1. What Are the Implications of A Society Which is not Empathetic?
What happens when we only see people at a surface level and don’t think about the true nature of what they might be experiencing? Maybe that criminal only committed a horrific crime because his whole life he was ridiculed, mocked, and bullied — and that led to the development of a mental illness. Perhaps that student is underperforming because one of their loved ones passed away. Maybe that co worker is perpetually angry because he was abused his entire childhood and that lead to a personality disorder. Maybe that suicide was committed because the person didn’t have anyone to confine in and they were hurting, so the only place they found solace was sadly and unfortunately in death. Statistics tell us that nearly 1 person dies by suicide every 40 seconds in the world. By the end of this article that means 5–6 people would have passed.
Although its true that these problems have causes which are multivariable in nature, these problems also highlight the implications of a society which abandons its people by not embodying empathy.
At work we talk about poke yokes which is a Japanese term for error prevention. Basically when designing a process, there are certain items that can be implemented to prevent an error from occurring. For example, if we want a disposal bin at a restaurant to only be used for throwing away cups and not plates, we can make the cover of the bin a small circle instead of a more expansive one so large objects like plates wont fit but smaller round objects like cups will. However what we should really ask is, could that crime or suicide have been prevented? Could it have been prevented if someone just gave the person a little bit of warmth, maybe a hug, a good word? These actions require empathy.
Without empathy, a plethora of vital services which are the backbone of our societies wouldn’t exist today. Hospitals, shelters, police & fire stations, transit systems, and universities, amongst others are just a few examples of services which were manifested as a result of fundamentally understanding certain problems and attempting to address them in a hope to provide effective solutions. In fact, I’ll further argue that any product, service, or solution whether its material or immaterial we enjoy and take comfort from today is a result of empathy. This is evident when understanding the vast application and scope of empathetic problem solving.
2. Exploring Empathetic Problem Solving
Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO which is global leading product design firm, published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled ‘Design Thinking’. He proposed that following the methodology of a designer when they’re developing a solution is immensely beneficial to any problem area even if it’s not directly design related. Typically designers would find themselves as engineers, architects, artists, or even scientists. However Brown argues that design thinking is beneficial in developing products, services, processes, and strategy in any field. This is mainly because problem solving is universal and in essence all great designers are great problem solvers.
In the article Brown lists the personality profile of great designers or — problem solvers. Whether its Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci or Nikola Tesla, great problem solvers share characteristics such as collaboration, optimism, resilience, and experimentalism. However the trait which struck me the most was empathy.
The greatest problem solvers are empathetic. They can see the world from numerous perspectives and take a human centered approach to problem solving.
The concept of empathy being the fundamental starting point for problem solving is natural and hence is taught as a first approach in designing effective solutions. Take for example my very own engineering design course in university. We learned a systematic process for tackling problems. The process started by a phase called needs analysis. In needs analysis we were responsible for studying the problem in depth, doing background research, and interviewing users. From this we would generate functional and non functional requirements. From those requirements we developed a set of specifications the design had to adhere too. We were not allowed to start thinking of a solution until the problem was understood from every angle. Looking back at it, this entire process of needs analysis is the embodiment of empathy. Interviewing users, brainstorming specifications, researching the problem, all of these aspects develop a true understanding of the problem from its core, which is empathy.
Even at work — which for me is in New Model development where we take prototypes to mass production launch — the word ‘Genba’ is thrown around a lot. Genba is Japanese term which means ‘actual place’. At work this word is used because we’re not allowed to make assumptions on how to solve a problem without going to the actual place — which in this context is the manufacturing line of where the issue actually happened. Ideally, we don’t start our problem solving studies of part or assembly failures only based on a picture or word of mouth. Since going to the actual place helps develop a true understanding of the problem, Genba therefore is also a manifestation of empathy.
3. Empathy as a foundation for faith based, moral, and holistic problem solving
Perhaps most important of all, empathy is one of the Quranic methods of problem solving. We see empathy in Surah Ad- duha when Allah ﷻ reminds the Prophet ﷺ: “Didn’t we find you as an orphan?” (93:6). The surah then continues and states “Don’t oppress orphans” (93:9). Reminding the Prophet ﷺ of his own experience and living what it’s truly like to be an orphan develops empathy. Furthermore, Surah Ad -duha also teaches us that no matter what problem we’ve had, its our duty that once we get out of that problem, to help others who are facing the same issues. To use our pain as a catalyst to become hope for people in despair. The Quran highlights here that lived experience of a problem creates empathy and empathy creates great problem solvers.
In his book, ‘With he Heart in Mind’ Imam Mikaeel Smith states that the Prophet ﷺ was the most intelligent human being this world has ever seen. This also naturally implies that he ﷺ was also the best problem solver on the face of this planet. Imam Mikaeel Smith coined the unique but necessary term ‘moral problem solving’ as one of the ways to describe this quality of the Prophet ﷺ. His emotional and moral intelligence were unparalleled. He ﷺ was hyper sensitive to people’s problems, which can clearly be seen in the numerous narrations of his character and how he uniquely addressed everyone’s specific problems whether they were family or newly introduced. When he ﷺ was talking to someone he’d face his entire body towards them and give them full attention. He ﷺ would be the last to lift his hand in a handshake. The Prophet ﷺ was a master of empathy.
The embodiment of this prophetic characteristic should help us realize that ultimately and undeniably, everyone is facing their own storms. If they appear to be doing something outwardly negative, annoying, or nonsensical — help them, pick them up, don’t ridicule them or leave them behind. Stop to appreciate them. Listen, even if it means not offering a solution. Just being present and mindful has a great impact.
Our faith is a faith of building people not breaking them. The Messenger of God ﷺ had an ability to see people in their raw form mould them into great human beings. He took some of the worst people with difficult, dark, sinful, broken, even criminal backgrounds and made them into leaders, beacons of light, and hope. These were the very people who went on to spread the light of hope and the final revelation in all corners of the world. Tracing everything back, one can only come to the conclusion that as these companions’ problems were only solved, and this radical change was only brought as the natural consequence of the Prophet ﷺ being a master of empathy.