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Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work [VIDEO]

| October 23, 2015
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We recently hosted a webinar with Indi Young, author, UX consultant, and founding partner at Adaptive Path. Check out the video to hear what Indi had to say about empathy, or read the full transcript of the session below!


Transcript

Martha: Okay, welcome everyone to the webinar this morning, my name is Martha Andrews, and I’m a marketer here at User Testing. Today we are very happy to have with us Indi Young. For the past 20 years, Indi’s entire career has been focused on introducing awareness of human patterns of thinking. She saw a need to balance the product-oriented mindset of business with the reality of different people’s inner landscapes. She uses this knowledge to consult, she also leads research teams, and she also writes and speaks about the topic as she will today. She was a founder at Adaptive Path and is currently on the roster of Rosenfeld Media experts. Rosenfeld Media is also her publisher, who has recently published her second book entitled Practical Empathy, and that was just released in January, so congratulations Indi.

Before we get started I have a couple of housekeeping items to cover. If you have questions during the webinar, just type them in using the GoToWebinar Question Box, and we’ll try to get to them during the Q&A at the end of the session. Don’t wait to submit your questions, type them in as soon as you think of them. This makes it much more likely that we’ll be able to save time to answer them all. Also, we’re recording the presentation and it will be available in the next couple of weeks. If you’re registered, you will get a notification in your email box when that’s up and ready to view again.

If you find you are getting great insights during the webinar today, please tweet them out. The hashtag is #utwebinar, and lucky us, Rosenfeld Media and Indi have generously offered to give away 5 copies of Indi’s brand new book, Practical Empathy, to those of you who are active on Twitter today. Get online and tweet it out, again #utwebinar and tag Indi, she’s @IndiYoung, all one word. With that, Indi the screen is yours and welcome.

Indi: Great! Thank you, Martha. That was a great intro. Hi everybody, presumably you’ve already found the little door in your brain that lets new things in, and you’ve opened it, because we’re going to talk about empathy. Yeah, empathy. That word means a lot of things to a lot of people, and quite frequently it gets associated with little hearts, hearts everywhere. I even see them when other people try to talk about empathy in relationship to the book that I just finished writing.

This is the advertisement for a Design Writers summit that I spoke at last week. Christina Windkey drew it, little hearts, little heart shaped wand, love it. Also, there’s even hearts in one of the illustrations that Brad Colbow did for the book. He did some fabulous illustrations in it. What’s up with it, hearts? Hearts usually mean emotion, and when you think about emotion, in general you start thinking about sensitivity and warmth. I mean, the other end of the spectrum could be anger and frustration. Even when you first say that word, and it’s associated with heart shapes, you’re thinking sensitivity and warmth.

When you think about that in relationship to your work, it doesn’t really get embraced. In fact it gets rejected by decision makers. One of the words that has been used a lot is the word delight, to represent emotion. In fact, last week at the Interaction Design Conference, Christian Semsarian from California College of Arts had this slide where he was talking about meaningfulness in the work that we do. Also, usability in the work that we do, and you see this little green bubble up there called delight. That’s how we are expressing emotion, or hearts, in work that we do currently.

The interesting thing about delight, is that it is solely delight on the part of the user of whatever thing we’re talking about. That’s not necessarily what we are going to be exploring today.

Empathy, hearts? Yeah, there is a version of empathy that is related to hearts, and that’s called emotional empathy. Emotional empathy, a lot of people when you first hear that word think, “Oh, well it means I’m going to sort of offer sympathy, or be able to understand that person and maybe even excuse their behavior or their reactions, or forgive them,” or something like that. We start marching down this little path in terms of empathy sometimes.

Again, decision makers within organizations are not so embracing of that. Indeed, that’s actually not the definition of emotional empathy.

If you guys are familiar with Dr. Brene Brown, she’s been doing a bunch of talks on TED, she is a psychology researcher, specifically researching vulnerability, and has written a couple of books. This is an animation that was done by Katie Davis, of a talk that Dr. Brene Brown did where she explains how empathy is not sympathy. If you want to go look at it, it’s a really good animation, takes maybe 7 minutes or something to get through it. Take a look at that afterwards; just Google “Brene Brown animation.”

Essentially, what the definition of emotional empathy is, is when another person’s emotion infects you. It’s where you are able to feel an emotion that another person has, because maybe you’ve had a similar experience in the past. You know, “Oh, my friend is so happy because she got that job that she really, really wanted, and I understand her happiness because maybe sometime in the past I’ve gotten something that I really, really wanted.” That’s what emotional empathy is about, and it strikes like lightning.

