Empathy is Bullshit

Why we need more understanding and perspective taking — in all directions — and less so-called “empathy”.

As a qualitative researcher, I’ve often invoked the word “empathy” as part of what I do. At one point, I even advocated to clients an approach to building processes and tools that would allow them to assemble a “repository of customer empathy.”

It’s a fashionable term in the tech start-up world — a characteristic that is being repackaged as a skill, or even, as a product (chatbots!).

And it’s a controversial term at this moment in politics. Years ago, Hillary Clinton won a senate seat after conducting a “listening tour.” Last year, despite being seen as much more likely to care about people like you, she lost the election to someone who isn’t often described as empathetic. After the election, we haven’t been able to decide whether what we need is more empathy to pull the country together, or whether our political opponents simply do not deserve our empathy.

To make matters more confusing, there are also multiple uses of the term. A general sense of kindness and understanding is one. We could all do with more of that. But a more literal sense of feeling the pain of another, is a completely different ballgame, something we’re hard-wired to experience, but not in an evenly distributed or at-scale way.

Empathy as an unreasonable standard

Empathy is a characteristic easily converted into a cudgel. People in my line of work find themselves held to a rather high expectation of always-on empathy; when we fall short, we’re criticized as hypocritical, or worse, suspected of being bad at our jobs. Likewise, women and people who work in the service industry or care-taking roles are not merely expected to demonstrate empathy, they are punished if they don’t.

For example, another stereotypical ‘female’ characteristic turns out to be ethical judgment. Women are presumed to be more ethical than men (who knew?), so when women do equally unethical things, they can be twice as likely to be harshly punished.

Empathy as a weapon

Empathy can also, quite literally, be weaponized. The President saw images of dying children, and in response, fired several dozen Tomahawk missiles into Syria. You may think that was a reasonable response (and you might think he didn’t go far enough), but a psychology professor at Yale points out that empathy can lead to disproportionate, even violent, responses just as easily. It’s why the whole world can become wracked with guilt over the image of a single injured child, but vote for an anti-immigrant/anti-refugee/genocide-denying policy or politician. Because we really only empathize with one person at a time — especially if they look like us, our friends, our children — empathy is simply unable to deal with scale, statistics, or the ‘other’.

Empathy for whom?

There’s a lot of hand-wringing over whether we should even try to empathize with others. Who do we believe is deserving of our empathy, and who is not? Conversely, who feels that empathy is owed to them, and to be reciprocated only when delivered as expected?

Empathy has become a thing we talk about as something one person or group owes another person or group. But there’s little or no discussion about the responsibilities of those on the receiving end.

What is the empathy supposed to accomplish? A sense of closeness, of camaraderie, of common cause, or community? That would seem to require reciprocity of empathy — I feel your pain and you feel mine.

In my line of work, empathy is used as a word to describe a way of seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, of understanding what matters to them, and the context in which they behave.

But in a focus group or a user interview, the research participant never gets to know me. They can’t feel my pain; they’re unaware I have any. My pain is irrelevant to the inquiry. While it’s true that I do offer my research participants emotions for them to react to — humility, or humor, or deference, or even some doubt — we are not truly engaged in an empathetic exchange.

Perhaps because we see empathy as a service that others provide to us, or that we provide to others, we simply expect to receive it, and become highly critical of those who withhold it, especially if they are people we think owe it to us.

Try perspective taking, understanding, and kindness

In fact, that work of seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, understanding what matters to them, and the context for that perspective — that is a kind of perspective taking. When we try to do this at some kind of scale, we can call it understanding. We are also not limited, in this case, to people who look like us, or to one or two people at a time. We can take the perspective of any group of similarly situated people. It requires knowing what they know, and holding both what they know, and what you are doing, in your head at the same time.

As an example, the other day, I twice encountered the notion that “democracy does not work in every culture” in conversations. The truth is, I can’t empathize with that. At an essential level, I don’t believe it to be true. At a deeply held, highly acculturated level, I can not accept that there is something fundamentally different among humans that makes dictatorships or theocracies better suited to some places, and democracy better suited to others. So no, I didn’t empathize. But I was curious about the point of view. How might I try to take their perspective? How might I understand the context of that belief and the behaviors that attend it? What do these folks know, what have they experienced?

