Realizing Empathy, Part 2: Praxis

For as long as I can remember, I’d considered art to be the antithesis of design; the rationale being that art was self-indulgent whereas design was empathic. After spending four years studying both the visual and performing arts, however, I’ve come to realize that not only was empathy required in the creative process found in art, but its role was pronounced in a broader and more granular way than design. With this newfound understanding, I now hope to bring more of art in to design so as to reconsider both how we think of and practice design on a day-to-day basis.

This is the second of a three-part series exploring the myriad events that led me to see that “realizing empathy” is at the heart of the creative process. “Realizing empathy” is a term I’ve coined to refer to the process of deliberately and proactively realizing our potential to empathize with an “other.” Part one examined how this process helped me 1) draw a model from observation and 2) understand a depressed friend. Part two (the part you’re currently reading) analyzes this process such that we can apply it deliberately throughout the design process. Part three will invite readers to share and discuss how we, as a community, may shape the future of design through the lens of realizing empathy. In my previous article, I introduced the term realizing empathy, to capture the similarities across situations requiring not just empathy, but the realized potential of empathy. In this article, I’ll take that to its logical next step, exploring the role of empathy throughout any creative process. We’ll conclude with an exercise to help readers practice their ability to realize empathy.

Realizing Empathy in the Creative Process

Upon first enrolling in “Drawing from Observation,” I thought that “drawing” was merely an act of expression, that it simply involved making marks that resembled the object being drawn. So when my attempt to draw did not produce the outcome I desired, I blamed it on my lack of mark-making technique. To my surprise, however, my teacher insisted that I must first learn a new way of seeing. After reflecting on this and other experiences both in visual and performing arts, I came to the realization that all creative processes can be thought of as having three discrete and recurring stages — association, empathic conversation, and bisociation — occurring in relation to a variety of others. Association connects an experience to one or more immediately available ways of thinking about the experience. It is often referred to as “labelling” or “categorizing.” We make associations when we immediately connect how someone looks, to an evaluation of their character. I made an association when I connected the word “drawing” to “expression.” I did it again when I connected the experience of seeing the nude model with the imagined shapes in my mind. When an association produces a feeling of dissonance — a feeling that arises when our expectations, beliefs, or values are threatened, provoked, or contradicted — we often judge it as a negative experience, and proceed to frame the situation as a “problem.” Take the example of how I thought of my drawing instructor. My expectation was for her to teach me drawing techniques. Yet all she did was say that I was “not drawing what I’m seeing.” This was a problem. It was in conflict with my expectation. What did I do in response? I silently blamed her for being a “bad teacher.” It was the only way I could understand the situation at the time. This is also known as rationalization. There could have been many ways to solve this problem. I could have left for another instructor, for example. But for better or for worse, I took a step back. Thus came the event I like to call “stopping to smell the paradox.” To smell the paradox, we remind ourselves that maybe we don’t have all of the information. That we may be “missing something.” We reframe the situation from a problem to be solved to a paradox to be resolved. Physicist Richard Feynman describes a paradox as “a conflict between reality and our expectation of what reality should be.” And therein lies the challenge: deliberately becoming aware of and acknowledging our subjective (not to mention biased) involvement in the construction of the so-called “objective” reality.

The man in this video is likely to be labelling the woman as “irrational,” “wrong,” possibly even “crazy.” Imagine the difficulty of coming up with a different way to look at such a situation where you’re so certain you are looking at it “objectively.”

To resolve a paradox one must engage in an empathic conversation — the next step in the creative process. In retrospect, this is what happened to me. I started off by continuously recalling the words of the instructor, trying not to impress my judgement upon them or label them as “right / wrong” or “good / bad.” I did the same with the object of my drawing, trying my best to experience them beyond the imagined shapes I had in my head. In other words, I respected them enough to let them impress themselves upon me, allowing myself room to alter the quality of my perception. I then reflected upon my instructor’s words, my own experience of the nude model, as well as the artifacts I used to draw (i.e. charcoal, newsprint). Based on this reflection, I varied my process: from the way I used my eyes to how I held my charcoal and how I controlled my breath. I then tried to make all my expressions, my arm movements and the charcoal marks, be sincere, honest, and considered embodiments of both the impression and its reflection. Finally, I let the effect of my expression impress me just like everything else, which allowed the conversation to loop and recurse to a rhythm, integrating across time and memory. infinity empathy

The shape of empathic conversation takes after the form of breathing. Open to breathe in, pause to reflect, focus to breathe out, repeat.