In fact, here’s the little illustration from Brad, it’s how movies and books work. The characters in a movie, or the characters in a book, are doing their utmost to express emotions and express what they are thinking, so that you then get struck with that same fear during a psycho movie or something, or that same feeling of romance during a chick flick or what have you. The interesting thing is that it really does strike like lightning, and that can be incredibly powerful, especially in our work.

You might have had an experience like this, where you’ve noticed someone doing something and you’re like, “Hey wow, I understand what you’re feeling and I can fix that.” The only trouble with lightning is that it’s not harnessable, you can’t force it to happen, you can’t make it repeat over and over again, and in the world of our work, we kind of need that reliability.

Enter cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is another form of empathy. In fact, there’s a lot of different kinds of empathy if you go through the psychology research papers.

The interesting thing is that cognitive empathy also includes emotions, but it’s all about understanding what’s going on in somebody’s thinking process, what’s going on in their brain, how did they think that through, how did they react, what is their heart feeling? It’s really all about understanding what went through another person’s mind.

Now, when you say “empathy” and you’re just talking to somebody at the dinner table or whatever, a really, really common definition of it is to say, “Hey, I want to be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, I want to be able to understand how that person is thinking, and how they’re making decisions, and how they’re reacting so that I could try on their life or their persona for a little bit, and behave like them. If I can do that, then I can possibly design something or make decisions about the direction that we’re heading with our organization or with the processes that we’re following, or the policies that we’re making, and make it better for this person.”

(As you can tell, that’s a big ole slide, and one little part of it is filled in, so obviously I’m going to start filling in the slide.)

The interesting thing about walking in someone’s shoes, is that is when you are applying empathy, you are actually doing the act of trying to fix something so that it works better for someone. Often what’s missing is the whole develop empathy half of the scenario. To develop empathy, you need to be able to listen to people. There’s unfortunately no way to understand what’s going on inside their brain, unless you listen to what they say as they explain it, or read what they write as they explain what’s gone through their mind. We don’t have telepathy quite yet, right?

Anyway, the missing half of this is what I want to focus on for this talk. The applying empathy is something I think we all have a little bit of experience with, but the developing of empathy is where we need a little bit more skill, and we need a little bit more practice.

Possibly, people listening to this don’t personally need this skill, but they need someone else saying that it’s important so that they can then show it to everybody at their organization and say, “Hey, it’s a skill, it’s something we need to develop, it’s something we need to practice, it’s another half of this that we need to include in our process.”

Speaking as a process, this is one of many representations of how a lot of people within organizations get projects done. Whether they’re projects for external customers or vendors, whether they’re projects for internal employees, they’re projects. It doesn’t matter who they’re for necessarily, so much as it goes in its little cycle, roughly defined as think-make-check, or learn-build-measure, or a thousand other words that represent the same kind of cycle. The idea is that the part where you’re doing the measuring or the checking, is feeding back into it so that you can continuously improve what you’re doing.

The brainstorming happens in that very first part of the cycle, and the user research is done in the check or the measure section. It all cycles around the project, the idea, the solution, that you’re trying to put into place for those internal employees, or that policy that you’re making for HR, for that app that you’re designing for external customers, or for the vendors in the procurement process.

What’s missing? Again, we’ve got a blank half of the slide. Clearly, I’m going to fill it in.

What’s missing is being able to focus on the people without thinking about the project you’re working on, without thinking about the fact that you’re an employee of this organization. Just really focusing on, well what are these other people thinking? How are they working their way through this? What are the various patterns that they’re following, how do those patterns differ, and how can we support those patterns better and maybe in different ways?

Developing empathy is those first two parts of this cycle, and they include listening and then deepening your understanding of someone, which I won’t discuss today, but does show up in the book. I will discuss the listening part today, which is a skill that you can actually start practicing this afternoon.

Anyway, the other part of this is the apply part, where you apply that empathy. That’s the walking in somebody’s shoes, that’s how it ties into the brainstorming, into that cycle around your project, around that idea. This is how they connect together.

Now, you might have a lot of different projects going on, so a lot of different cycles going around with different ideas, and those cycles might be spinning really fast, or they might be spinning really slowly. Not all of them are spinning at the same time, but what I’m encouraging people to do is to add just at least one cycle out there separately in parallel. It can spin really slowly if you don’t have a lot of time, but you do spend time listening to people without your employee hat and glasses on, you know, viewing the world through the problems you’re trying to solve. Instead, just looking at people as humans, and understanding what they’re up against and what’s going through their mind.

