Both our kids have taken a recent interest in Harry Potter, including the movies, the books, the games, Lego sets, etc. So we’ve been deep in the Harry Potter universe recently. As geeky parents, we’ve been pretty proud. So if you’ll indulge me for a moment, we’re going to explore empathy and Harry Potter and bring it all back together shortly.
One of the best characters in the Potter universe is Severus Snape, who Harry despises for most of the series, pities for a moment when he gets a look inside of Professor Snape’s memory, but then goes back to hating until he gets to see the full story again right at the end.
What causes this rollercoaster? Unlike the real world, Harry actually gets to see and live the memories of some wizards in his universe. After Voldemort kills Snape, Harry gets to go back through Snape’s key memories and see that he was, in fact, loyal to Dumbledore the whole time. He spent his whole life protecting Harry (and the other children) while fighting Voldemort, all at substantial risk. He loved Lily (Harry’s mother) to the end. And he suspected all of this was going to end badly for many of them, but he stuck with it because he trusted Dumbledore deeply and was committed to what was right.
Harry was so incredibly wrong about him the entire time. Many people were wrong about Snape and yet Snape never once corrected anyone. He cared more about doing what was right than being seen as the “good guy”. He was one of the ultimate heroes of the story but wanted no glory.
Harry finally saw that, all from Snape’s perspective. He could finally understand what he needed to do and understand Snape’s thoughts and feelings in a way that is really impossible in our “muggle” universe because we can’t see into people’s thoughts and emotions in the same way.
Harry could ultimately empathize with Snape once he saw his thoughts, his memories, and his emotions through his life. He saw the events that made Snape and the choices that led to his decisions, from the teasing as a child to the regret at working for Voldemort to the attachment to Harry. And then the thoughts he had and the emotions he felt as he progressed through key moments. Harry finally understood and could really empathize and understand.
So what does this have to do with all of us?
In product management, we talk frequently about empathy. But do we really understand it? It is essential for our roles as product managers and designers, but how can we ensure we’re not only empathetic, but getting better at understanding and empathizing with our users?
What is empathy
So what is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than your own. It’s the ability to put yourself in another person’s position and understand them.
Empathy differs from sympathy in a few ways. When you feel sympathy, you might be moved by the thoughts and feelings of someone, but you maintain emotional distance. You don’t step into their position to understand. You feel for them, but don’t necessarily feel what they’re feeling or understand what they’re thinking.
In an insightful short video, Brene Brown explains (along with great illustrations) the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Sympathy is feeling bad for someone who is in a hole. Empathy is getting down into the hole with them.
In the context of product development, empathy is about getting into the hole with our users. They have problems they are trying to solve, but we can’t understand their pain unless we’re down there with them.
So, what are the components of empathy?
Components of empathy
Drawing on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, fellow psychologist Daniel Goleman breaks empathy into three types or forms. While he discusses them as forms of empathy, I believe we can better think of them as components of empathy, all part of a greater whole.
Cognitive empathy is understanding what another person is thinking — taking their perspective.
Cognitive empathy is the “what” and “why” of empathy. What is another person thinking or feeling? Why are they thinking that way?
This type of empathy also refers to how well an individual can perceive and understand the emotions of another. According to an article by Lesley University:
Cognitive empathy, also known as empathic accuracy, involves “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels,” Hodges and Myers say. Cognitive empathy is more like a skill: Humans learn to recognize and understand others’ emotional state as a way to process emotions and behavior.
By taking another’s perspective, we can use the cognitive component of empathy to understand what they are feeling and try to understand why they feel that way.
But this is only one part of empathy.
Emotional (somatic) empathy
Emotional or somatic empathy is feeling how another person feels.
This is the “how” of empathy. How does the other person feel? How are they reacting? How are they being impacted?
This component of empathy isn’t just about understanding perspective, but about feeling the emotions of another person. It is the physical reaction in response to what another person is feeling. Being sad with them if they are sad. Being upset with them if they are upset. Or being jubilant with them if they are feeling immense joy at something.
Compassionate (affective) empathy
Finally, compassionate or affective empathy is a movement to action, a desire to help and support another. Affective empathy is finding the appropriate response to what someone is experiencing.
Once we’ve understood someone’s perspective and felt with them, this final component of empathy is a movement to action. Whether that is to help them, help the situation, or simply to support or be present.
Compassion, or affective empathy, goes beyond passive support or concern (sympathy). It’s about doing something, like getting down in the hole to support.
The importance of empathy
Now that we understand empathy, why is it important?
Empathy creates connection between us.
According to Verywellmind, “By understanding what people are thinking and feeling, people can respond appropriately in social situations.”
This connection allows us to overcome interpersonal difficulties, which is critical in our work and our lives.
Everyone, from friends to our colleagues to our customers, is going through something. Understanding that, or trying to understand and feel that, will allow us to forge deeper connections to each other and to the work we’re doing.
Empathy also helps build rapport.
We can define rapport as a “mutual understanding” that makes communication possible or easy. Which is exactly what we want with empathy.
According to Psychology Today, “Empathy enables us to establish rapport with another person, make them feel they are being heard, and, through words and body language, mimic their emotions.”
Finally, empathy creates openness.
When we create connections and establish rapport, we’re able to be more open. And openness fosters more openness.
As we feel safe enough to discuss our problems, whether personal or professional, we create an environment where each of us can be more open.
This is critical in product development. We can’t truly understand our users’ problems if they won’t be open with us.
The opposite of empathy
Without empathy, we get the opposite of the above — disconnection, distance, and obstruction.
