Realizing Empathy, Part 3: Conversation / by Gavin Lau

For as long as I can remember, I’d considered art to be the antithesis of design; the rationale being that art was self-indulgent whereas design was empathic. After spending four years studying both the visual and performing arts, however, I’ve come to realize that not only was empathy required in the creative process found in art, but its role was pronounced in a broader and more granular way than design. With this newfound understanding, I now hope to bring more empathy into design so as to reconsider how we think of and practice design on a day-to-day basis. I also wish to challenge willing designers to go beyond presenting people with things and services and towards supporting them in the journey of learning the choice to become artists of their own lives—exploring who they are, who others are, and how we are all interrelated.

This is part three of a three-part series, diving into some of the events that led me to the epiphany that realizing empathy is at the core of the creative processPart one explored the direct relationship between making art and empathy. Part twosuggested how, in becoming aware of what the relationship is, we can not only help develop our empathy but also better realize it in all aspects of our design practice. Part three (the part you’re currently reading) will invite you to a challenge where you, as a member of the design community, can shape the future of design through the lens of empathy.

In my previous article, I made a more explicit connection between the creative process and the process of realizing empathy, and opened up a dialogue around how that connection relates to the individual designer’s practice. In this article, I will share my wish for the design community, and demonstrate how we can use the design process to think globally and locally.

Thinking Globally; Missing Locally

I’ll start by sharing something personal.

It took me 40 years before I began to empathize with my father as frequently as I do now.

When I was a little child, he was always working. Often times, overseas. There simply weren’t that many opportunities for us to interact. Then when he quit his job to start his own business, I was off to a college in a foreign country. Now I was overseas. Our entire life was like a missed connection on Craigslist.

Recently, I asked him about his one regret in life. He said “Not spending more time with the family.” Why do I bring this up? To illustrate a phenomena I’ve come to call “Thinking Globally; Missing Locally.”

A phenomena I often see is our tendency to become so focused on something bigger and more far out (i.e. saving humanity, achieving a future outcome), that we lose focus on something smaller and more near (i.e. spending time with our families, being in the moment).

I see the same thing happening in the design industry. For example, my primary job now is that of a mettā-designer. I work outside an organization helping those inside develop themselves and their relationships with one another such that they can more effectively design together. A common pattern I see in these companies is that their Founders/CEOs tend to naturally focus on fulfilling the needs of (potential) customers outside their companies. In fact, this is often why they founded their company. For better or for worse, most of them didn’t found the company to focus on their employees. Given such focus compounded with a variety of other reasons, they often miss out on attending to the needs of the people inside their companies. Thinking globally; missing locally.

Similarly, there is currently a trend to make design bigger. Huge, in fact. “At scale” is the name of the game. Popular media is filled with articles promising magnanimous visions of a newly designed future where large systems are transformed, poverty is eliminated, and customer needs across “omni” channels are satisfied. As a designer, these are highly inspiring. At the same time, I worry that we may be forgetting to also find value in making design smaller. Micro, in fact. Micro as in attending to the seemingly mundane interactions we have with the various “others” we encounter in the design process on a day-to-day and moment-to-moment basis.

Giving Rise to Human-Human (not Computer) Interaction Design

There’s something called the 6-circle model developed by Margaret Wheatley, Tim Dalmau, and Richard Knowles. The model is as follows:

What is above the green line are what is external to people. They are often measured as goals. They are the deliverables, sometimes euphemistically called “goods.” Below the green line are what is internal to people. They are difficult to measure. There are no deliverables, because they are purely experiential. It’s sometimes derogatorily called “politics.”

With this model, the authors call out the work of traditional change initiative as focusing primarily above the green line, while neglecting to also focus on what is below the green line. As a result, most change initiatives either fail or fail to sustain. I see much symmetry between this insight and the idea of “Thinking Globally; Missing Locally.”

Throughout my 18 year-long career, I’ve partaken and observed, over and over again, design projects that put great emphasis on design thinking, human centered design, service design, or other terms for the items above the green line. At the same time, I’ve seen very few design projects that put equal emphasis below the green line. The results are all too common.

  1. Wonderful designs get canceled because there wasn’t the right relationship inside the organization to champion it all the way through.
  2. Beautiful designs launch extremely well with the help of external team of consultants, (i.e. globals) only to die a quick death, because there isn’t an internal team (i.e. locals) with the information or the identity that the external team have about and with the product.
  3. Marvelous designs get severely butchered, because there is an abundance of misinformation or misunderstanding and a lack of sufficient trust and respect among a variety of stakeholders involved.
  4. Fabulous designs do not receive adequate resources (i.e. funding, personnel, attention) because the relationships inside the organization don’t share or no longer (i.e. we tried it before and it didn’t work) share their identity with the designs.

What lies at the heart of these patterns is the challenge of empathy.

The authors of the 6 circle model espouse that to bring about successful change that sustains, we must work on what is above the green line in a way that simultaneously works on what is below the green line.

That is also my wish.

I want to call on our community of designers to join me in paying greater attention to what are below the green line. I wish to refer to the practice of attending to what is below the green line as “human-human interaction design.” A form of design that focuses on influencing the way we, not others (i.e. users or stakeholders), appreciate, understand, express, and be on a day-by-day and moment-by-moment basis. The product of which is a development of a certain quality relationship between ourselves and others. I believe such micro-level design is critical to making our impact more viable, meaningful, valuable, and sustainable to all of us.

My Design Challenge For You

If you’re currently experiencing difficulties bringing about transformation or innovation in your organization, chances are good that you’re feeling stuck, blaming someone.

  • If you’re an individual contributor you may be blaming middle or upper management
  • If you’re a middle manager, you may be blaming upper management or the individual contributors
  • If you’re an executive, you may be blaming middle management or the individual contributors
  • You may be blaming your colleagues
  • You may be blaming the customers
  • You may even be blaming yourself!

If this is you, I invite you to a challenge.
I challenge you to realize empathy with yourself and the people you’re blaming.
Now, let me be clear.

By “realizing empathy,” I don’t mean going around “feeling what others are feeling,” “taking their perspectives,” “understanding,” “listening,” or “interviewing” yourself or other people. I most certainly do not mean being merely nice or polite to them. Let’s refresh our memory on what it means to realize empathy as covered in part 1 and 2.

  • Empathizing is feeling connected or at one with an “other.”
  • Not Empathizing is not feeling connected or at one with an other.
  • Hyper Empathizing is feeling so connected or at one with an other that we are unable or unwilling to make any distinctions between our “self” and that “other.”
  • Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from A) not empathizing to either B) empathizing or B’) hyper empathizing.

Given that empathy is a means to moving from not feeling connected or at one with an “other” to feeling so, there are two basic ways we can make that trip.

  1. We can be moved instantly by having our empathy realized involuntarily.
  2. We can move ourselves over time by realizing our empathy deliberately.

Being moved instantly is like a time when you watched a singer sing or an actor act and were instantly moved to feel connected or at one with them without effort.

With the phrase “realizing empathy,” I want to invite you to shift your focus away from empathizing or not empathizing and instead focus on the space between not empathizing and empathizing. 

For example, imagine a married couple in the brink of a nasty divorce. They are not empathizing with each other. Now let’s say they finally empathized with one another after a year of couples therapy. Imagine what it must have taken for them to complete that journey of realizing empathy. Every single one of those efforts that contributed to their eventual empathizing makes up for what it means to “realize empathy.”

If it isn’t already clear, this is a very difficult challenge.

Realizing empathy with someone you’re blaming? Most people will say “Forget it!” Yet, that’s the challenge of Human-Human Interaction Design. It requires you to tap into something significantly more vulnerable and anxiety-inducing than required by other kinds of design. Not everyone is willing or even interested in this kind of difficult design.

At the same time, I trust that there are some of us who are willing and interested. I believe that’s all it takes. Like Margaret Mead, I do not doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

The Choice is Yours

As you can imagine, there are many ways to realize empathy. If you’re finding it daunting to figure out where to go next, here’s one way to get started.

First of all, notice it. Notice yourself blaming.

Then make a deliberate choice of your next thought or behavior. In other words, instead of letting yourself do or think by default, be the designer that you already are and choose. Choose the kind of thought you want to think. Choose the kind of behavior you want to enact. Choose the kind of person you want to be.

When you do this, I urge you to remember two things.

If you do not like the choices immediately available to you, for whatever reason, you need not choose any of them.

Just as you choose to create new paradigms of human-computer interaction previously unimaginable, you can also choose to create new paradigms of human-human interaction previously unimaginable. You have the choice to increase the choices you have. These new choices will often only be obvious in hindsight.

Let the design process begin.

Will you join me in this challenge?

The choice is yours.