Is empathy hard?

Let’s get it out in the open: empathy is hard.

As individuals, we spend more time and effort thinking about ourselves than we do other people. And for good reason. We generally know more about how we ourselves feel than others do — how hungry we are, how tired we are, how relaxed we feel. It is difficult to fully understand what these thoughts and feelings are, but in ourselves we at least know they exist and find it difficult to ignore them. We call this “introspection”.

But for others we have to work really hard — through observation, conversation and imagination — to be able to think and feel with them. Our brains have to work much harder with “outrospection”. And yet however hard we work at it, our own thoughts and feelings — about ourselves — are salient for us.

When someone, even a “human-centred designer”, dismisses empathy as a bit “soft” and “impractical”, they may be admitting they find it difficult to prioritise the experiences of others; they may in fact be admitting that empathy is “hard”.

Sometimes we describe empathy as “getting inside the heads” of someone else and actually experiencing what they see — like the Cartesian theatre. But this I feel is a dangerous road. To think that we can actually be in the mind of another is a conceit which is more likely to create disconnection. Think about when someone says, “I know exactly how you feel” — does this help you? For me, at times of great personal emotion, it has robbed me of my own unique experience and in the process changed my experience — in a way I had no control over. And here we have some of the contradictions of empathy.

In order to empathise we need to get close to people, to observe their context, and attempt to look from their perspectives on the world. We might try to do this through ethnography — living with others, sensing their social relationships and experiencing their culture “from the inside”. But to empathise we need to gain insights into the “life world” of another person, by asking questions and engaging in conversation. We do this through interviews. Both of these research activities are prerequisites to the imaginative leap of thinking like another. But (and here is a key point for all designers) these activities themselves will impact on the very experience we are trying to understand, and therefore change it. By trying to “walk in the shoes” of another person we cannot help but change the shape of those shoes and the paths they lead.

This is a basic insight from the theory of social science, which calls for “reflexivity” in the research process. This means we need to think about what impact we have in the process of trying to observe or practice something. And this makes empathy really hard.

When we are mindful of empathy we begin to notice things more. We look for little reactions in others, so called “micro expressions” to offer an insight into what might be going on inside. This attentiveness has its own trace, its own “micro expressions”, which impact on the other. If both sides in a conversation are aware of this then they can become locked into strange social dynamic — where they start to think like a “behaviourist” who can describe, but not feel.

We might say to the other person “I can see you are getting upset” and they might reply “well I can see that you are getting upset”. Somewhere there is emotion, but it is unclear where it is actually located and what the right response to it is.

When we find ourselves in this dynamic, of sharing the facts of the other’s behaviours in the moment, we have no doubt lost empathy. And the best thing is often to disconnect from observation and conversation for a while, go into another room or have a break in the phone call; bring back the more authentic experience of being ourselves in a social world.

Empathy is hard, but it is worth it.