5 Concrete Ways To Build Empathy Into Your Creative Practice

IMAGE: Three women working together on papers on a table

The concept of empathy has become ubiquitous in corporate culture—though some would argue that it’s just a trend. On a societal level, though, we’re dealing with an empathy crisis—and as creatives, the solution’s in our hands.

What is empathy?

Psychologists and empathy specialists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have broken empathy down into not just one definition, but three different types.

Cognitive empathy is understanding what another human being is feeling, and potentially what they are thinking. Having cognitive empathy leads to better communication, negotiation, and motivation.

Emotional empathy is actually feeling what another person feels, whether that is joy or pain. We may feel the same whether we experience the emotion or whether we see someone else experience it. Daniel describes this as emotional contagion, which could be attributed to themirror neuron concept.

Compassionate empathy is both understanding a person’s situation and feeling for them, ultimately resulting in some kind of action.

What empathy isn’t

Empathy isn’t simply a soft skill, a fluffy feel-good term, or a tool for business. Empathy also isn’t about becoming so absorbed in a person or a situation that you let others take advantage of you.

Katherine Bell, former editor of Harvard Business Review, put it eloquently when she described her experience with empathy.

“I’ve learned that empathy isn’t about being nice or tolerant. It’s not about feeling sorry for people or giving them the benefit of the doubt. It’s an act of imagination in which you try to look at the world from the perspective of another person, a human being whose history and point of view are as complex as your own.”

Empathy in action

Empathy is an absolutely critical piece of a productive and functioning relationship. It’s the driving force of my business; I run Make a Mark, an organization bringing together altruistic creators and innovative humanitarian organizations. We hold 12-hour design and development make-a-thons benefitting local nonprofit organizations.

We learned early on that empathy is critical to the make-a-thon process, and we still take care to nurture that element of all the make-a-thons we run. Our projects are successful because of the depth of the relationships, community, and, ultimately, a strong sense of empathy beginning with the organizers.

As part of this, we work with site leaders around the globe to help craft the events. These site leaders are our eyes on the ground, working to build the perfect event for their specific community with our guidance and framework.

These two groups often have no understanding of how the other functions. Makers might talk about wireframes and vector files and hosting, while nonprofit leaders might talk about line items or tax codes or grant monitoring.

Our role is to facilitate successful brainstorming and build mutual respect—through empathy. While being empathetic leads to a more understanding, caring, and actionable society, it also leads to better results. Success comes from understanding who we work with—and for.

That is why in 12 hours, maker teams can craft something that would normally take months to create. They dig in so deeply with such open hearts and minds that the result is also always magical—often leaving nonprofits and makers in tears.

Create a better workflow

Understanding your coworkers is a key function of empathy in the workplace. In the US, we spend roughly 1/3 of our adult life at work—meaning we spend more of our waking hours with our coworkers than our family members.

While this is a trend that I certainly hope changes, with more remote companies like InVision and the opportunity to start our own initiatives, this means that finding ways to collaborate effectively and positively with our coworkers is key to our success and our happiness.

Being able to deeply relate to your clients is an essential element of empathy. In our relationships with nonprofits, we understand that their working lives are very different than our lives, or the lives of a designer in New York or developer in San Francisco; nonprofit employees often spend their days underpaid, under-resourced, and scrutinized by grant monitors, all while attempting to serve their populations.

While we are the experts on design and development for these organizations, these individuals are also experts in their fields—and we have a lot that we can learn from them. In 2016, at our second make-a-thon in Virginia, we were meeting with an organization providing temporary housing to the homeless during the cold winter months.

They applied for the make-a-thon needing a new website, and when we met with them and their maker team we were prepared to craft a sleek, feature-rich website. It became clear, however, after a few minutes of talking to their representative, that the real need was getting the information about the shelter to those experiencing homelessness—most of whom don’t have computers. But they do have smartphones.

We immediately scrapped the idea of a stylish and robust website and decided to focus on something hyper-simple and incredibly mobile-friendly. If we hadn’t paused to understand what the person experiencing homelessness was feeling and thinking (cognitive empathy), felt the struggle of that individual to find a place to stay (emotional empathy), and re-thought our whole approach to creating their website (compassionate empathy), then we wouldn’t have brought a useful, relevant solution for the nonprofit and their population in dire need.

Building empathy

So how do we actively build empathy? Is there any way to actually increase our empathy, especially in our work? Absolutely!

