Building Empathy and Other Odd Concepts

Do we really have to ask?

Design uses a language that at once seems inviting and human-centred while at the same time rather alien when considered in the realm of practice.

One of the great ironies of working in a field that is about human wellbeing and survival — public health — is how dehumanized the language we used is. Medicine is worse. It seems that the closer we get to those areas of human existence that deal with our vulnerability and potential the further our language gets from reflecting our humanity. That is one of the things I find about design that is so refreshing.

Designers use a language that speaks to the human condition much more than health sciences does, with terms like participation, empathy, listening, storytelling and understanding figuring prominently in many design texts.

While this design language refreshing, there is a part of the health sciences culture (particularly that of health promotion) that is appropriate to bring to bear to this issue and that is critical, reflexive, practice. It is here that I find a disconnect between the language used in design and the meaning of the words in a real sense.

Take empathy for example. The Oxford English Dictionary refers defines empathy as:

empathy |ˈempəθē| noun . the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Design giant IDEO refers to the concept of building empathy heavily in their work and has figured the concept prominently in its new plans for a non-profit start-up. A look throughout the literature on design and you’ll find this concept peak through the text and presentations and noted as something that defines good design practice.

Looking at the above definition of the word it is worth asking: can we really build empathy? What does building something imply? And who is the builder in this model?

Perhaps the definition here is problematic. Taking a look at Wikipedia, one finds a slightly more expanded definition:

Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another semi-sentient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.

It’s interesting that design rarely uses the concept of compassion, just empathy; just building empathy. Or as the above image suggests, create empathy.

Why does all this matter?

The use of the term is important if we seek to understand the underlying motivation for design and the values that guide it. Building something implies a builder. A builder implies active construction of something, yet the definitions above refer to ability, something that might not be so amenable to building per se. It also is suggestive of a level of control and manipulation to create something from nothing. When building empathy, how that being constructed and for what purpose and who is asking the question and who is having their empathy built? These are concepts that are not always problematized or questions asked, but probably ought to be.

What can be built or designed are situations that allow people to tap into their empathic skills and apply them. Drawing from research in cognitive psychology, opportunities to apprentice and learn with others and copying others may be the way to engender empathic responses. It is certainly the case with infants (PDF):

Imitative experience with other people serves as a “discovery mechanism” for social cognition, engendering interpersonal understanding that outstrips the innate givens and leads to empathy, perspective-taking, and theory of mind.  (Meltzoff, 2002)

This imitative experience comes through engagement with material, not participation. Participation is another odd concept in design, health promotion, and community development that seems to be easy to use, but harder to define, and problematic in how it gets used. What does it mean to participate in something? Is it, as Woody Allen suggests, just showing up? Or is it true engagement with the material and others in a manner that creates these discovery mechanisms as Meltzoff refers to?

What this line of thinking gets us to is the crux of what makes design and health promotion different, but necessary complements for working in health. Without the critical questioning of the terms and the application of values in a particular way, you can get a Wizard of Oz like problem: one has all heart, but no brain, while the other has a brain without a heart, and courage is needed to bring the two together with the optimism that it can be done.

Empathy and compassion involve using your heart. Critical inquiry about empathy means using your brain to see the concept more clearly in terms of its purpose. Having the courage to put these into practice in a professional realm and the optimistic hope that we can do this to make things better for everyone is not just a fantasy, but a possibility. It is at the crux of social innovation, but also at the core of good, responsible, integral and authentic practice. Say what we mean, mean what we say.

In doing so, we can make these real, important concepts more meaningful in a real sense, not in some marketing, feel-good speak that we have now. By being much more authentic, we’ll also help build the credibility of these methods and ideas beyond design and beyond health.

Are we using our heart, brain, courage and optimism well?

** Photo by Bjornmeansbear used under Creative Commons license from Flickr

*** Photo by twm1340 used under Creative Commons license from Flickr.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: