Everyday empathy

I seldom check out Medium’s daily digest sent to my inbox, but today I am somehow directed to Mule Design co-founder Erica Hall‘s excellent post on working within a team and yet not fully understanding what each other do in their roles and capacity, and how to break that barrier by exercising everyday empathy. Here I share some insightful excerpts.

On why understanding empathy needs more probing:

There has been a lot of talk in the design community about the value of empathy, meaning an understanding of the needs and behaviors of the people for whom we’re designing. The term is problematic because it conflates a basic human emotional response (empathy) with a process that requires critical thinking (evidence-based design). Design problems are larger than the subjective experience of individual humans.

As someone who is currently trained in sociology and tech, empathy — in my opinion — currently places too much emphasis in individual experiences, whereas design, as ambitious as it sounds, should encompass the larger societal concerns. When empathy is placed too much individually instead of collectively, this is why we have problems such as biased algorithms targeting the marginalised community or unethical tech practices, as the design solution at that point of time was targeted towards the empathy of a select few — usually the elites or more privileged groups.

In the section called All It Takes Is a Conversation, Erica then walks us through some steps in order to understand the people we work with. In the earlier section, she mentioned:

In the absence of real understanding and empathy, it’s natural to work from biased judgments about colleagues. It becomes easy to see one another as barriers rather than as allies. Designers and researchers are less able to influence decisions because they fail to understand the basis on which decisions are made. Everyone curses the way things are, but is too busy with what’s on their plate to try to change it and might not know where to start.

All it takes as a start, according to Erica, is to ask someone out for coffee (I would also offer to pay if I may):

“Hey, could we grab coffee for twenty minutes on Tuesday afternoon? I realised that I don’t understand your work as well as I should and I want to make sure that what I’m doing complements what you’re doing.”

I love how the request is worded. According to Erica, “however you phrase it, you want to convey that your goal is to learn, not to judge or convince. And remind yourself that your goal is to learn, not to judge or convince.”

The last few sections also offer some framework of questions you can use to ask your colleagues about what they do, and also (!) how you might react if they get defensive. This is especially useful if you work somewhere where people are often very private with each other, or the workflows are often siloed. Just say:

If you do get a defensive response, just reiterate that you want to understand their work. To avoid dead-ends, you can try saying “Why don’t you tell me what you see as the most useful thing for me to understand about your work.” and go from there.”

I’m a big fan of moving forward plan after working on any research, so I’m very happy to see Erica posting some questions to evaluate after the coffee talk and what you can do with that information. Yay action!

If you must read it (and I believe us in tech and design community should), here is the link.

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