Empathy made my list of Top 7 Traits of a Good Product Manager. So let’s take a look at what it is and how to develop it.
As we learned in that article, empathy is the ability to feel another person’s feelings. It is often confused with sympathy. If you injure yourself and I feel bad for you, that’s sympathy. If I put myself in your shoes and imagine what your pain feels like to the point where I can feel it, that’s empathy.
So why is empathy so important for developing good products? Products tend to either solve a problem or create delight. It’s hard to deliver on either without empathy. You can’t really solve a problem without truly understanding it.
For example, let’s say I set out to solve poverty. I can sympathize with the poor, but that doesn’t help me to understand their plight. It’s only when I can empathize with them, feel what they are feeling, that I start to understand their situation. Sympathy often leads us to project our own experience onto others, whereas empathy helps us to shift our perspective from ours to theirs.
So how do we develop empathy?
Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind, outlines the following process for developing empathy:
1. Become aware of your own emotions.
You can’t recognize and empathize with emotions in others, if you aren’t first aware of your own emotions. This might sound silly. We feel our emotions, how can we not be aware of them? But feeling and awareness are two different things.
So how do we become aware of our emotions? The best way is to start a meditation practice. It’s backed by thousands of years of practice and modern day science is starting to explain why it works. To learn more, start with Wherever You Go, There You Are.
I realize not all of you are going to start a mediation practice just because I suggested it. So here’s an easier suggestion. Download a mood app.
Every mobile platform has countless mood apps. Mood apps ping you randomly throughout the day and ask you how you feel. You then log the emotion and move on with your day. This alone will help grow your awareness of your emotions. This one you can do today. As in, right now.
If you see too many choices in your app store, try In Flow on iOS and Moodlytics on Android.
2. Stop judging your emotions
Emotions aren’t bad. Unfortunately, many of us are trained at a young age, to believe that they are.
“What are you crying about?”
“Don’t get mad.”
You need to work to undo this training. Emotions happen. While we can control how we react to our emotions, we don’t actually control our emotions themselves. Once you are aware of your emotions, the key is to separate judgement from the experience of the emotion.
There is a lot of great research on how to do this. Start with Self-Compasson by Kristen Neff.
3. Look for emotions in others
Now that we can recognize our own emotions and we are no longer judging them, it’s time to start looking for emotions in others.
Paul Ekman has down tremendous research in this realm. He studies how people recognize emotion in others through facial expressions. If you are interested in learning more about his research or even testing how well you currently recognize emotions in others, check out the wealth of resources on his website.
Odds are, you are naturally better at this than you realize. You just need to give it your attention. Be on the look out for emotion in others, and you’l start to develop this skill naturally.
Prefer a book to web content? Check out Ekman’s Emotions Revealed.
4. Imagine what it’s like to feel that way
Now that you are starting to recognize emotions in others, put your imagination to work. Imagine what it’s like to feel that way.
Did you just pass an overwhelmed mom trying to keep two little kids moving in one direction? Take a minute and put yourself in her shoes. Is she exhausted from not getting enough sleep the night before? Is she making a game of it and having fun? Can you imagine what both would feel like?
If this is foreign to you, an easy starting point is to mimic the facial expression associated with the emotion. If you are trying to imagine happiness, smile. If you are trying to imagine sadness, frown. And so on.
As you do this, keep those judgements in check. Our brains are wired to draw conclusions and to judge. You have to actively work against this. Every time you catch yourself judging someone else’s emotions, take the time to imagine what they feel such that your judgement goes away.
Some people really struggle with emotionally empathy. If this is you, start with intellectual empathy. Pick a topic where you have a strong opinion. Now take on the opposite point of view. What would it be like to think that? Write it out. Talk it through with someone. If you are an advocate for gun rights, argue why we should have stricter gun laws. Or reverse it, depending on your stance. Really dig deep. Be convincing.
We’ve already looked at a few ways that you can practice. Throughout your day, tell other people’s stories. Imagine what it feels like to live those stories. Take on the other point of view, switch perspectives.
Here are some other ways to practice empathy:
IDEO method cards: IDEO sells a great deck of cards (there’s a mobile app too) where each card includes an activity that helps you to get in the head of someone else. Grab a deck or download the app and get in the habit of putting them to use.
Take an acting class: You can’t act, without getting into the head of your character. What would they do? What would they say? How do they feel about a situation? Learn from the pros by taking an acting class.
Spend time with people who are different from you. This could mean traveling the world, engaging in cultures that are different from yours, learning a new language.
Or it could be as simple as engaging with the sales people in your organization or spending time with your customers.
It could mean starting a conversation with the immigrant coffee shop owner on your block.
There are countless opportunities to engage with those that are different from us. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of them.
Want to learn more? I highly recommend A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.
How do you develop empathy? Do you have any daily practices? Please share in the comments.
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