Empathy May Be Overrated

In this piece, a designer and a lifestyle medicine expert discuss the role of empathy in design and in our lives. Through reflection and discussion, they reveal the shortcomings of empathy—and the power of compassion.

Q: To start with, tell us a bit about yourselves. What is your history with this topic?

Parneet Pal: I’m a physician by training; my work has moved away from clinical practice to focus on chronic disease prevention and wellbeing. I focus on the intersection of lifestyle medicine (how we move, eat, sleep and manage our stress), behaviour change and technology.

My interest in compassion grew organically starting over a decade ago, within the context of self-care. I was going through a particularly difficult time both personally and professionally, and it was a compassion meditation practice that helped provide calm, strength, and perspective. Since then, my meditation practice has grown and I have incorporated the emerging science of compassion and mindfulness in my work.

Ultimately what is most important to me is impact – how to enable lasting behavior change with healthier lifestyles – and within this context, how can we design wellbeing into the routines and structures of our daily lives? This is where learning about design thinking has been immensely useful and powerful for me – how might we make health the default in our lives? Huge and complex challenge – and that’s exactly what makes it so exciting and meaningful to me! 

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: I’ve been practicing design since before I knew to call it design. Back then, my instincts led me to talk to customers and users. I always thought, who else knows better than the customer? I used to go into those conversations with pointed questions, demanding they let me understand their experience. 

I was young. Over time, I learned better approaches: observation, open-ended questions, soliciting stories, etc. However, that practice of demanding to understand helped me deeply internalize that I am not the customer (even when I am). I learned that seeking to uncover meaningful differences is central to good design. 

Being engaged and comfortable with differences, rather than trying to locate and highlight similarities, is to me the core of both compassion and design.  

Q: And what does empathy mean to you?

Parneet Pal: As far as I can remember, I’ve always been acutely aware of the emotions and energy of people around me. I would often leave conversations feeling “heavier”, like a sponge, soaking up all the weight of someone’s feelings, especially if they were going through a difficult time. This weight was often hard to shake off. I didn’t know what to do with it or how to come back quickly to a sense of “normal”.

I could feel my body contract, and stay contracted for long periods – obviously, this wasn’t doing my health any favors. I also wasn’t that effective in my efforts to soothe or help the other person, even though I wanted to. Imagine working like this for long hours in a hospital, surrounded by very sick patients, stressful situations and equally tired colleagues.

I later realized that – like most other folks who are drawn to the healthcare field – I fall on the higher end of the empathy spectrum i.e. I’m wired to be naturally, easily, empathic.

Simply put, empathy is the ability to put our own self in somebody else’s shoes. This can happen on two levels: “cognitive” empathy – understanding the other on the level of thought “I know what you feel or are going through”; and “affective empathy” – understanding the other on the level of emotion “I feel what you feel or are going through”.

At any given point, we may experience one or both types of empathy. 

When we are empathic, we pick up on both positive and negative emotions of the other. 

We are all born with the capacity for empathy. Depending on our genes and life experiences, this capacity can move in either direction on the spectrum from low to high empathy throughout our lives.

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: Like Parneet, I experienced feeling like a heavy sponge that had soaked up all the suffering around me. I wasn’t sure why it was happening, but I stopped working in social justice and healthcare because I found these areas so personally painful and draining.

I first encountered design’s love affair with “empathy” when I went to grad school. There, and later out in industry, I heard this word over and over again. It was touted as a central skill for designers, a fantastically human approach for solving the world’s problems, or a super power that we were lucky to embody. 

“Empathy? Really?” I hated it, every time I heard it. 

I felt first hand that empathy–embodying the feelings of others–was disempowering. 

Q: What is the role of empathy in design practice? in our lives? 

Parneet Pal: From an evolutionary standpoint, the capacity for empathy is crucial for human survival. It enables “theory of mind” – the ability to understand the intentions of another person, their point of view, distinct from our own. It helps us connect and communicate with others – keeping their beliefs, attitudes and emotions in mind – and build social strong, meaningful relationships.

The fact that design thinking starts with empathy is particularly fascinating to me – it’s a terrific place to start. I use this process in my work all the time when designing healthier lifestyles, 

But I’d love to hear your take – as a designer, an expert in this area – on it. What do you most love about the process of design-thinking and empathy; what are the challenges you face? 

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: In design, we are taught to use empathy to gain a deep understanding of our users so we can better serve them. 

We often hear (or even find ourselves saying) things like, “our job is to advocate for the user.” I challenge this. 

Advocating for the user sets up an adversarial relationship between designers and everyone else, rather than a partnership where everyone wants to serve the user. Doing it from a place of empathy means bringing someone elses’ emotions into a conversation, without taking the time to understand how those emotions might impact others. 

As you pointed out, empathy is meant to help us build relationships. Relationships are two-sided. Empathy is not a one-directional force!

I think we need to turn our empathy inward: to the colleagues we work with, and the ones we struggle with but need to work with. Depending on the project, these people may be different than us, and we need to invest our empathetic energy into building relationships with them. 

To circle back to some of my previous comments: I do think empathy is a super power. Like all super powers, it can go horribly awry. Empathy is best used to build the relationships that make human-centered design and design thinking possible and powerful within organizations. 

Q: If not empathy, then what? Have we been using the wrong words?

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: The magical, grounded, human energy we can harness to serve others is compassion. 