Ask questions

Too often we assume that we know the answer to questions from past experiences; that we know what a person is like and how they will act. Alternatively, we may view someone as so different from us that there is no way that we could collaborate or reach a common ground.

By asking questions, we challenge existing notions and increase our cognitive empathy. A few examples: How does this situation make you feel? What is the outcome you are hoping for? Can you explain your perspective to help me understand?

Of course, it isn’t just about the question that you ask; it’s also about the way that you ask it. Make sure that you approach the other calmly and openly so they don’t feel attacked or criticized. Asking questions is easy, but listening can be hard—because we regularly listen for the answers we want to hear.

Listening requires both your eyes and your ears. You can learn a lot from someone’s body language. Are they tense? Why are they tense? Is it because this topic is uncomfortable to them? If so, why? This leads to additional questions.

By listening, asking questions, and listening some more, we’re able to extend our cognitive empathy.

Consider outside factors (and leave your ego at the door)

Listening with both senses gives us insight into who people are—and why they are that way.

Maybe a coworker walks into the office in the morning and ignores your hello. This doesn’t mean that you are the cause of their frustration, even if you are the recipient of it.

I recall a time in a past job that a coworker that I worked closely with was consistently sending terse emails to me about materials that she was waiting for. These emails came frequently and often for no reason, straining our relationship. I dismissed this coworker as hostile and limited interactions with her, leading to poor collaborations and sub-par results.

I eventually spoke to another coworker about the situation and was informed that she was working to maintain her composure while her father was struggling with a chronic illness.

This opened my eyes to the vast situations that we all experience and improved my emotional empathy. I asked myself how I would maintain my positive attitude and interactions with coworkers while someone I loved deeply was struggling physically? How would I want my coworkers to treat me?

Allow time for reflection

Reflection is something that I personally value immensely. Anytime I am part of a meeting that I am not leading myself, I am radio silent. Ok, maybe not radio silent, but I like to listen and take in the information, digest it and return with my perspective.

Not everyone works like this, and not everyone should; if they did, meetings would be a bunch of people sitting around a table staring at each other. This reflection period, however, has its place—and certainly a role in building empathy.

We take in a lot of information every day, navigating complicated personal and professional relationships with coworkers and clients. With all that thinking, we need to spend some time reflecting—to better understand, navigate, and nurture those relationships.

Take action

With some thoughtfulness and a lot of care, empathy can be yours. This doesn’t mean you need to do something right at this moment, but keep in mind the outside forces, the internal struggles, and the predispositions of those you’re working with. Ask questions, listen, and reflect. Then, do what you believe is right—for your company, for your work, for others and for yourself.

Want to learn more about empathy?

Sarah Obenauer

 

By: Sarah Obenauer

Sarah Obenauer is the Founder & Director of Make a Mark, an organization created to provide resources and foster an environment where community organizations and visual communicators can engage with one another to better our world.Make a Mark’s flagship event is a 12-hour design and development marathon benefiting humanitarian causes.

Source: 5 concrete ways to build empathy into your creative practice | Inside Design Blog

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Empathy is a cornerstone for successful relationships, but it is a quality that has to be intentional. Most people like to feel understood, but the mark of maturity is in knowing how to demonstrate understanding. In the end, the understanding you wish to receive becomes more likely. Dr. Les Carter shares a story, then 9 essential adjustments that will help you become a more empathetic person.
Dr. Les Carter is a best selling author and therapist who lives in Dallas, TX. Over the past 39 years he has conducted 60,000 counseling sessions and many workshops and seminars. Books by Dr. Carter: https://store.bookbaby.com/book/When-… https://www.amazon.com/When-Pleasing-… https://www.amazon.com/Anger-Trap-You… https://www.amazon.com/Enough-About-Y… While Dr. Carter does not conduct online counseling, he has vetted a group who can assist you: https://betterhelp.com/drcarter (sponsored) Dr. Carter’s online workshops on narcissism, anger management, and overcoming infidelity: http://drlescarter.com/video-workshops/
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The Psychology of Emotional and Cognitive Empathy – Lesley University

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Empathy is a broad concept that refers to the cognitive and emotional reactions of an individual to the observed experiences of another. Having empathy increases the likelihood of helping others and showing compassion.Empathy is a building block of morality – for people to follow the Golden Rule, it helps if they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” according to the Greater Good Science Center, a research institute that studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. “It is also a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others.”

Though they may seem similar, there is a clear distinction between empathy and sympathy. According to Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, “Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it. A distinction is maintained between self and other. Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person.”

