The Courage of Empathy – Why We Have Got It All Wrong

Empathy, what is it? Wait for it… “A walk in someone’s shoes”. Recently the concept of empathy is surfacing everywhere. Heavily fueled by the design industry (Reference Stanford D-School model of design thinking), sectors from healthcare to marketing are picking up and running it.

Or are they… Ask these professionals what empathy is, and you will invariably get the same answer: “feeling what the other person feels”, “ a walk in their shoes”, or worse, they may confuse empathy with sympathy. Honestly, our definition of empathy is weak. It is weak because there is no action associated with the definition, no accountability baked into the meaning.

Before we beat the definition of empathy into submission, it might be helpful to have a frame  of reference. Let’s ask Noah Webster what he thinks about empathy:

Empathy – Noun, ˈem-pə-thē

1. The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.

2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Are you more lost now than before you read the definition? Me too. Among the convoluted language, it seems like Mr. Webster actually did get a few things right. Let’s pull out the golden nuggets we can use. There are two:

The action of”, now we are getting somewhere. At least in this definition, empathy is action oriented. Still, if we simply see empathy as an action, it doesn’t have the power to change an organization or inform human-relevant design. Put simply, empathy needs to be convicting.

…vicariously experience”, the combination of these two words is key. If empathy is an EXPERIENCE, then it cannot leave us unchanged. Experience, as a word leads us to think about about how our own internal state is affected by external stimulus. To “vicariously experience”  is to have another person’s internal state within you.

Sound a little uncomfortable? Creepy? Even metaphysical? It should. Here, in this uncomfortable space is where we can close out our frame of reference and expand to components of empathy that allow us to build a bridge into the consumer’s heart, designing products that are pure and meaningful.

The Courage Of Empathy

Nowhere in the industry do we hear people talking about empathy as a courageous act. That is a fallacy. Empathy is hard, there is a reason we don’t empathize all the time. Can you imagine? Walking down the street, buckling at your knees at every human you see. Being empathic requires a huge amount of cognitive bandwidth and energy that we just don’t have. And truly empathizing takes much more than cognitive bandwidth, it takes courage.

This type of courage is most apparent when we are designing new products or services. Our own single-minded approach to creating can only take us so far. We can either choose to put it in low gear and plow through, or stand toe-to-toe with fear, and open up to the humans we are creating for.

Slim, founder and project director of Realizing Empathy puts it best in his video Transformation as Side Effects of Empathizing.

“You acknowledge the feeling that there is something missing, and that your perspective along is insufficient… At some point you come to a halt, realizing that your perspective alone is not enough. There is just something missing. And this is very difficult, sometimes even painful. It takes humility and courage to put aside your own biases and assumptions. Not everybody is willing to let go of control and certainty for the sake of learning something new. But it is only when you are willing to do this. Only when you are willing to listen to a different perspective, and manage to empathize, will you be surprised by a new way of thinking.”

So How Do We Do it

We are all born with a natural capacity for empathy. It is not me making this claim, it is rooted in science. Don’t believe me? Check out this video on mirror neurons.

You can’t snap a finger and be a conferred empath. This is something that takes practice. I personally struggle with connecting emphatically. That being said, there are  tools we can use to prompt us into a more empathic state. Through time and use, these become stronger and more instinctual.

Here are four tools, they look easy enough on paper, but are deceptively difficult to put into practice.

Four Steps To Building Empathic Instinct

1. Empathy starts with you. Recognize that you are human, and they are human. You are going to have your own personal biases. We all have internal states we have to check. Acknowledge this up front with humility. As Ice Cube would say:

“Check yoself before you wreck yoself.”

2. Take your biases, get them out on paper, and move them away from you. You have effectively parsed these thoughts out from yourself. Having snap judgements is ok, it is how we have survived as a species, just don’t let this stop you from connecting. Parsing these out frees you to start vicariously experiencing those you are designing for in high definition.

3. Identify their emotion. This isn’t hard, you are human. Here is a tool codifying the range of human emotion. It was developed by social cognitive psychologist Robert Plutchik to codify the range of human emotion. They are somewhere on this map. You are somewhere on this map. This requires a 5 second gesture on your part to remove yourself from yourself and analyze where they are. Don’t worry, this is horseshoes and hand grenades, you don’t have to be spot on, just get close.

4. Recall a time when you have felt similarly. Are the people you are designing for anxious? Bored? What story can you play back in your head when you had these similar emotions. Choose that story, let go of where you are, and go to where they are emotionally. Move from your space on this map to their space. The words they say come through sharper as you synchronize with their emotional frequency.

Above all, have the courage and conviction to decide to go where they are. Recognize that it is going to take an investment on your part. The reward is a product charged with empathic voice.

A New Way of Looking At Empathy

With a new definition of empathy, we can start not just talking about empathy, but practicing it. The Seek Company (a landmark innovation & research boutique) has the best definition of empathy I have seen. Three words.

Head – Heart – Gut

Head: Understand what they are thinking/dealing with.

Heart: Allow that understanding to affect your heart.

Gut: Because you understand what they are thinking, and take it so personally that if affects your heart, you are compelled to ACT upon their behalf.

Underlying the first two words is an element of action associated, notice each description starts with a verb. The combination of head & heart understanding compels you to ACT, not selfishly, but courageously on behalf of those you are designing for.

It makes a difference

Slap the word NEW or SALE on any product and you can move a few sku’s off the shelf, design a product with empathy infused into each stage of the business process, and you have a product that impacts lives.

And it starts by going toe-to-toe with ourselves and facing our own fears. It starts with the courage of empathy.

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Prototyping: Engage in a (Buckminster Fuller) Dialogue With RealityLyden Foust is a Research & Innovation Associate at The SEEK Company. A student practitioner of design strategy, Lyden is fueled by relentless sense of curiosity, and a desire to improve lives through innovation. His scrappy attitude has driven him to found and expand a successful business before graduating college & to curate the first TEDxXavierUniversity.

Lyden Foust




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  1. Kate Hammer on July 7, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    I agree very much with this piece, Lyden. Empathy isn’t easy, comfortable or quick. Your thoughts resonate a great deal with the project Realizing Empathy, formed by Seung Chan Lim at the end of his MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. The project, which grew out of Slim’s MFA thesis, was funded via KickStarter and Slim’s book Realizing Empathy has just been published. (My copy arrived week before last.)

    For folks unfamiliar with Slim’s work, the community FaceBook page is

    There are some great videos also on the YouTube channel:

    I encourage your readers to explore Slim’s work.

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