I first learned the term compassion from you, Parneet! And it was incredible to realize that there was a path to serving others that might not leave me drained and sad. Can you tell us more about it? 

Parneet Pal: There is definitely a lot of misunderstanding around both the words “empathy” and “compassion”.

First, many folks are thinking “compassion” when they say “empathy” i.e. they are not aware of the distinction we are making here.

Second, the word “compassion” can carry a lot of emotional baggage for some, if they associate it with a particular religio
us ideology; or as something that is “passive” or “soft” or even a sign of “weakness”.

Some of this is completely understandable since the root of the word “compassion” means “to suffer with” or “suffer together”.

And why would anyone in their right mind want to increase their own suffering? 

In fact, the science of compassion is revealing a completely different story. 

Compassion, like empathy, is a capacity and skill that we are all born with. Just like empathy, that ability lies on a spectrum from high to low – and it’s something that we can train and cultivate to get better at. 

Compassion means the ability to recognize suffering – in ourselves and others – along with a desire to alleviate that suffering. 

We need a basic level of empathy to be compassionate – either at the cognitive or affective level i.e. we know or feel the other’s pain or suffering. This is the first step. 

However, the danger of staying in an empathic mode, from the brain’s perspective – especially if we’re constantly surrounded by suffering – is that it can overwhelm us, leading to what is called empathic fatigue or distress. The negative emotions we feel can have a paralyzing effect – the focus shifts from the other person back to our own pain and we stop being useful. When this happens over and over, it can also lead to “depersonalization” – where we actively turn away from suffering or objectify the other as a mere statistic – because it’s too much for us emotionally, to take interest in their pain. 

Thankfully, the latest research – coming out of German neuroscientist Tania Singer’s lab – has shown that our empathy and compassion brain networks are different. 

When we move out of empathy in to compassion, we engage networks in our brain that are associated with caring, love, affiliation, reward and motivation. 

Think of a time when you felt compelled to reach out and help someone – you had to be creative to problem solve, pumped up to take on that challenge, fearless in a sense to not give up easily, and also feeling this sense of warmth, concern and connection with the person you were helping out. This is what compassion feels like. Rather than draining you, it can be energizing and usually leaves you with a balance of positive emotions. 

The science is showing that being compassionate is a voluntary choice that we can make – one that allows us to engage with suffering in meaningful ways rather than being turned off, exhausted or distressed by it. In order to do that, we have to get really good at managing our difficult emotions and staying mindful.

The icing on the cake is that when we help others, the physiology of compassion is stress-reducing i.e. it slows our heart rate, we breathe easier, our blood vessels relax, our blood pressure comes down – the exact opposite of the “fight or flight” stress response that we normally are caught up in. 

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: I think some designers use the word empathy to describe compassion for users, which is totally ok! The language is less important than the concepts themselves. That said, having the right language has helped me make sure I engage with the appropriate part of my brain.

Q: What else would you want people to know about compassion?

Parneet Pal: I would love for everyone to know that when we help and give to others – when we are being compassionate – the irony is that we benefit ourselves the most. Research is showing that compassionate people live longer, stay healthier, are stress resilient, and have better social relationships and report greater satisfaction with life.

Through the power of social networks, compassion is contagious and spreads like a virus. 

When you do something kind, it makes the people who watch you happier, but it also makes it more likely that they will then go out and help somebody else. This effect spreads up to three degrees of separation. Can you imagine how powerful this could be in a work culture or community?

Another piece is that compassion is incomplete without extending it to our own selves i.e. self-compassion. It’s hard to give to others if your own well is dry. When we experience a moment of failure or pain, sense of inadequacy or when things seem out of our control – can we take a moment, pause, breathe, and then ask: “If my best friend, who I care about deeply, were going through what I am right now – what would I say or do to help them and be kind?” Extending yourself this same level of warmth, concern and kindness is self-compassion.

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: This is the part I always forget about… self-compassion is my next challenge as a designer!

Parneet Pal: Yes, self-compassion is a lesson I am continuously learning myself!

Q: We’ve talked about what designers can learn about compassion. What can compassion/meditation practitioners learn from designers?

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: Herb Simon said, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” 

Designers are experts at turning understanding into targeted action, and we work to build the future based on our compassion. In that way, compassion/meditation practitioners are already designers! 

That said, there are some tools and methods of the trade that could prove helpful. The first is the concept of co-creation, where designers work with users or stakeholders to address challenges through facilitated, creative making. This often happens in workshops or one-on-one settings, and involves tangible artifacts like collaging materials, Legos, or inspiring stimulus. The goal is to empower participants, help them focus on challenges at hand, and make creative problem-solving accessible. 

The second is the practice of framing problems. When we see pain, missed opportunities, or places where a new solution could make a difference, we take a step back to synthesize what we see. This usually happens with a team, to provide a balanced perspective, and involves sticky notes or color coding. The goal is to insure we use our energy in the most effective possible way; before we throw ourselves into possible solutions, we take time to understand the nuances of the problems at hand, and determine which problems are worth solving.  

What both these approaches have in common is a clear process for externalizing. As designers, we know that it’s very difficult to act on an insight, idea, or even problem until it’s out in the world. Turning compassion into powerful action requires this leap of externalizing what’s in our heads and hearts.

Parneet Pal: Thank you for this perspective. I love what Herb Simon said – and you remind us meditation practitioners, who are usually great at internalizing, to also pay equal attention to our external actions in the world. 

Parneet Pal

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