The High Heels of Empathy

I recently found myself in a conversation with someone who was adamant about the need to find new solutions to existing problems, but was far from empathetic about the people around him.  For every issue, he expressed his view on the problem, but was not concerned about how other people in his team felt.  He kept harping on about his proposed solution, but was dismissive about how his solution would negatively impact the other team members, and add to their already overwhelming workload.  He also expressed disdain for team members who were putting in extra hours trying to solve the current challenges, but were struggling; his view was if it didn’t solve the problem, it was because they weren’t showing enough initiative.  Given that scenario, it was no surprise that there was disengagement from work, burnout within the team, and the team’s problems just kept getting worse.

That led me to wonder whether there is room for innovation in an environment that silences the dissenting voices without listening to them; that does not value the extra efforts of its team members; and that does not display empathy for its own people, let alone its users.

Empathy is not only an essential component of business (and being a good human being), it is also one of the fundamental building blocks of the Design Thinking process, because you need to understand the people for whom you are designing.  You need to put yourself in their shoes, and truly understand their experiences, their situations, and their emotions. 

While they may share the same root of the Greek word pathos (which means feelings, emotions, or passion), it is important to differentiate between Sympathy and Empathy, as you embrace the Design Thinking process.  Sympathy is more reactive, in that it shows concern for another person, which may involve projecting feelings of detached pity and sorrow.  Empathy is more proactive, in that it seeks to understand what other people are experiencing and feel what they are feeling, with a view to do something to help them. 

While some may be naturally empathetic, Empathy is not a secret skill but an inclination, and we can take certain steps to improve it and turn it into a natural disposition. 

Kiran Sajwani - The High Heels of Empathy.png
  1. Slip on the high heels:  While the “stepping into the other person’s shoes” analogy may have run its course, humor me for a moment, and imagine that, for your entire life, you’ve only worn flip-flops.  Now, pick up a pair of high heels, slip them on, and try to stand up.  All of a sudden, you feel taller, but you also feel like you’re teetering on those stilettos.  Your jeans suddenly got dressier, but your toes feel a little squashed.  This may just be a literal change of footwear, but figuratively “stepping into another person’s shoes” gives you an idea of What other people see, say, and do.
  2. Dig a little deeper:  Once you’re in the other pair of shoes, dig a little deeper to learn about that other person’s experience.  What is it like to walk in those pair of high heels?  Does the precarious balancing on skinny stilettos make it hard to walk even a few meters?  Try to learn about the other person, not just by observation, but by subtle, open-ended questions to encourage them to open up.  Digging involves trying to better understand how people feel, get context for the factors that affect their behavior, and learning more about the How of what other people see, say, and do.
  3. Be Objective:  For many people, it’s not easy opening up about themselves, and they may not be completely honest – not as a conscious effort to deceive someone else, but rather as an unconscious effort to protect themselves.  They say they really love those high heels, but do they kick them off at the first opportunity?  You need to be cognizant of people’s actions and behaviors, and whether they align with their words.  Being objective involves being attentive to the differences in people’s behaviors, and thinking about the underlying authenticity and Why of what other people see, say, and do.
  4. Acknowledge:  Empathy is a proactive state, which means that not only do you need to be proactive about understanding people and their feelings, you also need to be proactive about acknowledging that to the other person.  That doesn’t mean going up to the person and saying, “I empathize with you” (that would be creepy!).  It means acknowledging to the person that you understand them, their feelings, or their experiences.  For instance, if the other person has been walking in high heels for 20 minutes straight, ask them if they’d like to stop for a few minutes and rest their feet.  Or if they kick off their high heels and grumble about a shoe bite or blister, offer them a cushioned Band-Aid.  These are fairly simplistic examples, but the underlying principle of empathy is applicable across the board.  Be proactive about seeking to understand what other people are experiencing, and feeling what they are feeling, with a proactive view to acknowledge their experiences, and if applicable, do something to help them.

While slipping on the high heels, digging a little deeper, being objective, and acknowledging might help you become a little more empathetic, it is important to be aware of people’s receptiveness to external engagement.  While Empathy is a critical skill, it is not charging in with a bulldozer, but rather a diplomatic approach with a delicate touch.  Trying to understand other people and their experiences also involves trying to understand whether they would be receptive to an empathetic response.  Sometimes, the most empathetic response could be not engaging with the other person, and instead giving them their space.  People are different, and cultivating the essential skill of Empathy helps you become more perceptive about other people and how to best respond to them.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch may have captured the essence of Empathy best when he said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  

Author’s Note:  I am not anti-high heels, and I think they are rather pretty.  I just hope you demonstrate some empathy for me as I kick off those high heels, and slip into some comfy sneakers instead!