Digital Empathy

Why putting yourself in other people’s shoes is more crucial than ever in an age of hyper-digital connection

“You might sound a little asshole-ish in this email.”

This was the feedback my new boss was giving me on an email I had drafted to a client regarding a late invoice.

“Maybe we need to apply a little more empathy on this one,” he said.

I did not expect to hear this, as empathy was not a subject that had been discussed in my past digital agency experience. I was also surprised I hadn’t tried to inject this empathy into the email on my own, since my previous job had been working for a tech company that made devices many people use daily, and my role was to fix broken devices and relationships.

Empathy had been my religion. Why had I felt there was no room for it in my new job, and how was I to bring more empathy to my everyday tasks and relationships?

Researchers at the University of Michigan say I’m not alone in this, as empathic skills overall have decreased by 40 percent in the past 30 years. Over that time, the researchers studied college students and found a continuous decline in empathy, especially after 2000, with the rise of social media and mobile devices.

We could spend a great deal of time debating the biggest cause of this drop in empathy in our society as a whole, but that’s for another article. What we can say confidently, though, is that the increasing individualization of our culture, especially in the digital realm, has helped make the consideration of the feelings of others seem less important.

Since we all seem to be a little rusty in the empathy category, what exactly is empathy?

What is empathy?

First, let’s talk about what empathy is and what it’s not. Many people lump empathy in with sympathy, but they are subtly different ideas. Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for another person in their bad luck or misfortunes. Empathy, in a nutshell, is shared, and requires you to put yourself in another person’s shoes. It’s essential to any quality relationship, be it a marriage, a friendship, or a business relationship. Empathy is made up of three parts:

  • Affective understanding: being able to accurately recognize the feelings of others, mostly through non-verbal cues such as body language, facial cues, or tone of voice. This skill is the foundation of building empathy.
  • Emotion–contagion, which is what it sounds like: “catching” another person’s feelings. After recognizing the emotion being felt by another person, you “take on” the feeling yourself. Daniel Siegel, a clinical psychology professor at UCLA, has a fascinating idea about this very thing, which he refers to as “resonance.” Siegel claims that when another person’s emotions are perceived, the brain “is able to create within its own body an internal state that is thought to ‘resonate’ with that other person.” This involves a shift in physiologic, emotional, and behavioral attitudes to match the observed individual. This mind-melding of sorts is strongly apparent within larger groups or families, who all resonate with each other.
  • Finally, there’s cognitive perspective-taking. This involves the old adage of “being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes”—to realize what it feels like to be that person and to get their perspective.

I highly recommend reading more about the three parts of empathy here.

Now that we’re up to speed on what empathy is, I think we can all agree this quality is fundamental to building strong relationships—especially given the potential results of not practicing empathy. When empathy is absent, not only do relationships suffer, but so does personal health and wellness.

The cost of not practicing empathy is high and can even have physical effects on a person. People in positions where they are constantly required to show empathy — think a nurse or therapist who works with trauma patients — need to be hyper-aware of being empathic, as they can become desensitized to those who need it. There is a health condition associated with this desensitization called empathy (or compassion) fatigue, which can cause side effects such as stress, anxiety, decrease in productivity, and feelings of self doubt. As I mentioned, empathy fatigue occurs most frequently among people who work directly with trauma victims—people like healthcare workers, therapists, police officers, military employees, and lawyers—but it’s not limited to these professions.

Empathy had been my religion. Why had I felt there was no room for it in my new job, and how was I to bring more empathy to my everyday tasks and relationships?

I can attest that I could only share so much emotion with people who carried in broken devices before I just stopped caring about their predicaments and feelings—just like sending countless emails and Slack messages can desensitize a person to the weight of the words they’re launching to an largely faceless client or overly digitized coworker.

This is a terrible way to feel, both for us personally and for the clients who have to deal with our poor attitudes due to lack of trying to see things from their perspective.