What I was able to do was listen, ask more questions, and choose to be kind.

As another example, I was in a client workshop recently, and the issue of “millennials” and co-working spaces came up in the discussion. One particularly outspoken participant disliked open plan offices, and questioned the quality of collaboration that goes on in environments where what she sees are people sitting next to each other staring at their screens. She imagined each of these busy, young workers as either isolated, or distracted, or both. But she couldn’t see what was on their screens in the images we were looking at.

She didn’t know if they were using Slack to collaborate with remote working colleagues; or if they were engaged in focus work, head phones on to drown out distraction, deeply engaged in work that would benefit their team; or if they were exchanging texts or Facebook messages with a sick or grieving loved-one; or if they were being bombarded by demanding emails from clients or customers, working hard to address their concerns and needs; or if they were watching user interviews to discover ways to improve the products or services they help create; or if they were participating in a MOOC, learning a new skill or set of concepts.

When I suggested that those things might be true — that they could be collaborating, socializing, focusing, or executing, she was skeptical. She didn’t see herself in these images, so she couldn’t empathize. She was invested in her beliefs, so it was hard for her to take another perspective. She had limited evidence, so understanding was limited, too. And these were just pictures of strangers, so why show them kindness?

To get to perspective taking, understanding, and kindness, we need information. Some of this information should come directly from the people we’re trying to understand better. But some of it should come from observation, from background research, from studying the systems and communities to which they belong, even from gathering statistics or tracking analytics. We also need intimacy — we can’t completely walk away from the people we want to understand. We need to spend time with them, to listen to them, to ask more questions — not so we can like them, but so we can show them kindness. Showing them kindness is how we demonstrate that we understand.

As a thought experiment, imagine you are out for Friday afternoon drinks with friends and colleagues. Some of your companions pull out their phones and spend a minute or more looking at their phones. Maybe one of them is squinting at the phone, possibly frowning. Maybe another is glancing at the phone constantly, but not really interacting with it. Maybe another has a slight smile on her face. What might you think or feel in this moment?

You might think —

…well, this is the world we live in now, everyone glued to their phones.

…If they were really my friends, they’d put down the phones.

…I wonder if I’ve missed any posts/emails/tweets?

…Gotta get ’em all!

…I can’t believe people are bothering my friends and colleagues on a Friday!

…I hope the first two are okay, and I wonder what the second one is looking at...

They’re all perfectly normal emotional responses. But not all of them are empathetic, or understanding, or kind.

Empathetic is a thing you are; Perspective Taking is a thing you do

Instead of fixating on empathy, and the experiences of emotional and ethical debt that attend it, I think more researchers, designers, policy makers, and journalists should focus on perspective-taking.

Instead of trying to identify with a person, understand their context, and the context of the communities they’re in.

Understand what they’re trying to accomplish — the big and the small — and what barriers and frustrations they encounter along the way.

Acknowledge the limits to your empathy. Identify what hinders your ability to take their perspective. Fill in the gaps with more information gathering.

It’s okay to be skeptical, it’s okay to have your own preferences. It’s even okay to have your own biases, as long as you make the effort to know them. And it’s okay to decide there are some perspectives you just don’t want to take. You don’t have to sacrifice your own sanity and emotional well being to the act of perspective taking.

But it’s not okay to discount the essential humanity, the potential for goodness, the value of other people, just because you can’t or won’t understand where they’re coming from. Empathy doesn’t solve this problem — too often, it makes it worse, by focusing your emotional investment on pain rather than joy, on too few people rather than on more (and more types of people).

What we need isn’t a personality trait, nor is it a transactional view of relationships. What we need is one of the most essential norms of civilization. There’s nothing magical about this work, though it is, actually, work.

If you want there to be kindness in the world, treat others with kindness.

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