The Importance of Being Empathetic
Updated: Jun 15, 2019
This week I came across the story of a police officer, who in the depths of a New York winter saw a man without any shoes on his feet. The officer went into a nearby shoe store and bought the man some lovely new boots. The officer’s act of kindness was caught on camera by a passing tourist and the photo went viral. A few days later the man was seen once again walking the streets in bare feet. When asked what had happened to the boots he replied that they were still at his home. He had chosen not to wear them because he was scared that someone would kill him in order to steal them.
So had the random act of kindness by the police officer actually helped him? I am certain that the motivation of the police officer and the tourist were honourable, but the whole thing backfired because this incredible act of kindness didn’t meet the shoeless man’s needs. Perhaps a warm nourishing meal would have been of more use or some second hand boots that would have blended in more with the shoeless man’s environment. Who knows but missing the mark is one of the dangers of rushing in to solve a person’s problem without first finding out what it is they actually need.
As I was thinking about this story I wondered how many times I had ‘helped’ someone by giving them what I thought they wanted rather than what they actually needed. I once read that the person who gives a gift gets a greater dopamine hit than the person who is on the receiving end. It seems that part of the human condition is an unwavering belief that we know what is best for others.
Design thinking helps to reverse our natural inclination towards ‘we know best’. It starts with asking us to become empathetic towards the people we are seeking to impact. There are three main ways to do this.
1. Observation - taking the time to really observe others, to watch what they do, to observe the choices they make and the things to which they pay attention. When was the last time that you took a walk with the simple purpose of seeing what you usually miss?
2. Immersion - Some retail businesses get their senior staff to work on a check out as part of their induction. In an education context immersion might be shadowing a student or a teacher for the day (best to tell them what you are up to first so you don’t get arrested!). When I was a school principal I often wondered if shadowing a teacher (or me for that matter) might have changed the expectations of a small minority of parents who continuously sought to undervalue the work we were doing.
3. Conversations - sitting down with someone and listening intently to their story. Asking them to tell you about their life, their hopes, their dreams, the things they love to do and the things they find challenging. At first it is a strange thing to sit and listen to build empathy, rather than to listen so you can get a turn to tell your story!
All of these strategies are designed to help build empathy and as your empathy increases so will you effectiveness in impacting the lives of others. In fact I would go so far as to say how effective you are as a leader will be directly proportional to the level of empathy you have for the people you’re entrusted to lead.
Empathy is a big deal.
My company Weaving Futures delivers workshops that will help you hone your skills in building empathy, as you journey to becoming a design thinker. We also offer online coaching and mentoring for leaders. If either of these opportunities are of interest to you then fill in this form I'm Interested and let’s have a conversation.
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