Let me talk a little bit about the types of business research exploration that you might find within an organization. There’s market research, there’s competitive research, there’s user research. These are all tools in our toolbox, or maybe those are actually three different toolboxes and there’s tools within them. If we flip within the user research toolbox, we have all sorts of methods. I’ve listed a whole bunch of them here, not necessarily in any sort of detailed level, but the idea is that I’ve split them here into two sections where the upper section is generative, or these are tools that help you eventually generate new ideas and new approaches, or tweaks to some existing stuff.

Evaluative, this is more that measure or check section, where you’re judging whether the thing, the idea, the sketch on the back of the napkin, the prototype, the actual launch product, whatever you’re doing… you’re checking and judging how well it’s supporting that person. That’s the difference between generative and evaluative, again these are tools in the toolbox, you use them both, they’re symbiotic. You don’t decide one of those tools is your favorite tool and try to use it for everything. I’ve got a hammer, so everything looks like a nail.

This happens, different parts of these tools get really popular. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go do a ride along,” even though a ride along with somebody isn’t exactly the right tool to discover what you are trying, or what you intend to find out. The answer to the question isn’t really the right tool to use that.

Anyway, this is just a picture of you guys working together as a collaborative team, sort of letting this data line the inside of your skull so that it will help you generate new ideas. Now of course, this picture’s a little bit of a misleading picture because clearly your good ideas occur to you in the shower, or when you’re out walking the dogs, or you know, right? In the gym when you’re listening to your favorite song. Ideas don’t necessarily always happen when you’re face to face with people, but you capture them, jot them down in a notebook, bring them up, discuss them, tear them apart, put them together in different ways, morph them. Then take them out and evaluate them. So symbiotic.

What I want to add to this list is a toolbox of person-focused research, instead of solution-focused research. Let’s look at this layout again of the toolboxes. We’ve got solution-focused work and usually—solution-focused—that’s generally how these are used, but those tools could be used for personal focus. Very few, specifically the person-focused tools in that toolbox. Listening sessions is one of those, and that’s what I want to talk about in just a little bit when I get into that. Just to sort of clarify, we’re going to run through a couple of examples.

When you hear somebody say, “Hey, let’s do an A/B test to see which approach is better,” that’s a value tip; we’re talking about evaluating or judging a specific solution. When you hear someone say, “I want to get continuous feedback about the homepage,” it could be generative, it could be evaluative, but it’s solution-focused. It’s a solution: the homepage is the solution or the idea. “We’re doing user interviews.” Again, that could be generative, quite usually it’s used evaluatively. Steve Portigal has written a really wonderful book about user interviews, and he and I are talking about doing a joint presentation at some point where we show where a lot of the techniques, we do have a complete common base, and then a lot of things are completely different. Because we’re after different endpoints.

In any case, a user is someone who’s using a solution, so this is solution-focused, not person-focused. Then you say, “Hey, let me take you through our experience strategy map,” and experience is something a user has in relationship to the things you offer, and so usually that’s solution-based. The whole of the experience map doesn’t have to be solution-based. If you hear someone say, “Hey, let’s find out how people decide what to get for lunch,” which is actually the scope of exploration I did with McDonald’s once. That’s person-based, right? It has nothing to do with what McDonald’s offers, but it has to do with what someone is thinking about when they’re trying to go for something to get for lunch. It doesn’t have to be McDonald’s, certainly. Generally, what goes through their mind is, “Oh yeah, I had that piece of cake last night. I better have a salad for lunch.”

Anyway, what is the use of empathy at work? The use of empathy that I encourage, is to support the intents and purposes of others. Whether those others are external to your organization or internal to your organization, whether they are collaborators on your team. I’m purposefully vague about who I’m mentioning here, but there’s a lot of uses of empathy. When I did the research for my book, I heard a lot about that second line, encouraging growth and maturity in the educational system. Being able to teach younger people that other perspectives actually exist, and are valid, and don’t need to be stomped upon.

Unfortunately, I also saw a lot of literature about that first one, using empathy to persuade. Like in politics, “Hey, we’re going to go door to door and be empathetic with the people that we hear about so that we can persuade them to vote for our candidate.” This is also used in a lot of online apps for behavior change, this is stuff that’s called dark patterns. This is a theme that came up at the interactions conference last week too, so I’ve got this little image here. The idea of using an understanding of how somebody else is thinking so that you can manipulate them into changing their behavior, perhaps in a good way, I mean being able to lose weight, being able to cease smoking, but it’s still manipulation of behavior. In general, it’s used in a dark pattern sort of way.

