• Steve Junion, Ph.D.

Developing Empathy

Empathy is imperative for designing and developing solutions for consumers. As part of immersion experience with organizations, I frequently ask, ‘can empathy be taught’? The overwhelming response from participants is no because empathy can only occur through walking in someone else's shoes. If this is true, then how can we put ourselves in situations to encounter others and build empathy?

Check assumptions

Working with a variety of organizations in the Health Care system, I know from personal experience that we primarily represent people as numbers (conditions, utilization, medical expense ratios, etc.), making assumptions about what is behind the data which is a recipe for lack-of-empathy. While quantitative data is critical, its purpose is to identify issues and opportunities. If we speak with those impacted, we can develop more profound insights and empathy leading to important discoveries and solutions through collaboration with the consumer by eliminating and testing assumptions.

Listening through inquiry

To become empathic, we must move towards inquiry. The power of inquiry lies in the act of asking thoughtful questions and listening. During consumer conversations, instead of thinking about what I want to say as someone is speaking, I focus on listening entirely. I then play back a summary of what I thought I heard, asking if I’ve heard them correctly. Then, using insights gathered through the consumer's response, I ask tailored follow-up questions to further my understanding of their experience. To focus on listening and inquiry in the moment, we recommend you interview in teams of three. One person interviews, one takes detailed notes, and one observes all interactions. My goals for speaking and listening falls somewhere between 10-20% speaking and 80-90% listening.

Put yourself in situations to experience empathy

In addition to opportunities I have with clients to build empathy by speaking with their consumers, I volunteer. Three days a week I spend an hour listening to three people, all above the age of 65 through a program that aims to eliminate social isolation. Last year, I spent nearly 15 days volunteering and listening to these amazing individuals who have become friends. My job to listen without judgment or bias even when we disagree on topics such as religion, politics, or sports! If I fundamentally believe something different, I ask thoughtful questions to understand their perspective without interjecting myself and my opinion into the conversation.

If building empathy requires experience, how will you get that experience? There are so many non-profits where you can volunteer and do work with to help solve real issues in the community. These opportunities will help you engage with members of the community and build empathy through inquiry and listening. I was lucky to find a volunteer opportunity almost two years ago related to a field (Health Care) I am passionate about. I know that at a minimum, I will get the opportunity to listen deeply and practice inquiry.

To volunteer to help reduce social isolation, check out my friends at Elderserve and similar organizations in your community.

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