Cultivating empathy…

This is my concluding post on empathy. It’s a subject that has been on my mind a lot as I keep seeing how desperately we need more empathy in this world—and as I’ve become aware that there is room for increasing it in myself.

Two types of empathy…

One thing I learned is that psychologists have identified two types of empathy—cognitive empathy and affective empathy. And there is an important distinction between sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone without actually experiencing their emotions or understanding what that person is going through. Suppose someone has fallen into a deep hole and can’t climb out. An empathetic person will look for a rope to help the person out or, failing that, phone emergency services for help. A sympathetic person would feel sorry about the situation and get into the hole too.

Cognitive empathy, often referred to as perspective-taking, is the kind of empathy that Simon Sinek spoke about in business leadership  and that product designers implement to make more useful products.

Cognitive empathy is the mental aspect of empathy. It is part of the picture but has its limitations according to Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy. She describes cognitive empathy as the soul-less part, the part that allows you to be a super-psychopath if not balanced with the other aspect of empathy.

That other piece, affective empathy, is what makes us human. It’s the ability to understand how the other person feels and to feel with them. It’s often referred to as a shared or mirrored emotional response.

Learning empathy in childhood…

Mary Gordon is a Canadian educator, author, parenting expert, and child advocate who has created programs informed by the power of empathy. She has received many awards—the Governor General of Canada Innovation Award, the Order of Canada, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for significant contributions and achievements by Canadians, and the Manning Innovation Award among others. Mary Gordon’s work has been featured in many print publications and two documentaries. Her book, Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, is a Canadian bestseller.

In this TED talk, Mary Gordon shows how children find the humanity in themselves through interacting with a baby in their classroom. It is a compelling presentation about teaching children through their hearts and minds to create social-emotional learning and emotional literacy. Don’t miss the story about Darren near the end.

Cultivating empathy in adulthood….

Roman Krznaric is a public philosopher who thinks, writes, and speaks about the power of empathy to change society. He’s the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and has written several books. Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It is based on over ten years of research to discover how we can boost our empathy.

The social glue that holds us together…

A lack of empathy causes us to dehumanize each other, and sadly there is a growing global empathy deficit.  Consciously increasing our empathy is the antidote.

According to Krznaric, empathy helps us improve our relationships, enhance our creativity, rethink our priorities in life, and tackle social problems—from everyday prejudice to violent conflicts.

Few of us have reached our empathy potential, yet it is possible. In his book, Krznaric sets out the six life-enhancing habits of highly empathic people, whose skills enable them to connect with others in extraordinary ways. You can develop empathy throughout your life. These two suggestions are good places to start…

  • Travel in your armchair. The Empathy Library puts you in touch with books and films curated to give you a taste of a different culture, a different generation, a different life—you get to see life through someone else’s eyes.
  • Practice the craft of conversation.  1. Practice empathetic listening. Listen for the other person’s feelings and needs, then reflect back to them what they said so they know they’ve been heard.  2. Engage in empathetic conversations with strangers and discover what you have in common. Find someone on your own, or check to see if your town or city is holding a Human Library event.

Conversation starters…

If talking to a stranger seems daunting, here are some conversation openers…

  • What’s the most surprising thing that happened to you on the weekend?
  • What were you thinking about at 10:00 this morning?
  • What’s one thing that’s bringing you joy?
  • In what ways would you like to be more courageous?
  • What’s lighting you up right now?

To make the question a little less abrupt, you might want to preface it with “I’m curious…” Curiosity is an asset for anyone cultivating empathy. According to Ayishat Akanbi, when we have a curious mindset, we are less reactive—there is no rush to judgement and criticism of the other.

A role model of empathy…

In the conversation that follows, Ayishat Akanbi is not talking about empathy. Instead, she is talking from empathy about a socially hypersensitive subject that directly relates to her. I found it a compelling conversation. If your time is limited, move ahead to the 45-minute mark to get the flavour of empathy at work in a setting where it’s usually lacking.