Eventually, I reached the third and final milestone of realizing empathy, what late novelist Arthur Koestler called a bisociation. I learned to associate “drawing” not only with “expression” but also “impression.” The idea of “seeing the model” now became associated with not only the unconscious act of constructing shapes in my head, but also the conscious act of trying to embody the object of my drawing. These bisociations helped resolve the paradox, and lead me to feel a momentary sense of resonance with the instructor and a prolonged sense of resonance with the nude model throughout the drawing experience. cover3

An illustration of the recurring pattern of realizing empathy, something I experienced in practically every single class I took in art school. This eventually led me to write my first book Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making.

After returning to a state of consonance, I now became aware of the fact that I had changed. More specifically, that I had acquired several new choices I didn’t have before. First of all, when I now hear a drawing instructor say “you’re not drawing what you’re seeing,” instead of merely judging them as “a bad teacher,” I could choose to understand them as trying to challenge people to not merely draw the shapes we have in our heads, but instead aspire to engage the objects of our drawing more directly. Or more broadly, I could now choose to be curious and ask what people mean when they say “draw,” instead of assuming to know. Secondly, instead of merely experiencing objects as shapes in my head, I could now choose to embody them as both an experience of light as well as a felt movement in my arms. Thirdly, instead of the old method of drawing, which did not produce the kind of result I wanted, I now had a new method I could choose that worked better for me. Moreover, in this process, both an unexpected artifact — a piece of drawing done in a style previously unknown to myself — and an unexpected resolution to the problem of having a “bad teacher” emerged as side effects.

Realizing Empathy in the Design Process

Now that we’ve articulated empathy’s role in the creative process we’re ready to explore another question: how does empathy relate to design? In design, empathy is often talked about as a “tool” used to acquire insights during user research or a way to make products easier or more delightful for users to use. But in light of my experience with art, I’ve come to realize that this point of view is overly limiting. Empathy is relevant in relation to a far broader variety of “others” than just users and at a much finer granularity than the user research phase. Consider the activities we typically associate with design thinking: defining, researching, ideating, prototyping, testing, etc… Ponder the various “others” with whom we interact with in those activities: the stakeholders we interact with in a kick-off meeting, the potential users we observe and interview while conducting fieldwork, the colleagues we collaborate with, the materials we prototype with, the environment we source raw materials from, and so on. Think of all the small interactions we have with them on a daily basis. What if in each and every one of those moments we were implicitly being asked the following questions:
  1. Are we aware of the opportunity to realize empathy in that context?
  2. Do we care enough to realize empathy in that context?
  3. Are we prepared with the necessary ability to realize empathy in that context?
Based on the framework I presented above, if the answers is “yes” to all three, it means that, in that context, our interactions with that “other” has the potential to be creative. In reality, however, we don’t always know that we’re being asked these questions. In fact, even if we were, it’s possible that we’ll stop at 1, because the answer is “no.” It is often only in hindsight that we become aware of this.

A TEDx talk where I share the story of how unaware I was of my lack of empathy in relation to a piece of wood, my friend, and my professional colleague.

Take a moment to remember all the problems you have faced thus far in your design career. Problems dealing with clients. Problems dealing with teammates. Problems dealing with users. Problems dealing with manufacturers. Problems dealing with partnering organizations. Problems dealing with the computer. Problems dealing with raw materials. Problems dealing with the environment. In fact, think of all the problems you have faced in your personal lives as well. When you look back, can you think of ways in which those problems could be reframed as paradoxes? If so, that means the very interactions that you, at the time, framed as problems could have been an opportunity to not only learn a new choice with which to see, understand, or experience those others, but also create something you didn’t expect to create. The question is can we do this in foresight? Based on my experience, I would argue that while it may not be easy, it is possible.

