generalizations get you nowhere

Much of the time, people default to generalizations when describing how they approach things. It’s habit. Generalizations unfortunately tend to gloss over the details of thinking and reacting and instead focus on explanation. When developing empathy, you want to get beyond explanation to the details, so you will want to ask a person to describe specific instances of an event, and all that was passing through her mind during each specific instance. The best way to see the difference in how you can understand a person’s thinking is to show an example.

in line at the coffee kiosk, photo by Rainey Straus

Generalization Example

“Usually I try to get to the airport an hour and 20 minutes early, so I can get a coffee and spend a bit of time sitting at one of those cafe tables to answer email before my flight. Those tables are comfier than being stuffed in next to other people waiting at the gate, plus I can reference my laptop or paperwork on the tabletop more easily.”

The first sentence contains statements of fact and an explanation. The second sentence starts out with a preference, “comfier,” and maybe a reaction about not feeling happy about being in close proximity to other waiting passengers, then finishes with another explanation.

Specific Instance Example

“The last time I went to the airport I got there only 30 minutes before boarding, because there was traffic and an accident on the way. So I was feeling a little rattled, but I knew I still had time to grab a coffee before the flight. There was a long line at the place I usually go, so I debated going to another place I know, that happens to be at the other end of that terminal. It would be a walk, which would take time, but I decided I was more interested in getting the exercise of the walk because I’d had to skip my workout the night before. Also, I didn’t really need to spend time responding to emails that morning because I’d already taken care of stuff the night before. Plus, my boss was traveling that day, too, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be asking me something. So I went ahead and walked to the other coffee place, and luckily the line there only had two people in it. Perfect! I remember scanning my inbox, just in case, during the minute or so that I stood in line, then the rest of it was simply walking back to the gate with my coffee. I even stopped at one of the stores, which is unusual for me, because I was kind of in this different mode, and I remembered that I needed to pick up a birthday card for my dad. By the time I got to the gate and finished my coffee I was feeling proud of myself for accomplishing that little task.”

You can see the difference. In this second example, there is far more description of what went through this person’s mind, the debating about whether to break with habit and get coffee elsewhere, and not respond to emails. There is far more emotion depicted, too. If you ask this person about a second specific time getting to the airport, you will hear yet more detail.