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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How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy – Claire Lerner

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Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care. This is a very complex skill to develop. Being able to empathize with another person means that a child:

  • Understands that he is a separate individual, his own person;
  • Understands that others can have different thoughts and feelings than he has;
  • Recognizes the common feelings that most people experience—happiness, surprise, anger, disappointment, sadness, etc.;
  • Is able to look at a particular situation (such as watching a peer saying good-bye to a parent at child care) and imagine how he—and therefore his friend—might feel in this moment; and
  • Can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in that particular situation—such as offering his friend a favorite toy or teddy bear to comfort her.

Milestones in Empathy

Understanding and showing empathy is the result of many social-emotional skills that are developing in the first years of life. Some especially important milestones include:

  • Establishing a secure, strong, loving relationship with you. Feeling accepted and understood by you helps your child learn how to accept and understand others as he grows.
  • Beginning to use social referencing, at about 6 months old. This is when a baby will look to a parent or other loved one to gauge his or her reaction to a person or situation. For example, a 7-month-old looks carefully at her father as he greets a visitor to their home to see if this new person is good and safe. The parent’s response to the visitor influences how the baby responds. (This is why parents are encouraged to be upbeat and reassuring—not anxiously hover—when saying good-bye to children at child care. It sends the message that “this is a good place” and “you will be okay.”) Social referencing, or being sensitive to a parent’s reaction in new situations, helps the babies understand the world and the people around them.
  • Developing a theory of mind. This is when a toddler (between 18 and 24 months old) first realizes that, just as he has his own thoughts, feelings and goals, others have their own thoughts and ideas, which may be different from his.
  • Recognizing one’s self in a mirror. This occurs between 18 and 24 months and signals that a child has a firm understanding of himself as a separate person.

What You Can Do To Nurture Empathy in Your Toddler

Empathize with your child. Are you feeling scared of that dog? He is a nice dog but he is barking really loud. That can be scary. I will hold you until he walks by.

Talk about others’ feelings. Kayla is feeling sad because you took her toy car. Please give Kayla back her car and then you choose another one to play with.

Suggest how children can show empathy. Let’s get Jason some ice for his boo-boo.

Read stories about feelings.

Some suggestions include:

  • I Am Happy: A Touch and Feel Book of Feelings
  • My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss
  • How Are You Peeling by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
  • Feelings by Aliki
  • The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
  • Baby Happy Baby Sad by Leslie Patricelli
  • Baby Faces by DK Publishing
  • When I Am/Cuando Estoy by Gladys Rosa-Mendoza

Be a role model. When you have strong, respectful relationships and interact with others in a kind and caring way, your child learns from your example.

Use “I” messages. This type of communication models the importance of self-awareness: I don’t like it when you hit me. It hurts.

Validate your child’s difficult emotions. Sometimes when our child is sad, angry, or disappointed, we rush to try and fix it right away, to make the feelings go away because we want to protect him from any pain. However, these feelings are part of life and ones that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, labeling and validating difficult feelings actually helps children learn to handle them: You are really mad that I turned off the TV. I understand. You love watching your animal show. It’s okay to feel mad. When you are done being mad you can choose to help me make a yummy lunch or play in the kitchen while mommy makes our sandwiches. This type of approach also helps children learn to empathize with others who are experiencing difficult feelings.

Use pretend play. Talk with older toddlers about feelings and empathy as you play. For example, you might have your child’s stuffed hippo say that he does not want to take turns with his friend, the stuffed pony. Then ask your child: How do you think pony feels? What should we tell this silly hippo?

Think through the use of “I’m sorry.” We often insist that our toddlers say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. But many toddlers don’t fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel “right” for them to say “I’m sorry”, it doesn’t necessarily help toddlers learn empathy. A more meaningful approach can be to help children focus on the other person’s feelings: Chandra, look at Sierra—she’s very sad. She’s crying. She’s rubbing her arm where you pushed her. Let’s see if she is okay. This helps children make the connection between the action (shoving) and the reaction (a friend who is sad and crying).

Be patient. Developing empathy takes time. Your child probably won’t be a perfectly empathetic being by age three. (There are some teenagers and even adults who haven’t mastered this skill completely either!) In fact, a big and very normal part of being a toddler is focusing on me, mine, and I. Remember, empathy is a complex skill and will continue to develop across your child’s life.

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