What do you think?

To answer this question, let's start with what we know:

Empathy is an often misunderstood concept. Often times what we call empathy is not empathy at all. Some people have an in-born intuition that allows them to empathize with ease. Others seem to have no in-born ability to empathize at all. It reminds me of the ability to improvise in music. I've always been able to do it. I can't explain how, but as I'm experiencing music I hear other ways to play it in my head. As a musician I'm at my best when I have a simple chart in front of me with a melody line and a chord progression.

When people ask me how I created that arrangement I have to tell them I don't know. I didn't write it down and I'm not sure I could ever do it again the exact same way. What I do know is that much of what I played came from the emotions I was experiencing in that moment.

Like improvisation, empathy is born of creativity. Like anything creative, empathy involves taking a risk. The risk that comes with sharing an experience with another person. That risk is the core of empathetic response. In her book "The Creative Habit" legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp hypothesizes that people who lack creativity actually have an aversion risk. If empathy is a creative pursuit then we could say that the lack of ability to empathize is also born from a fear of risk taking.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Often times designers are guilty of short-circuiting empathy by assuming or drawing conclusions. Rather than build the ability to understand and share the feelings of another into our designs we create assumptions and then design to those assumptions. This is not empathy. Empathy is the removal of assumption replaced with curiosity. What creates feelings of fear in one person creates excitement in another. For an organization to be empathetic is has to be:

  • Willing to take risks

  • Apply creativity to its interactions with customers

  • Approach customers with curiosity instead of assumption

  • Share the feelings of the customer

Can organizations be empathetic? I do not know. I know humans can. There is some compelling evidence that other animals can as well. 

If organizations can become empathetic it is through human centered design. If you would like to know more about our practice feel free to reach out to me.

Guy Felder is our Chief Strategist. He writes on all things customer experience and marketing. Click here to read more from Guy.