fear of empathy

Koi fish of different sizes and colors swimming in dark water

newsletter #27 | 08-Aug-2017

When I wrote my book Practical Empathy, I chose my vocabulary carefully. I was thinking of the many clients who got distracted by the words “feelings” and “emotion,” who got great laughs by turning a listening session into a Hollywood psychoanalysis session. “How does that make you feel?” (They were pretending to ask this of their customers, who were engineers trying to solve systems problems.) I wanted to be careful not to distract my readers with their own reactions. I emphasized cognitive empathy so readers could calmly explore what I was proposing. I tried to help readers become aware that the “science” and “data-driven” proof organization reference as proof for a design decisions isn’t the same as scientific rigor in biology or physics–and that the hypotheses organizations craft spring from a narrow understanding of the problem space. (Narrow might be fine for some markets, but increasingly markets are revealing themselves as much more complex.) But my careful vocabulary has failed in a couple of respects.

First, not enough people have read, adopted, and spread the vocabulary. Yet. There are people who still believe that empathy is narrowly defined as emotional contagion, “bathing in the emotions of someone else,” toward the goal of sparking sympathy or compassion. Paul Bloom is one of these to write about it, and recently Larisa Berger at Mule Design became another. I wrote to my friend Erika Hall at Mule to hint that Larisa took a very narrow definition for her essay, and Erika responded gleefully that Mule folks like to be contrarian. Fine. But this particular essay is more like spreading fake news than encouraging people to consider different practices. (BTW, both of these authors use “compassion” in a similar way to the definition of “cognitive empathy.” There is good intent, but narrow definition.)

(See also links to Empathy Critics and Supporters in newsletters #20 and #21and my interview on To the Best of Our Knowledge in newsletter #22.)

Second, there is a lot of reluctance in our culture, especially in the technology and business world, to admit that meritocracy is only a theory, not a reality. The reality is that people pre-judge each other based on outward signals, without being aware of it. Gender, ethnicity, age … how a person dresses. Hundreds of people write about the struggle for and science of diversity, but we are up against fear of “the other.” It takes consciousness and effort to embrace other humans as assets and collaborators. Hundreds of people have this awareness and make this effort; progress takes time.

Third, I might not have emphasized the different uses of different types of empathy clearly enough. Emotional contagion is useful in telling stories, like the beginning of the Pixar movie Up or the end of The Little Prince. (Emotional contagion is also for manipulation, but that is not an area I am interested in.) Affective (a.k.a. emotional) empathy is useful for building rapport with someone, making them feel understood, and supporting them through an emotional experience. Usually this happens in real time, when you are interacting with a person. Developing rapport and building trust is a requirement if you want a person to tell you their inner reasoning and guiding principles. Cognitive empathy is building an understanding of a person’s inner reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles. It’s going deeper than the bubble of opinion, preference, and statements that a person puts out about themselves. There are other kinds of empathy, also, like personal distress, mirrored empathy, empathic concern, and self empathy that have their uses, too. Emotional empathy and cognitive empathy together are the two that I use the most in my work.

supporting another person through an emotional process

In the coming year, I anticipate seeing more writing and speaking about the variety of different kinds of empathy and their different uses. I anticipate people becoming more informed about empathy, and, I expect, there will be fewer rants “against empathy.” The human mind, no matter the background or experience, is an incredible thing. We can use its power to help recognize and unlearn the “fear of the other.”


Thought Provoking

Thank you, Hannah du Plessis, for helping me re-balance. Her essay is a good reminder for anyone in any generation in any century. These times, this life: What really matters?


q & a

From Stéphane Cruchon, freelance design sprint specialist, in response to Describing Personas, 23-March 2017

Q: Hi Indi, thanks for this article. I totally follow you in your quest of empathy and I guess the approach of persona you have works well for design thinking or product creation (solve a problem), but in a lot of recent projects, I also saw the personas helping my clients target their users more efficiently using Facebook / Google ads which have become key to run a successful business online.

These age / location criteria are of great help if you want to run effective social media marketing, focusing your budget on the people who could actually be potential customers.

If you have some accurate data (let say 85% of buyers come from NY and are women), why not use them in your persona?

A: The demographics of location, when used to place ads, are fine. But they’re not the behavioral audience segment. They’re the ad placement instruction. The “thinking styles” (segments) in your example, which let’s say is in fashion, might be:

  • “I like to be seen as cutting edge, daring, confident, a stand-out, which I achieve with my choices of what I wear, how I do my hair, and other body decoration,” or
  • “I am so busy that I don’t have time to think about what I wear or how I present myself, nor much time getting myself together in the mornings. I need a kind of uniform that will work in a number of circumstances.”

These thinking styles cut across location and gender. There might be higher correspondence of one thinking style with large urban areas, but be careful. Correlations like that lead users of the segment to ignore the other people who are not part of the correspondence. So if you subtract the urban area from the segment, when you use the segment for design (not for ad placement), then your thinking will be more focused and supportive of that segment’s thinking style. Certainly go ahead and layer in the demographics when you are writing instructions for ad placement.


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