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Empathy: Designing with Compassion.
A quick reflection on the meaning of empathy and its importance in the personal design process.
Empathy is one of those words that used to mean something real and became corporate lingo for some other meaningless thing.
When I hear "empathy" thrown around, I'm almost sure that people don't know what they are talking about and what being empathetic means.
Most people seem to comprehend the word empathy conceptually but not experientially. If people were experiencing empathy, the world would be wildly different.
Wars, hunger, poverty, and crime result from a languishing development in humans' emotional evolution. These things are byproducts of a society that, for one reason or another, still seems to struggle deeply with the idea of compassion.
It's evident that if, as humanity, we struggle to exercise our empathy, designers as a subgroup of humans aren't suddenly superior at exercising their empathy. Designers are humans with the same flaws as other humans, and their empathetic nature could be as undeveloped as in any other average person.
So, of course, it's weird when we, as an industry, decide to codify empathy as a design skill and not as the profound emotional development it is.
Empathy is the idea of embodying someone else's suffering and struggles. It's the idea of momentarily stopping identifying with your own individual needs and psychologically start identifying with your fellow human beings' struggles, needs, and motivations.
You do this to understand and possibly help. But empathy doesn't always lead to solutions. Empathy, in that sense, is truly an exercise of seeking emotional comprehension without guaranteed results on the other end. It's mostly about caring deeply for the well-being of others in a non-rewarding way. It’s about caring because you simply want to understand someone else’s struggle.
So how do you move past empathy as an intellectual concept to empathy as an experience? How do we become designers that embody empathy as a fundamental attribute of our developing character?
For starters, I think everyone should reflect deeply on their value and belief system. It took me many years to even have a semi-clear idea of what I stood for, but I slowly realized that I just needed to look at the things that I genuinely care about: my family, my pets, my spirituality, my desire to improve my environment, my high standards for work, my need to express myself, my love for travel, my passion for making the complex simple, my calling for being creative, my deep relationship with knowledge.
When you understand what produces an emotional response in you, you start comprehending that others are also capable of those feelings. You understand that what makes you frustrated in one area of your life can happen to someone else in some other area.
When you comprehend that, you're just some steps away from understanding how to help others. This is where genuine empathy transforms from an attribute of your character and becomes a skill of your thought process.
Having an empathetic nature suddenly becomes a real graspable concept that connects you with the collective feelings and experiences of our collective human condition. It allows us to examine how people are affected by poor design choices every day because you're also the victim of those poor design choices.
In that sense, genuine empathy is simply understanding that when you are neglectful about something that doesn't directly affect you, it doesn't mean it won't.
And I don't mean this in a distant systemic butterfly effect type of way. I mean this as the idea that we are collectively going through the mystery of life and should always treat each other with the compassion we expect from this sometimes frightful world.
Next time you read or hear someone talking about empathy as a design skill you should develop, just remember that the only way to become genuinely empathetic is to continuously seek ways to become a better colleague, a better friend, a better sibling, a better spouse, a better son or daughter, a better father or mother, a better neighbor, a better role model, a better human being.
Empathy isn’t a skill but a lifetime mission.
Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It's the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else's pain is as meaningful as your own.
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