Empathy: The Ultimate Design + Systems Challenge

Empathy Empathy is a central feature of good human-centred design, yet is often practiced narrowly. Visualization with systems thinking and mindfulness are three additional features that can transform empathy from a simple tool to a vehicle for transformation by connecting us less to absolute problems and more to relative ones.

In today’s Globe and Mail newspaper online, the oft controversial columnist Margaret Wente offered an op-ed piece called I have ‘white people’s problems,’ and you probably do too. The column refers to an article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter looking at how women today still struggle to be successful at work, family and personal life simultaneously. Both Wente and Slaughter take pains to point out that they lead privilidged lives, yet that privilige does not shield them from experiencing social problems in a way that is both unique to their situation and widely shared by women across the social spectrum.

A read of the comments for both articles shows how much of a hot-button issue this is for people (Wente’s article had more than 700 comments within hours of being uploaded) and includes much discussion of the racist/non-racist/classist over and undertones to the content and topic. It might be tempting to rush in and judge these two articles for dwelling on the pains of a privileged few in light of problems of poverty, food insecurity, safety, sexual and gender-based violence, and absence of healthcare experienced by the greater number of people on this earth.

Yet, if we look at the issues as they are with less judgement we can see the reaction to these articles less as a battle of ideas, but an unconscious attack on empathy. There is this perverse pleasure for some in pointing out the arrogance, ignorance, or neglectfulness in others, but such criticism (sometimes falsely veiled as critique or critical thinking) often fails to deeply connect to empathy beyond the pale.  How then do we promote empathy in such conditions?

Perspective Taking: It’s (Relative) Promise and Perils

As Micheal Marmot and others have shown consistently with evidence is that relative inequities, inequalities and health disparities are as significant or more so than absolute ones. Whatever challenges you face they are exacerbated by how you see yourself in relative position to those who deem closest to you. Saying: “it could be worse” works when you see your peers as worse off than you or your equal, but it doesn’t work as well when you’re surrounded by people you perceive to be in better shape. Thus, we have an issue that is both absolute and relative based on real and perceptive differences working simultaneously. In the case of Wente and Slaughter’s articles, most of us (the 95-99% not represented in these perspectives) see them to be in better shape and that has consequences for us and them.

 Peter Coleman and faculty at the International Project on Conflict and Complexity have looked at how relative position and empathy fit together in the context of peace-building and mediation and have found that there are spaces where taking into account the lives of others can increase conflict, not dampen it. Of the many examples cited in their work (including Coleman’s recent book) is a decade-long initiative to build bridges between anti-abortion and pro-life advocates in the Boston area and how efforts to build empathy between these two foes often served to antagonize and create bigger gaps in position rather than closing them. These problems, often seen as intractable, represent about 5% of all the ones we face, but their effect is enormous.

Recent studies in social psychology have confirmed that bridge building requires more than just seeing the other side, it requires being heard (PDF – Bruneau & Saxe (2012), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). A study by Kraus and colleagues (PDF) found that social distance can have an impact on the way that people empathize and the conclusions that they draw when trying to place themselves in the position of others.

Your Grief is Not the Same as My Grief

The above heading comes from a statement uttered in a group counselling context and has forever stuck in my head. It recognizes that we all experience things in a unique way, yet it was uttered in a spirit that suggests we can still come to share that experience in a manner that can build solidarity and connection.

This points to the ultimate design challenge: creating greater connection through empathy without widening social distance.

One might think this would be easier given that empathy is one of the principle tools of design, yet my experience suggests that designers  might be more apt to identify this as important and have strategies to get to it, there is still much to be done. But as we all design for ourselves and some of us for others, imagining another’s perspective requires understanding both that another perspective exists and where in relation that perspective sits to your own. It is here that we need more than an empathic lens or a design lens, but a systems lens as well.

Visualization: Placing Empathy

Systems thinking provides cognitive tools for understanding entire domains and the relationships within it. Systems mapping takes these ideas and makes them visual by providing an architecture for that understanding. Visualization provides the means to connect these two worlds by providing a design sensibility with a systems perspective. The figure below illustrates this position.

Mapping the positions held or visualizing them allows an idea to be represented in a manner that invites dialogue and open comparison. Rather than keeping one’s perspective locked within their own mind, a visual representation allows both the individual and those who they seek (or we seek) to build empathy with the tools to better frame the position each holds relative to one another. Doing so goes beyond imagining what it would be like to walk in anothers’ shoes and actually sees it and allows us to test assumptions.

From here, a contemplative approach to inquiry based on mindfulness can allow people to sit — literally or figuratively — with this data and envision the positions in new ways. Contemplating the meaning of what a particular perspective holds can enable a perspective taking that goes beyond seeing this head on and perhaps sees it from above, below, behind or inside and gets us away from our forward orientation bias.

By redefining the space in which the problem exists by literally creating that space on the page or screen we can better see beyond our current position to imagine how things previously deemed impossible might exist. Returning to the original example, this means seeing that one can hold much privilege and social advantage and experience the world in a manner that feels as violated, limiting and stressful as someone of lesser absolute means. It can also facilitate the reverse perspective. In doing so, this type of visualizing + empathy + contemplative inquiry has the means to take away much of the judgement and see things as they are without reducing or amplifying problems beyond their current context.

In doing so, perhaps we can better see us all as interconnected members of a system with pains and hurts and joys and skills rather than devote more energy that is necessary to judging others and less on making lives better for everyone.

3 thoughts on “Empathy: The Ultimate Design + Systems Challenge”

  1. I enjoyed reading your column. It is important to have empathy for each other and it should come as part of the plan. What does this mean to others what I want to do or be?

  2. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    1. Hi Edwin,

      Thanks a lot for the reference to the site; it looks like quite a hub. It is remarkable that this topic of empathy has been dormant so long and is now growing to this level.

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