the ability to take on another's perspective, to understand, feel, and possibly share and respond to their experience

Is it possible to be empathetic? To understand and feel what they are feeling? In any field of play, empathy is touted as a master quality. If you can put yourself into another's shoes, then you will be able to write about their conditions better. Design a product that is tailored for them. Connect with them better and so on. Makes sense.

But is this true? What are the limits of it?

An Immense World

I recently read Ed Yong's brilliant book, An Immense World. In it, Yong explores various senses and stimuli that are not ours. And powered by the lens of not being biased by our own senses. Or to quote the American philosopher Thomas Nagel

I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.

What he means is our lens and point of view is ours. We will look at what it feels like to be a bat by fitting in a bat's echolocation skills on top of being a human. See Daredevil, for example. But that's not how it feels to be a bat. That's echolocation extrapolated on top of human-ness.

Photo by Nenad Milosevic / Unsplash

And what does this have to do with empathy?!

Well. While humans all share the same sense stimuli i.e. listening to music and what it does to you, I can understand it because I go through something similar. Or when we see a rainbow - sure, my blue might be subtly different from your blue. Or if you are colour-blind, you are seeing something different. But we are both seeing a fascinating phenomenon of colour.

And on to the thought that spurred. This is not about your blue being different from my blue.

Certain aspects are seen/felt at a different level, based on your skills. For example, my wife is a talented musician. This means how she hears and understands music, what's going on in a song - not what I hear. She groks the why behind certain decisions, the skills, the subtleties and thus her appreciation for it is different from mine. I either like it or I don't and I am hard-pressed to explain or elaborate.

To complicate things further, depending on your mood, a rainbow might look beautiful and leave you with a sense of awe. Or you might be preoccupied with something else and not even be aware that there's a rainbow.

A double rainbow forms over Bow Lake in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Photo by David Brooke Martin / Unsplash

So, for me to empathise with you in a situation is pretty complicated. There's the larger sphere of things that is your world, your filters, your lenses. Where you grew up, what your parents and peers believed in and influenced you into thinking, what events shaped you and all that. And then there are the more immediate ones. Did you get a warning from your doctor about your blood work? This means you are going to be a lot more serious about finding a solution for your health and fitness. Or did you have a fight with your partner, which means you are not going to be receptive to an amazing idea that might be passing in front of you?

Grad School

It is possible and necessary to take on another's perspective. That is the only way one can stop designing for themselves and actually design for the other person. But this is a tool, an abstraction. It is important not to take it as fact. This is why interviewing people, and talking to diverse sets of individuals and groups to build up one's knowledge and abstractions of the world is very useful. The more models we have, the better.

Combining your domain expertise with the other person's perspective - that's what we do when we say we empathise. And it is a much harder exercise than I previously believed.

Now, of course, there's a significant amount of overthinking happening on my part. In grad school, one of my projects in my second semester was to design an experience for a visitor to a park. Please note a park in the USA refers to a national park - acres and acres of natural habitat. Think Yellowstone and not your neighbourhood park with slides and swings.

Our group explored this question differently. We wanted to understand how any differently-abled person would go see the park. We simulated a few different experiences - what does it feel like for a visually impaired person? What does a person in a wheelchair experience? And what about someone who is not able to relax and immerse themselves in the experience because of whatever reasons?

Photo by Jason Ayers / Unsplash

One of us was blindfolded and we spent the rest of the afternoon going through our routine. We discussed the project. We went to Yogi's for lunch - the wait staff were used to weird experiments on a college campus. We took a crude snapshot of what the world feels like to a visually impaired person. One of us was taken to the top of a tall tower with a beautiful view. With an irrational fear of heights, what does the serenity and beauty of the situation feel like to this person versus someone who is not impaired by that? Essentially, can we put ourselves in another person's lens to understand the distortion of what we think is normal.

It was an interesting exploration and expanded how I thought about the world. And our line of thinking and exploration of the question impressed our professor quite a bit. Not only were we awarded the best project that year, but we were informed by him that it was the best thinking he had seen exhibited in his class in all his years as a teacher. It felt wonderful to hear, even though in later years, I thought it was a bit of hyperbole. Fast forward to 12 years later, in 2019, when I visited my school and I dropped into this professor's office without warning. Not only did he recognise me in 10 seconds, but he said me and my group were impossible to forget because of the aforementioned project - something he still references in his classes to this day.

What next?

It is impossible to put ourselves in our pet's head. It is impossible to put ourselves in our friend's head too but it is possible to get a lot closer. In both scenarios.

Photo by Jamie Street / Unsplash

On a walk, my dog wants to explore smells. There are fascinating (disgusting to me) stories that she's smelling. Just because her way of doing things (smelling pee all over, sniffing her friends' butts) is weird does not mean it is wrong.

Likewise, my customer's framing might be weird. My wife's reaction to an event might be different than mine. Taking the time to explore the why, to get into their shoes - as limited as it might be - is a wonderful and powerful tool.

Yes, it is limited. But not doing that is so much more limited.

You want to know what it feels like for them to be them. And in this situation.

Not what it feels like for you if you were in their shoes.

Going back to my grad school project, whenever I feel I've lost touch in connecting with someone in a situation, has been a powerful trigger for me. Spending the time pondering this "What does it feel like for you to be you in this situation" is the best way to spend time understanding a problem better.

Empathy is important. It is vital to communicate. To connect. To sell. To create.

Your turn

I'd like to hear your thoughts on this topic. What methods do you use to empathise? What do you get wrong? What do you get right?