4 Ways to Activate Your Empathy

Rachel Cope
5 min readMar 13, 2017

As a child I loved listening to the stories of my grandma. I remember sitting at her breakfast table, the sun shining through the rainbow prism reflecting dancing flecks of light through the kitchen.

She told me stories of her childhood, the Great Depression, and the War. The tragedy of her father’s early death, and the tenacity of her single mother who baked 13 pies every morning to make ends meets. She shared the joy of meeting her life-long “sweetheart” and wept at the loss of her brother who died when she was 5.

Her stories moved me. They invited me into her childhood and made me feel connected to relatives I never met. They taught me about human relationships, their complexities, of pain and losses, and of life’s deep joys.

Her stories taught me empathy.

The Dust Bowl

Em·pa·thy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

Great designers are great empathizers

As UX designers, we hear a lot about the importance of empathy. We know that we build better products when we have a deep understanding of what users want and need.

Empathy is a required skill, up there with creating user flows, mastery of Sketch and Illustrator, and prototyping in HTML/CSS. While there are no bootcamps or courses on empathy, here are 4 ways that we can activate the empathetic centers of our brains and learn to emotionally tune in to our users.

Stockholm Public Library

1) Read Literary Fiction

Stories, like the ones told my by grandparents, have the powerful ability to evoke strong feelings and draw us into the lives of other people.

Studies have shown that reading literary fiction (in contrast to non-fiction or popular fiction) enhances the ability to understand others’ mental states and decipher complex social relationships.

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

— Henry David Thoreau

Literary fiction requires readers to make inferences about characters, tune into emotional nuances, and use imagination to fill in gaps. In turn, we become more empathetic, socially perceptive, and emotionally intelligent.

Tip: Head to the library and pick out a classic. My personal favorite: East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Rocky Mountain National Park

2) Spend time in nature

Recently, I did an overnight winter hut trip. We hiked into a Forest Service fire lookout with 360° views — where the cold, wind, and beauty were strong enough to take your breath away.

We awoke to a glowing sunrise and spent most of the day gazing at mountain peaks and feeling immersed in the nature that surrounded us. We were there for less than 24 hours, but on returning to the city, I felt distinctly more calm, creative, and connected to those around me.

In scientific terms, the experience of hiking in the snow, watching the sun set and rise again, and feeling connected to nature lit up the “anterior cingulate and insula” areas of my brain.

By looking at scenes of nature we not only become more relaxed and happier, but the sociable areas of our brain associated with empathy and altruism are activated.

Tip: Plan a picnic in the park, trek through Patagonia, or go on a weekend camping trip. As designers we should make nature a part of our lives.

A tour through Trondheim with a Norwegian friend.

3) Travel

Travel may be my personal favorite way to cultivate empathy. I don’t mean traveling to an all-inclusive resort, but rather meaningful travel — with the purpose of experiencing new cultures, people, and perspectives.

When you travel with that purpose, you are pushed out of your comfort zone and share in another’s culture and humanity. In other words, you develop empathy.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. — Proust

My first taste of meaningful travel was an 8th grade mission trip to a Mexico orphanage. That trip impacted me and was the “travel gateway drug” that led me to do home-stays throughout Latin America, move to a remote village in Guatemala for two years, and what still inspires me to travel today.

While full immersion is not always feasible, there are ways to make travel meaningful and share genuine interaction with other people and cultures.

Tip: If you have friends (or friends of friends) in another country, travel there. If not, find a home stay or book an Airbnb. While Airbnb is not fully immersive, staying in the home of stranger is an intimate encounter with their culture and way of life.

St Agnes Convent, Prague

4) Meditation and prayer

The ancient practices of prayer and mediation train us to observe our thoughts and to refocus ourselves from “self-centered” to “other-centered”, making us more empathetic and more able to intuit the needs of others.

A study on Buddhist meditation practices showed that mediation increases activity in the empathy regions of the brain and helps improve the ability to read facial and emotional expressions of other people.

Tip: Start with 5 minutes a day. It will change your life.

Empathy Makes Us Better Designers and Humans

By incorporating these four activities and habits in our lives we can build empathy into our brains and lives.

With that deeper empathy, we will better understand users’ experiences and motivations and design products and solutions that meet their needs.

Not only will we become better human-centered designers, but we’ll become better partners, coworkers, and humans in the process.



Rachel Cope

Product Designer @metamask_io, previously freelance and @thoughtbot // human-centered designer, reader, and mountain-lover, with a deep curiosity about people