Causes and fixes

As for the causes, I’m sure there are many, and they vary from person to person, but if I had to name a few general reasons for lack of empathy in our agency lives, it would be these three things:

  1. Our culture. No matter how we try, we cannot fully escape the culture we live in all day, every day, or its negativity that seems to permeate the 24-hour news media, anonymous website comments, and social media. This is not to say our culture is all doom and gloom, but that the negative voices scream the loudest, and in an attempt to protect our positivity and sanity, we often unknowingly build thick skins. While these thick skins are intended to be a benefit to us, they can also become a barrier in our relationships with others, preventing us from looking beyond ourselves.
  2. Busyness. Other than my retired mother who does whatever she wants, everyone I know is busy. We are constantly running from one meeting to another — to a lunch meeting, to a conference call, to appointments, to a happy hour, our kid’s lacrosse game, to family dinners, and to all the other things our lives demand of us. We are busy people living in a nonstop culture, and are busying ourselves to the point of being in perpetual survival mode. And in survival mode, you are only thinking of keeping yourself afloat, which means there is little room for thought for others.
  3. Digital communication disconnect. I think it goes without saying that the most effective way to communicate is face to face. But for many of us, our communications — in both our professional and personal lives — have gone largely digital, whether it be via emails, texts, or messaging apps. At Rocket Code, we have the benefit of all working in one big room, but even with close proximity, we still mostly use Slack and email for quick communications. This is largely not a problem, but can sometimes cause ambiguity that leads to confusion and frustration. This chance for ambiguity only increases with our clients, as they are spread around the country and we rarely get as much face time with them as we would like. Without the relationship building that comes from sitting down with another human being, a disconnect can easily grow—hence the sticky email issue I mentioned at the beginning of the article. It’s not that I don’t care, but I find myself needing to be ever intentional in the way I word and position correspondences so as to not be misunderstood.

Now that I’ve probably instilled more guilt than intended, there is good news: A lack of empathy is something that can be remedied simply. I say “simply,” but that doesn’t mean without effort. Empathy is something that is learned, usually beginning at a young age, but like building muscle, it is something that requires constant practice and exercise to remain strong. Here are a few practices to begin:

  • Be mindful. “Mindful” is a buzzword right now, but with good reason. Being mindful means being aware of ourselves and of the people and things around us, and allows us to realize areas of opportunity for improvement. Without recognizing a problem, we cannot move forward with fixing it. Practicing mindfulness also allows us to slow the busyness and start to see beyond our survival-mode skins. This not only lets us better communicate with others, but also better enjoy our interactions with those people. Spend some time each day in quiet reflection and make a habit of simply and actively paying attention to what is happening around you. Then, learn how to respond to these things. If a client mentions in a hurried email they are in the middle of moving offices, while training eight new employees and in the midst of hiring more, maybe forgive their slow responses to questions and ask how it’s going when they do get back to you. Knowing where they are can only help you better cater to their needs.
  • Assume positive intent. Assuming positive intent means we don’t jump to negative conclusions without knowing facts. Instead, we give others the benefit of the doubt in situations where unknowns exist. If we miss a deadline, we don’t point fingers at the person responsible and decide they weren’t working hard enough. We assume they were doing their best and have a reason for late work. We have a conversation about it and figure out a fix. If a client misses a payment, we don’t assume they are blowing us off. We give them the benefit of the doubt and ask questions and offer assistance. We acknowledge that we are all human and imperfect, carrying our own weights and telling our own stories, both in and out of the work we do.
  • Be curious. If you don’t already have it, develop a hunger for learning more about everything in your world. I realize this sounds like a daunting task, but the more you know about your clients and their businesses, your coworkers, and the person who makes your morning latte, the more empathy you’ll build every time you put yourself in their shoes. Read blogs, listen to podcasts, investigate online, and have conversations about these things with other people. The more questions you ask and the more you learn, the more you’ll want to learn, which will turn your work and your world into a much more colorful place. Win-win-win.
  • Be better. Because this is the point, right? We strive to be more empathetic so we can be better: better designers, developers, project managers, sons, daughters, spouses, friends, and neighbors, better human beings who ask the right questions, make the highest-quality work we can, and strive to be the best versions of ourselves.

Now, go forth and borrow other people’s metaphorical shoes and see where they take you. Oh, and maybe have them proofread your more challenging emails while you’re at it.

Enjoy reading this article? Hit the love button below, and follow Thinkship while you’re at it.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.