Let’s focus a little bit on supporting the intents and purposes of others. I want to talk about two things: collaborate and create. The first one, collaborate, generally you will need to collaborate with other people whether you are a team of one, or whether you are on a large team. There are other people that you are doing work with and for, in lots of different ways. I love this definition of a team that I got from a novel author, Faith Hunter. It says, “Team: people who can almost read each other’s minds in hazardous situations.”

Of course you’re thinking like the military right? Hazardous situation. Hey, you guys are in stressful situations every week, every month, every year, every quarter in work. You have a team, and you guys are all up against this deadline together. Or up against this feedback, or a chance of losing profit that you don’t want to lose. You’re in hazardous situations as well, and it really does behoove you to understand how other people think, so that when you are under that stress you can understand how that other person is thinking, and support them and work together.

The way to do this in terms of collaboration, is being able to listen to each individual, one on one, by themselves, and get an understanding of how that person thinks. This is the stuff that happens over lunch, or if you happen to go out for beers with somebody afterwards. I know some people who work out together, with their coworkers. This could relate to people who are on your own team, it could relate to people who are outside of your team that you’re trying to sort of work with, or help them get better at what they’re doing, or even that you’re receiving instruction from.

It could be people who are telling you, making requests, “You must do this, please get it done by next Friday.” If you can understand them better, if you can understand their reasoning, if you can understand the reactions they have and their guiding principles, then you can work with them better. You can support them better, you know what’s happening in their minds when you’re under stress.

What’s really interesting is that when someone realizes you are really listening to them and not having something else going on in your mind, and not having some sort of ulterior motive, so that you can have an argument with them later or something, they really start to open up. They really start to tell you what their thoughts are, and how they go about solving problems.

The other interesting thing is that it really does turn into collaboration. If some boss guy, thanks Scott Adams, asks you, “Go make this thing,” ask what went into it. How did they arrive at that area where they’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to ask this person to make this thing for me, or to explore this thing for me.” I need to know this thinking, I need to know the background that went into it and all the decisions internal to that one person, and external with that person’s collaborative team, so that I can support that person better.

Along the way, adjust my thinking to the direction, the true direction that person wants. That true intent or purpose they want to achieve, as opposed to the thing that they requested. This way, if they ask you, “Oh hey, go make this newsletter,” you’re able to then come up with something that might be actually better than a newsletter for their purpose. Or maybe the newsletter is the right thing for their purpose, but you can put a spin on it that is better in support of that purpose that they have.

Collaborate is all about generating respect for another person’s perspective, that person within your organization. It also is a basis, or foundation, for your creativity. For the things that you make, the things that you are generating. If you have respect for that person’s perspective that you’re trying to support, and for that person’s greater purpose, then you can create things that are much more attuned to the end goal.

Let’s take a look at some things that exist out there. In this example, this gal is renovating her kitchen, and this is her friend, her best friend. She’s telling him all about some decisions she’s getting to, where she gets to pick out some faucets, the kitchen faucets. She likes this particular one, but she’s not sure if she wants it in brushed nickel, or this new fad (or is it a fad?) of unlacquered brass, which you allow to have a patina over time. She wants his opinion on that, he’s got out his mobile phone and he’s trying to look at, “What does she mean? I’m not sure I know what unlacquered brass is.” He’s looking at those kitchen fixtures and giving her his opinion on them.

For the next week, or month, or so he is then single-mindedly stalked by faucet ads. This has happened to you. I actually tune my ads, I’ll go look for florist bouquets when I’m feeling sort of depressed so that then whenever I go to a place, like a thesaurus to look up a word in my writing, I’ll have little bouquets showing up. In this case, this guy was being stalked by the faucet ads no matter where he went, there they were. Not everybody’s trying to buy a faucet; he’s certainly not trying to buy a faucet. If you understood his perspective and supported the person, you could do better things with advertising.

Now, of course, advertising is an easy mark to pick on. Advertising is just stupid right now, and we could definitely make it smarter, but there are other things that we could make smarter. I want to talk a little bit about this reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles. These are the three things that I want to focus on when I’m listening to someone. In real life, especially in western culture, opinions and preferences and explanations get center stage. We rarely go beneath them and ask, “How did you form that opinion however many years ago that you formed it? What influenced you? What guiding principles are setting you up for that opinion?”

