.
Hiscox, Heather. No More Status Quo: A Proven Framework to Change the Way We Change the World, pp. 152-156 © 2023 (forthcoming). Reprinted with permission.