Indi Young—Practical empathy: For collaboration and creativity in your work (webinar)

Empathy for your end users can help you create and design something that truly suits their needs, and it’s the basis of usability design and plain language writing. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is an example of applying empathy, but UX consultant Indi Young, author of Practical Empathy, says that you first have to develop empathy, and she led a webinar to show us how.

Empathy, said Young, is usually associated with emotion: it makes you think about sensitivity and warmth or about sympathy and understanding a person’s perspective, sometimes so that you can excuse their behaviours or forgive their actions. As it turns out, that definition describes empathy rather poorly. Dr. Brené Brown created a short animation to explain the differences between sympathy and empathy.

True emotional empathy, Young explained, is when another person’s emotion infects you. “It strikes like lightning,” she said, and “it’s how movies and books work”—you’re struck with the same emotions as the characters. This kind of emotional empathy can be incredibly powerful, but you can’t force it or will it to happen. In our work, we need something more reliable.

Enter cognitive empathy, which can include emotions but focuses on understanding another person’s thinking and reactions. In creative work, we often end up concentrating too much on ideas and neglect the people. By listening to people and deepening our understanding of them, we can develop and apply ideas that support their patterns. This listen » deepen » apply process is iterative.

How is empathy important in our work? Empathy has a lot of uses, said Young, and one she saw a lot was using it to persuade or manipulate, which could be well intentioned but might also problematic. She’d rather focus on using empathy to support the intents and purposes of others—to collaborate and create. “Others” is purposely vague here—it can refer to people in your organization or external to it.

To truly collaborate with someone, you have to listen to them, one on one. “When someone realizes you are really listening to them and you don’t have an ulterior motive, they really open up.” These listening sessions allow you to generate respect for another person’s perspectives and can be the basis for creativity. When a user issues a request, ask about the thinking behind it. Knowing the motivation behind a request might allow you to come up with an even better idea to support your users. You can’t establish empathy based only on a user’s opinions or preferences.

In a listening session, be neutral and let go of any judgments; you can’t properly support someone you’re judging. Purposeful listening can also let you discover what you’re missing—what you don’t know you don’t know. The intent of a listening session isn’t to solve any problems—don’t go into a session with an agenda or a set list of questions, and don’t use the session as a forum to show others how much you know. Become aware of your assumptions and don’t be afraid to ask about them.

Let the other person set boundaries of what to talk about. Don’t bring something up if they don’t bring it up. If they’re not comfortable talking, excuse them. Don’t set a time limit or watch the clock. Finally, don’t take notes. “The act of writing things down in a notebook takes up so much of your brain that you can’t listen as well,” said Young.

What you’re trying to uncover in the listening sessions is the person’s reasoning, intent, and guiding principles. What passes through their mind as they move toward their intent? Instead of asking “How do you go about X?” ask “What went through your mind as you X?”

These guidelines seem simple, said Young, but mastering listening skills takes a lot of practice. Once people start opening up and you see how your ideas can better serve their needs, you’ll see how powerful developing cognitive empathy can be.


Indi Young’s webinar will be available on in a couple of weeks.

One thought on “Indi Young—Practical empathy: For collaboration and creativity in your work (webinar)”

  1. I didn’t want to intrude with my views in the main post, but a lot of the principles that Indi Young mentioned in her webinar line up well with the methods we’ve been discussing in my qualitative research course. Although Young doesn’t like calling her listening sessions interviews, what she describes is exactly what we’d call an unstructured free-attitude interview in qualitative health research.

    In my course, we distinguish between a conversation, in which neither party has an agenda, and an interview, where the interviewer is clearly trying to get information from the interviewee. Although these listening sessions don’t have structure, we’d still call them interviews, because both parties know that the person conducting the listening session does have an objective of gaining knowledge from the user.

    The overlap between Young’s techniques and those used in the free-attitude interview is considerable, although the latter is probably attached to more formalism. In qualitative interviews, we’re taught specific probing techniques to prompt the interviewee to offer more information. Young is absolutely right that these skills take a lot of practice. We are too used to constant chatter and turn taking that a pause can feel awkward. But a pause may be just what your interviewee needs to collect their thoughts and tell you what you need to know.

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