In his book, The Science of Evil, Simon Baren Cohen discusses empathy erosion, and how, in extreme cases, we view fellow humans as objects rather than people.
“Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or a desire to protect…Empathy erosion can occur as a result of the beliefs we hold, the goals we have, or our intentions…Empathy erosion can even occur as a result of fear or obedience to authority…Empathy erosion can just be the result of wanting to conform.”
“When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the “I” mode. In such a state, we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things.”
Without empathy, and without connection, rapport, and openness, we focus only on ourselves. And can view others as less than human — a means to an end. Which makes it easier to justify abhorrent behavior, from developing products that may be harmful or addictive, to outright violence against our fellow humans.
We’ve seen a decline in empathy in our lifetimes. From 1979 to 2009, research has shown a steep decline in empathy among young people in America. While researchers are working on updating the studies with current trends, it’s not a stretch to imagine that we have continued to decline overall in general empathy.
The FAA began releasing information on in-flight disturbances by passengers in 2021, and the numbers have continually been rising, with nearly 5,000 incidents as of October 2021, and nearly $1 million in fines.
Rather than treating fellow travelers and airline staff as people, too many individuals focus on themselves. And it shows through their behavior.
Fortunately, empathy erosion isn’t a final state, and empathy is something we can all develop.
How to develop empathy
Empathy is not a fixed trait. As Jamil Zaki discusses in a Ted Talk, empathy is a skill we can develop. Even small incentives can affect empathy. While there is a gap between men and women, this isn’t a fixed trait of men and women, but a product of incentives, and can be changed.
So what can we do to develop more empathy?
We can develop our empathy skills by being more curious.
This aligns well with cognitive empathy or perspective-taking. By being curious, we can better understand others’ perspectives, experiences, and emotions.
We can exercise our curiosity and further develop empathy by:
- Observing others - It is easy to get wrapped up in ourselves. The technology so easily available to us has worked to further isolate us as well. To be more empathetic, we can start by putting our phones down and observing others. What are they doing? What are they experiencing? How are they responding physically, mentally, and emotionally?
- Asking questions - We can take this a step further by asking questions. While observation is great, it doesn’t get us inside someone’s mind, so we need to ask more questions.
- Putting ourselves in someone’s place - Finally, we can put ourselves in someone else’s place. Literally imagine what they are doing and thinking, and imagine how we might react given what we know. In a New York Times article, the author suggests trying out someone else’s life. Go to their church for a few weeks, or spend time in a different neighborhood.
In an article called Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, Roman Krznaric tells the story of George Orwell, and his curiosity spurred him to better understand those on the margins of society:
After several years as a colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. So he dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and vagabonds.
The result, recorded in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels” — Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and gathered some superb literary material. It was the greatest travel experience of his life. He realised that empathy doesn’t just make you good — it’s good for you, too.
Seek new perspectives
One way to seek new perspectives is to read extensively.
Experts have shown reading to increase empathy. According to one study:
When students read the story, not only did their empathy levels rise immediately afterwards, but provided they had felt emotionally transported by the story, a week later they scored even higher on empathy than they did right after reading.
While any type of reading can be good, fiction provides the greatest benefit for empathy. According to a BBC article:
Fiction has at least three advantages. We have access to the character’s interior world in a way we normally do not with journalism, and we are more likely to willingly suspend disbelief without questioning the veracity of what people are saying. Finally, novels allow us to do something that is hard to do in our own lives, which is to view a character’s life over many years.
Change your conversations
Listen more — It is often our inclination to want to talk, to interject, or to try to solve a problem. But what often need to do is stop and listen rather than interrupt.
According to an article on the BRM institute about training our empathy:
The Golden Rule to listening is that you spend more time listening than talking. Unsurprisingly, the goal of listening is to learn, and to then use that knowledge to make an informed decision. If we interrupt them to splice in our own thoughts, then we aren’t really learning how to help that other person.
Be vulnerable - We can also be more vulnerable. Often we want to project an image of toughness or infallibility, but the opposite is often what we need.
In another fascinating talk, Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability, and how those who can embrace vulnerability can be more connected to others and happier with themselves.
Don’t fool yourself
Don’t fool yourself, and remember, you are the easiest person to fool as physicist Richard Feynman once said.
We all have biases and use heuristics to lighten our mental load. Some of these are unconscious, so we have to work to be aware that we may not be as empathetic to certain poles or groups that are not similar to ourselves.
Referring back to the New York Times article:
“Bias is a natural part of the human condition,” said Erin L. Thomas, a partner at Paradigm, which helps organizations with diversity and inclusion strategies. “This is adaptive for us to take mental shortcuts and make conclusions about the people around us. Actively working to combat that is what matters.”
Prioritize and practice
Finally, we need to prioritize and practice empathy. It is a skill that can be developed or can be lost. We need to teach it to our kids, practice it ourselves, and encourage it in others.
As Michelle Borba emphasizes in the video below, empathy is a verb. It is something we do.
Empathy is also something we can practice. In another great discussion, Stephanie Briggs teaches how her students learn to practice empathy with each other and in their communities.
Empathy, the ability to understand the feelings and thoughts of others, is a critical skill for all of us, whether we are in product development or any other field. But it takes active work. It is a literal skill we can acquire and must work to maintain.
Unfortunately, we don’t possess pensieves like Harry Potter or Dumbledore to see into the minds of others. So we can’t easily know the thoughts and feelings of those around us. So we must actively work to gain understanding by building connection and rapport with those around us through meaningful conversations and genuine curiosity.
But through empathy, we can create powerful relationships, better perspectives, and ultimately a better world.
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