When I start getting to know these lower level, deeper thought processes, that’s when I’m starting to establish empathy with somebody. I cannot establish empathy with someone just based on their opinions and preferences. Oftentimes though, when you’re in conversation with somebody, that’s as deep as it gets. Or that person will start giving you explanations about how something is made. Like he’s excited about this job he has roasting coffee, and how actually you roast the coffee and how it works, and how other people do it and everything. Really, his intent underneath is that, “I want to help you understand coffee better, so that you can select better beans,” or something.

That deeper intent is what is going to allow you to have empathy. The interesting thing is that these deeper things are neutral. Neutrality is really important if you’re going to walk in somebody else’s shoes. You can’t step into somebody else’s shoes if you’re thinking, “Golly, there’s somebody who supports killing baby puppies and I don’t support killing baby puppies, so I can’t step into his shoes.” If you get into the reasoning behind it, and why killing baby puppies might be something that their guiding principles led them toward, then you can understand that and step into those shoes more easily. This neutrality is super important.

Let me give you an example now, and the example comes from a company called Healthwise. Healthwise writes all of the online content for WebMD, and for various healthcare and insurance companies and hospitals. At least in the U.S., they have in the past 10 years been doing a lot of empathy research, doing a lot of listening sessions in a lot of different venues, or veins rather. This vein was helping people lose weight, remember I mentioned that before as behavior change, and they really needed to understand people for that.

It turns out that there were three different patterns in the way people try to lose weight, at least in the audience that they were looking at. I want you to take a look at these lessons that they’ve set up for each different person, and notice how they’ve changed. There’s one kind of pattern of thinking when trying to gain weight, which is the sort of the resigned, “I’m never going to lose weight, I’m always going to be this weight so how can I actually make it happen, it’s just not going to happen.” There’s things on thoughts on self-image, and stress, and exercise your way, and things.

Now if you get onto another set of patterns, this behavioral audience segment is called the sidetracked. The sidetracked people, maybe something came up and you just can’t do a diet right now. Like, “My mom is in the hospital, I’ve got to go to the hospital and be with her, I’ve got to eat whatever is available whenever I can, I don’t really have a lot of choice.” Or maybe “I travel a lot for business.” So, they’ve got different lessons down here for these people to maybe get a claw in, and be able to start achieving their goals.

There was also another pattern of behavioral audience segment, and this was the inconsistent. Maybe it’s the, “Hey, I’ve got this resolution, I’m going to do it,” and by the end of January, “You know, the gym is just not fun and it smells bad, so what am I going to do?” Again, another whole set of lessons, and trying to put these things together with a completely different approach for each of the different behavioral audience segment patterns. That’s being able to customize the design to different audience segments. That’s being able to really support these different perspectives.

It’s not just buying segments, or market segments, that you want to look at. So frequently, and I know a lot of you have probably done personas within your organization, or maybe at an older organization you used to work for, to varying degrees of success. Personas, when done correctly, are based on lots of listening sessions. Sort of simmering an understanding of what those people are talking about and looking for patterns, just like what Healthwise did. The thing is that most of those are actually just in terms of the way a person makes a purchase, or a decision to say yes to what your organization offers.

Market segments, or buying segments, they are all just one type of behavioral segment. Let me give you a couple of examples. These are buying segments for potential university students at any age, so people coming back to school, people going to school for the first time. Four different ways or patterns, within which people tend to make decisions about going to college. Either they’re passionate about the topic, or maybe this last one, exploring paths, they were told by somebody, “Hey, college is the next right thing for you to do.” “So, okay here I am in college.”

Another set of examples of buying segments, mobile phones. Being able to get the one that’s going to work exactly right for me, or the one that’s going to sort of express my personality or my love of technology, or make me one with the group that I hang out with so that I can maybe cause them to drop their jaw when I show them this latest, greatest thing that I have or something.

Other examples of not buying segments, not marketing segments. These can work in symbiosis with buying segments or marketing segments. These happen to be bug-solving segments. A company that produces database software, there were the respected experts versus the sort of iconoclastic, “I’m doing it my way, and I know more about it than a lot of these other people do,” versus the team and crowd player. Different ways to support these different people as they’re trying to solve problems with their code.

Or these segments. I’m trying to run my business and I have critical IT infrastructure, and there’s someone who’s constantly scrambling to keep up. Or there’s the opposite down at the bottom there, proactively making people more efficient, “Hey, I can really improve this.” There are different mindsets, different ways that people solve these problems, different approaches that people take that you can support. You can have these segments in addition to your marketing or buying segments.