A Deliberate Practice of Realizing Empathy

Prior to art school, I thought of the design process as a means to produce products and services that, in turn, produced a better world. Now I look at the design process as a systematic and ongoing challenge to realize empathy with a variety of “others.” Just as a new kind of drawing and an unexpected resolution to the problem of having a “bad teacher” both emerged as side effects of realizing empathy, I now see products and services as well as a “better world” being side effects of us realizing empathy with and across a  variety of “others” in different ways for different reasons to different ends. Beyond my practice as a designer and researcher, I’ve spent the past year speaking and giving workshops on realizing empathy. What I have learned from that experience is that like playing the guitar, we can only become better at realizing empathy through practice. Further, even with practice we’ll find ourselves facing various kinds of unexpected situations and a never-ending variety in “others” that challenges our awareness, care, and ability to realize empathy. From what I can tell, realizing empathy is a life-long endeavor. So as I conclude this article, I’d like to showcase a simple example of a situation where you can practice your ability to realize empathy: interfacing a blog post or a Facebook status that you disagree with.
  1. Prepare. It’s not necessary, but worth it to take a moment to become explicitly aware of the feelings and meanings we associate with the experience of reading the post. For example, we can honestly write them down on a private journal (i.e. Reading this post, I feel disgusted, because what the post means to me is….) with the intent to better understand ourselves.
  2. Open up for impression. To open ourselves up it’s useful to become aware of where we are closed. We can start with the physical. Are our shoulder muscles tense? Are our facial muscles bunched up? Relax them. We can then move onto our thoughts, by reminding ourselves that it’s possible that we may be “missing something.” We can then move onto our words by writing a comment that makes clear that we respect—as opposed to merely tolerating, accommodating, or assuming to know the meaning of—the post, and that we’re humble and curious to learn more. For example, we may write “That’s very interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way. Can I ask you some questions? I would love to better understand your thoughts on this.” If we feel resistance to writing this, that means we’re still closed. Breathe. Opening up can take practice. If need be, we may have to fake it for now.
  3. Be Impressed then Reflect on the impression. Let the words in the post impress upon us. If needed, read it multiple times with the intent to make new meaning from them. Instead of assuming we know what the words mean, we let ourselves ask questions such as “What do they mean by X?” It’s important that we ask these questions no matter how certain we are, because our goal is to understand the meaning from the context of the poster instead of ours. Sometimes we may want to specifically ask “When I hear the word X, I take it to mean Y, which makes me feel Z. What do you mean by it?” Here, we’re taking the part we feel dissonance with, X, and honestly expressing our bias, Y. The intention here is to provide the poster the means to explain/clarify with our context in mind. Impressing our definition upon the poster or demanding that they use the dictionary definition will be counter-productive. Conflicting definitions are often the root cause of dissonance. We repeat this step until our understanding has changed/developed.
  4. Focus to express. Ask the poster “Ah… I feel like I understand. Let me make sure, though. Are you saying X? Is that accurate?” Here, we’re focusing on integrating all the information we have gathered thus far into a coherent and elegant whole, X, for expression. Being sarcastic, ironic, or otherwise implicitly defending our point of view at the expense of the poster will be counter-productive. Our taste for coherence and elegance will be the guide.
  5. Open up to let the effect of our expression impress us. Once again we open ourselves up to be impressed. How does the poster think and feel about our expression? How do we think and feel about our expression? Let both their and our responses to our expressions impress us. Has the paradox been resolved? If so, explicitly and concretely express our gratitude for a great conversation. (When this goes very well, the poster will often thank us for articulating their thoughts with great clarity.) If the paradox has not been resolved, return to step #2. This time you may want to express your struggles. “I feel like I almost got it. Although, I still feel a bit confused with X. Could you help me with that part?” To be clear, the goal here is not to agree or even to disagree with the poster, but simply to realize empathy.
While I’ve tried to provide instructions, keep in mind that this is no recipe. There is no “best practice” in empathic conversations. Most importantly, whether a conversation is empathic or not depends on the qualities that arise in the space between the participants, not what the conversation is about, who or what it is with, or how it is conducted. Also keep in mind that others may not be interested in engaging or sustaining an empathic conversation. It’s also possible that you simply lack the requisite awareness, motivation, or skills/experience to be able to empathize. Both of these happen. The goal is not to “succeed,” but rather to deliberately practice. Please report back in the comments section below. I‘d love to see a conversation transcript. In the next article, we will conclude this series with a look at how identifying the pattern of realizing empathy in both the creative and the design process can challenge us as designers to rethink our views on design, and open up another dialogue around the future of the design discipline at large.

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