The empathic awakening

Reflections on how soft skills make for hard impact

It was the year of 476 CE: Soldiers lay down their swords, took off their armor and returned home to their families — humanity finally saw the end of the ancient world. Past was an era of crazy, previously unseen technical marvels, ambitious campaigns, economical and political world domination and heightened intellectual sophistication. Past was the era of the Roman Empire.

But the bloodspill was only part of the problem. Throughout time, there have been countless cases of complex societies spawning new technologies that allow for productivity and growth, but once resources are out, societies tend to collapse, and many of the learnings that built that society are lost. Despite this, there are claims that after every evolutionary downfall of a civilization, there’s a heightened empathic consciousness. That our social brains play a bigger role in our life than previously thought. That it has the power to guide humanity into an age of cooperation — but only if we acknowledge and systemize it. These are the claims of Jeremy Rifkin, an American author and economic and social theorist who believes that we, as humans, stand on the brink of a third industrial revolution.

Understanding happens in the intersection where one person reveals, and the other listens. This is the bottom-line algorithm of all your relationships.

Let’s travel to the year of 2017. Today, we are social creatures in an old faith-based, rational society, and we face cognitive dissonance. What we can’t measure doesn’t exist, so actively growing empathic awareness and activation becomes a challenging task. Technology is our enabler. We can’t afford reinforcing a situation where we as humans lack incentives to find a shared understanding. We as representatives must lead an informed discussion on how and why we need to update our human consciousness to a globalized world as pioneers in the field of innovation and digital transformation.

The challenge of getting into the heads and shoes of fellow human beings has never been bigger, never more acute. It’s not simply about the tailoring of products and services. Empathetic awareness and action serve as a cornerstone of our humanity, as well as our DNA as designers, and are not only needed within the world of business, but also to counteract movements imposing on our rights to freely express ourselves as individuals. Just as in the history books, today we often feel contempt for differences, opinions and thoughts — anything that doesn’t fit into our carefully cushioned world.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Brexit and extreme ideological movements are solid examples — we can’t agree on fundamental truths. Scrolling through our newsfeeds and browsing our bubbles makes for a reaffirming worldview where everyone is shouting, and no one is listening. When we glance at each other’s bubbles, we’re shocked at what the heck everyone else is thinking.

Fighting the social bubbles.

Psychologists call it confirmation bias, and it means that we prefer to isolate ourselves from opinions which differ from our own. It’s in our genetics — only now there are algorithms to leverage this weakness. While technology should boost our strengths and positively impact our physical and social well being, instead it tends to lock us down. As designers,who are privileged enough to connect the dots and make sense of the data, the responsibility of social reformation is on our shoulders. We need to bring our craft to the decision-makers of our future. Otherwise, we may well risk that technology will undermine our ability to empathize with each other.

Empathy applied at every level of an organization can be transformational, and the resonance of emotions between a sender and receiver is ultimately what inspires us to achieve greatness. Striving to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is the first step to bring about fundamental social change.

The pace at which technological complexity is increasing is incredibly fast. Unfortunately, it isn’t matched at all with the development of our brains (which are still in the Stone Age), and we need to truly and really grasp and act upon this groundbreaking insight. In our modern community, social threats are far more common than tiger attacks, but they ultimately have similar reactions and consequences. We’re not wired to face socially demanding situations without reacting with fear. We lean on habit and instinct. And, as, they often say, “Run!”

The huge popularity of digital communities such as Instagram and Facebook allows us to cultivate relationships without having to worry about compromising our emotions. In the digital world, we face fewer threats, and according to Matthew Lieberman, a leading neuroscientist who studies social behaviors and how it’s affected by our brains, increasing globalization highlights the importance of why we need to better manage social threats. Believe it or not, the default mode of our brains is social mode, so our everyday is much more about managing relationships than about analytical thinking. You could say that we can focus on problem solving only in 20-minute bursts, but we are constantly aware of our surroundings. We constantly navigate our social context.

I’m not that surprised when I run into people who only think of empathy as fluffy and vague candyfloss niceness. “You Swedes are too diplomatic!”­ is a comment that’s not too rare in my multinational workplace. But empathy is required for consensus. It not only expands our moral universe, but improves our interpersonal bonds as well as our health and wellbeing and that of everyone around us. It heightens our capacity to think big. It makes us better creatives. This is why strong, empathic leadership means being the molder of consensus, rather than the seeker. It elevates everyone, not just the person on top.

To start practicing awareness on a basic level, I’ve gathered four basic actions as means for self­-reflection in everyday life. Take a picture of them and store on your phone for use in any given situation (or print in bold and post in your office toilet!).

Are you taking perspective?

Listen to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledge it as the truth. It’s uncomfortable, yes! But the truth is relative. So just deal with it.

Be wary of judgement.

For example, if you’re really impatient with yourself, your frustrations will likely be projected onto your team. It’s crucial that you notice your own impatience and step back to a neutral stance. Find your zen.

Can you recognize emotion?

When someone on your team is struggling, try to understand how this person feels. You can even ask: “How do you feel about this situation?” This way you tackle any possible friction that might be festering.

If you do — show emotion!

When you’ve identified what the other person is feeling, recognize this effort and respond appropriately: “That must have been difficult. I can really see how that would make you feel sad…” It cannot be stated enough — it’s not about empty words, but about resonating back. Practise emotional flexibility.

Maybe the idea of heightened empathic consciousness is a visionary ludicracy. Or maybe it’s brilliant? All I know is that design that puts empathy at heart is a tool as potent as anything to tackle the greater challenges of our time. Extending the human­-centered methodology to ourselves more often will help us discover new ways to create and strengthen unlikely bonds and build services that unite us instead of dividing us. It will guide us to find opportunities that improve and better both businesses and communities alike. That’s why I would like to see empathy becoming our future message of meaning, our collective design driver for the human project, and our constant agenda as individuals.

Wouldn’t that be something to strive for?

/Arvid Olsson

Interaction designer, Fjord Stockholm


Also be sure to check out:

Tedtalk: Seung Chan Lim ­ Ted Talk: ‘How Empathy Fuels the Creative Process’

‘What successful companies are doing right: Empathy’ — Harvard Business Review, Vanessa Loder (Feb 4, 2016)

‘Empathy to democracy’ — Medium, Tobias Rose­Stockwell (Nov 11, 2016)­to­democracy­b7f04ab57eee

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