I have said it before and I will say it over in many, many ways: empathy comes with an unspoken rulebook. Below are some of the myths I’ve noticed most frequently in my interactions. In case there’s any question, these are the patterns I’ve found. My experience is one in many, and no one should take these as gospel, or that there aren’t more to suss out.
Myth #1: Empathizing means our previous point of view is invalidated. Automatically. Fully. Without question.
Reality: Empathy is a data point
Not everyone is built with the same problem solving capabilities, and everyone has cognitive biases. Data points lead to information, and it’s in understanding information that we create solutions. Empathizing with someone does not mean you need to agree with them, let alone take on all their cognitive biases, limit/expand to their particular set of data points, and how they processed their emotions, logic, and accepted data into information. Empathizing does give you access to all that information, though, with the caveat that they are only really known if you question them and have a conversation. Empathy is the first step to understanding that there are deeper, unspoken, or assumed factors in play, and questions about them are relevant.
As a UX designer, there is little that has as much qualitative and quantitative data richness as empathy. But it’s one data set amongst many, and needs validation through questions and listening to be realized.
Myth #2: My opinions are facts, your opinions are opinions and false, and the way to see my opinions as facts is to empathize with me
Reality: Facts are data points
We have let the idea of facts become very squishy, instigated mostly by people who are leveraging empathy and cognitive biases on a cultural level to promote their power base. This is unfortunate (and by unfortunate I mean prone to causing the downfall of civilization as we know it, but I digress).
Another way to wrap your head around it is to digest this statement:
the wind is fierce
Is it fact? Is it opinion? Part of unpacking the statement is understanding language; generally speaking, when something is a noun it’s more likely to be a data point than an adjective is. Adjectives are descriptive and more prone to be influenced by perception. If the wind is blowing at 80mph (e.g., hurricane force), it is fierce — but the data point is still the 80mph. The story of “fierce wind” is more readily understood and accepted; it’s narrative and descriptive and loaded with information that will domino into perception and understanding with more information than “80mph”. But a fierce wind for someone who hadn’t experienced a hurricane could be 30mph — so fierce is an opinion. Context is everything in an opinion.
Myth #3: Opinions can lead to solutions if you just concede to my reality
Reality: Opinions are prone to cognitive biases that are not readily exposed, muddy the process, and can be rooted in unhelpful/unuseful emotions, constraints, and blind spots
Enough monkeys pounding on typewriters will eventually create the works of Shakespeare; that doesn’t mean we have the time to wait for them to do it. And, really, we’re all monkeys, including Shakespeare, and he already did it all alone and without a typewriter — give him some credit.
Opinions are squishy ideas that need research with replicable methodology before they can become facts. Facts are data points. Data points coalesce into information. Information consolidates to hypothesis. Hypothesis is tested, fought, collaborated about, course corrected, etc. until it becomes theory. Theory is the real pivot point to amazing strides in useful, replicable application. Enough iterative applications builds into knowledge.
When we mistake opinions for facts, we misplace our ability to progress.
In our day-to-day existence, decisions can be made based on anything from opinions on up the ladder to knowledge. The closer we get to knowledge, the more more likely our build will be an actual solution.
So, yeah, an opinion could be the catalyst to data that eventually climbs up to a solution. But first it has to be acknowledged as an opinion so we can explore it with more freedom and creativity.
Myth #4: The empathic person has no strength of will
Reality: Empathy is a skill, and one based in the brain, not the will.
When I empathize, I am balancing multiple sources of information. It’s part behavioral and cognitive understanding; it oddly uses some spatial cognition (I think this is an outlier use case). I’m using memories of previous experience, developing patterns, and coalescing them all into a deeper, pinpointed understanding. And yes, I’m leveraging my emotions, or more specifically the recognition of emotions and some creative problem solving to hypothesize and chase down what might be causing those emotions.
Now, I’m a willful person. I immediately scoffed at that hypothesis that each person only has so much will to expend through the day; and the only being I’ve found to date who can be consistently more willful than me is my current cat (the first three were not). There is nothing about will in empathy…which probably contributes to why I’ve often run into the frustration about how I can claim to be empathic and not submit to their understanding of the world.
In UX research we’re very deliberately not going to agree; we’re there to plumb their experience, and gently remind them if an interview starts to try to gain a deeper degree of agreement and acceptance from us.
In our personal life, we’ll run into people who won’t accept a lack of profound agreement, and they’ll keep at us until we conceed, even if it doesn’t balance without discounting other data and information we already validated. I have stumbled and had to deal with later invectives of hypocrisy, but it has nothing to do with will.
When I have stumbled it’s because everything I’m chasing down has become very complex, and suddenly the person I’m talking to is getting so passionate (angry, teary, ecstatic, etc.) that it induces stress. These days, that’s a red flag to me to take a step back, think things through very well, do some fact checking, and chase the facts without the passion but acknowledging the emotion. Often it turns out that the passion is being leveraged to mask a cognitive bias that the passionate person is beginning to question or they don’t want you to question further. The intent — often unconscious, but sometimes manipulative — is to confuse and overwhelm others so the opinion can stand as-is and/or be spread.
Myth #5: Empathy is a magic bullet
Reality: Thinking and work are the only magic outside of seed generation
Seriously, seeds are magical. Think about it. A condensed pack of biological coding that, with the application of water, light, time, and some free-roaming minerals and nutrients, becomes something sprawling, tall, caloric, nutritive, healing, poisonous, etc. What the holy fuck. That’s magic.
Everything we build is blood, sweat, and tears. Hopefully minimal blood and tears, and maximum sweat. Sweat can show up as a soggy, overused brain. ;)
Anything that looks easy is usually expertise and knowledge being applied elegantly, even if it’s opening a thrice-damned bag of chips.