They start out talking about “wokeness.” I had to look up what that means in their context. “Woke, as a political term originating in the United States, refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression “stay woke,” whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues.” Wikipedia


As she demonstrates, Ayishat Akanbi is genuinely interested in people who do not see the world in the same way she does. Her game-changing essential qualities?

  • Curiosity. Curiosity makes us less reactive, so there is no rush to judgement and criticism.
  • Vulnerability. By acknowledging her humanity and self-doubt, she creates genuine connection.

How do we increase our empathy?

…by recognizing that maybe there are no good people, there are only people who are flawed trying to be better.

Empathy at work…

Last week we heard Simon Sinek speak about empathy in the workplace, and how empathetic leadership is essential for workers to thrive.

Empathy is also related to business in another way—through the output of business, the products and services we buy. The satisfaction we derive from these products and services is greater when the designers put themselves in our shoes before production begins.

That is a common definition of empathy—walking in someone else’s shoes, seeing through their eyes—more formally referred to as perspective-taking.

Industrial Design

Industrial design is an example of empathy at work. This is how it’s described by the  Industrial Designers Society of America…

Industrial Design (ID) is the professional practice of designing products, devices, objects, and services used by millions of people around the world every day. Every object that you interact with on a daily basis in your home, office, school, or public setting is the result of a design process. During this process, myriad decisions are made by an industrial designer (and their team) that are aimed at improving your life through well-executed design.  

This video of the OXO Good Grips story illustrates conscious design thinking at work…

Design thinking…

Stanford University Design School, known as the, is at the forefront of design thinking. Here’s how they describe the role of design thinking:

We aim to actively confront and challenge the mindset that design can only be used by a privileged few.

We believe design can help create the world we wish for. Design can activate us as creators and change the way we see ourselves and others. Design is filled with optimism, hope, and the joy that comes from making things change by making things real.

People in business, higher education, the public sector and K12 education are using design to create change.

In a 2016 interview, the Director of Professional Development at the K12 Lab at the spoke about design thinking, empathy, and the connections between the two.

There are three meaningful ways to develop empathy for others. One way is through interviewing, where you have conversations with your end users. It’s an overlooked and undervalued way to develop empathy, but it is extremely effective.

Another way to develop empathy is through observation; we find that what people say, and what people do, don’t always line up. Through observation, designers can pick up on these discrepancies.

A third way to develop empathy is by immersing yourself in other people’s experiences. For example, if you are redesigning the cafeteria for your school, you would stand in line, get your tray, etc. so you could see for yourself what your users are experiencing. This is a meaningful way to develop empathy!

Design wasn’t always empathetic…

The practices of interviewing prospective users, observing them, and immersing yourself in other people’s experiences seem like obvious ways to approach product design. But…would you believe that as recently as 1978, it wasn’t even part of the equation!

Then along came Patricia Moore, a 26-year-old design school graduate hired by a large and prestigious firm. She wanted to design products so they could be used by anyone—such as refrigerators that could be opened by someone with arthritic hands (that was an issue back then). When this was scoffed at by the rest of the design team, she proposed to the head of the firm that she be outfitted as an 85-year-old so she could experience daily activities as they did. She was not talking about dressing “old” and carrying a cane. She was prosthetically altered. When dressed, she was wearing a back brace that prevented her from standing straight, legs and hands were taped with splints to limit movement, and glasses with foggy lenses obscured her naturally sharp vision.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Patricia Moore is recognized internationally and has received many awards for her ground-breaking work. The following video was made when she was honoured by the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she received her first degree.

More than the story she tells, notice how she tells it. Listen to her choice of words and tone of voice. Look at her eyes. She is an outstanding example of what it looks like when someone embodies empathy.

If only we would all choose to take on an empathetic mindset and embody it. Think what a different world we could live in!

Next week, we’ll look at empathy from the individual point of view—how we learn empathy and can practise it in our daily lives.