Emotional and Cognitive Empathy

Researchers distinguish between two types of empathy. Especially in social psychology, empathy can be categorized as an emotional or cognitive response. Emotional empathy consists of three separate components, Hodges and Myers say. “The first is feeling the same emotion as another person … The second component, personal distress, refers to one’s own feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s plight … The third emotional component, feeling compassion for another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology,” they explain.

It is important to note that feelings of distress associated with emotional empathy don’t necessarily mirror the emotions of the other person. Hodges and Myers note that, while empathetic people feel distress when someone falls, they aren’t in the same physical pain. This type of empathy is especially relevant when it comes to discussions of compassionate human behavior. There is a positive correlation between feeling empathic concern and being willing to help others. “Many of the most noble examples of human behavior, including aiding strangers and stigmatized people, are thought to have empathic roots,” according to Hodges and Myers. Debate remains concerning whether the impulse to help is based in altruism or self-interest.

The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy. This refers to how well an individual can perceive and understand the emotions of another. 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. While it’s not clear exactly how humans experience empathy, there is a growing body of research on the topic.

How Do We Empathize?

Experts in the field of social neuroscience have developed two theories in an attempt to gain a better understanding of empathy. The first, Simulation Theory, “proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we ‘simulate’ or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like,” according to Psychology Today.

There is a biological component to this theory as well. Scientists have discovered preliminary evidence of “mirror neurons” that fire when humans observe and experience emotion. There are also “parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level kinds of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments,” the same article explains.

Some experts believe the other scientific explanation of empathy is in complete opposition to Simulation Theory. It’s Theory of Mind, the ability to “understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think or feel,” Psychology Today says. This theory suggests that humans can use cognitive thought processes to explain the mental state of others. By developing theories about human behavior, individuals can predict or explain others’ actions, according to this theory.

While there is no clear consensus, it’s likely that empathy involves multiple processes that incorporate both automatic, emotional responses and learned conceptual reasoning. Depending on context and situation, one or both empathetic responses may be triggered.

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Cultivating Empathy

Empathy seems to arise over time as part of human development, and it also has roots in evolution. In fact, “Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats,” the Greater Good Science Center says. From a developmental perspective, humans begin exhibiting signs of empathy in social interactions during the second and third years of life. According to Jean Decety’s article “The Neurodevelopment of Empathy in Humans,” “There is compelling evidence that prosocial behaviors such as altruistic helping emerge early in childhood. Infants as young as 12 months of age begin to comfort victims of distress, and 14- to 18-month-old children display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviors.”

While both environmental and genetic influences shape a person’s ability to empathize, we tend to have the same level of empathy throughout our lives, with no age-related decline. According to “Empathy Across the Adult Lifespan: Longitudinal and Experience-Sampling Findings,” “Independent of age, empathy was associated with a positive well-being and interaction profile.”

And it’s true that we likely feel empathy due to evolutionary advantage: “Empathy probably evolved in the context of the parental care that characterizes all mammals. Signaling their state through smiling and crying, human infants urge their caregiver to take action … females who responded to their offspring’s needs out-reproduced those who were cold and distant,” according to the Greater Good Science Center. This may explain gender differences in human empathy.

This suggests we have a natural predisposition to developing empathy. However, social and cultural factors strongly influence where, how, and to whom it is expressed. Empathy is something we develop over time and in relationship to our social environment, finally becoming “such a complex response that it is hard to recognize its origin in simpler responses, such as body mimicry and emotional contagion,” the same source says.

Psychology and Empathy

In the field of psychology, empathy is a central concept. From a mental health perspective, those who have high levels of empathy are more likely to function well in society, reporting “larger social circles and more satisfying relationships,” according to Good Therapy, an online association of mental health professionals. Empathy is vital in building successful interpersonal relationships of all types, in the family unit, workplace, and beyond. Lack of empathy, therefore, is one indication of conditions like antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. In addition, for mental health professionals such as therapists, having empathy for clients is an important part of successful treatment. “Therapists who are highly empathetic can help people in treatment face past experiences and obtain a greater understanding of both the experience and feelings surrounding it,” Good Therapy explains.

Exploring Empathy

Empathy plays a crucial role in human, social, and psychological interaction during all stages of life. Consequently, the study of empathy is an ongoing area of major interest for psychologists and neuroscientists in many fields, with new research appearing regularly. Lesley University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology gives students the opportunity to study the field of human interaction within the broader spectrum of psychology.

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