I was working with a client once, where the folks who had created the marketing segments got a little fearful that our audience segments were going to… we were trying to campaign, we were going to maybe try to get them to delete their buying segments and use ours instead. I’m like, “No, no no, they’re used for a completely different thing and you want lots of people.” It’s like a cast of characters on an episodic TV show. If you just stuck with the same four characters, the TV show would become boring, and you’d only be able to do certain scenes in which those characters would be buying things.

Anyway, another part of creating is making sure you can discover things that you don’t know about. This is the holy grail. How do I know what I don’t know?

Listening sessions are a way to find that out.

I’ve got my example here with Chris Nicaragua, I was just emailing him this morning, a fantastic designer who works at an airline. He was thinking, as we were starting to do our listening sessions, I was working with his team for about a year, he was thinking everybody’s kind of a laid-back traveler like me, he called them the unfazed traveler. If something happens like a delay or something, “Okay, I’ve given the whole day over to this trip, and the airline’s going to get me there eventually, so I’m not that concerned about it.”

He’s all like, “I should have known better, I’m a professional, I should have known that my perspective is not everybody’s perspective.” It wasn’t until we had filled in the rest of the flying segments, these are not the make a reservation and purchase that ticket, these are the actual, “I’m getting from point A to point B” segments. He’s like, “I should have known, there are other ways that people do this and approach this, and different philosophies that they follow.”

Maybe it’s somebody who’s like, “This is just a bus with wings, I’ve got stuff to do before and stuff to do afterwards, just get me there, and get me there as fast as possible.” What I’m talking about is what you are lining the inside of your skull with, so that in the shower or on the dog walk, or wherever you get your ideas, you’ve got better understanding and better perspective, and more perspectives to generate from.

Another thing I wanted to talk about in terms of creating and making things, is that you also want to pay attention to the small and trivial. This is not necessarily just about these big, world-changing ideas that are going to disrupt a market, quite frequently it’s something really small.

Take a look at Netflix and their rating stars. You can either click that you liked it, or you can click that you didn’t like it, and then some set of worse-and-worse or more-and-more on the other side of didn’t, or did, like it. When you actually turn and talk to somebody about a movie, that’s a very, very, very tiny part of your conversation. Mostly you’re talking about how the acting went, or this director, and maybe other films this director’s done, or the storyline, and these types of stories that you like or you don’t like in terms of related and comparable ones. Maybe cinematography is your thing, but you talk about a lot of different things besides just liking it, or not liking it.

Not everybody speaks the same way about movies, there are those who are so passionate about some movies that they spend a lot of time trying to persuade their listeners to go see the movie with them. “I’ve seen it once, I want you to come see it now so I can watch your reaction to it and see how it works for you.” There are the others who are like, “A movie is just my way of getting away from the pager and the email, and me being on call all the time. It’s the only time I can turn all that stuff off. I don’t care what I’m watching necessarily.” One size does not fit all, and indeed if you do have a one-sided solution, it can cause negative reactions.

For example, this was mine. I went through about an hour rating films on Netflix so that they could make suggestions for me, and I got this little message, and my heart skipped a beat. It’s like, “Oh my God, I’m such a loser, you guys don’t even want to talk to me right now.” So sad.

Anyway, this is a little bit about what you’re using empathy for, why you’re developing it.

Let me talk about listening. Listening is that skill that I wanted to talk to you about developing. When you talk about going out and listening to somebody else on purpose, you get this sort of fear like, “I might screw this up, I might have this precious time with this person and not collect the information that I actually needed to collect.”

What I want to do is completely put a pin in this and make it disappear, so that you’re looking forward to talking to that other person, and you’re not worried about what you’re going to collect, so much as looking forward to what you’re going to hear. When you’re listening to somebody, you are listening for reasoning, you’re listening for reactions, you’re listening for guiding principles. All about that intent or that purpose, not how this person, who happens to be my dad, is using that metal lathe. Or not that he’s building a plane based on plans, and all the plans actually working for him, and how does he give feedback to the person when he runs into a problem with the plans.

What’s passing through his mind as he’s moving toward his intent? What is his intent? Turns out, he was 11 years old when World War Two was going on, and Pearl Harbor happened. His formative years were all about the development and improvement of airplanes, especially as they went through that big push up during the war. When he graduated from high school, he and his pals all wore flyers hats, pilots hats. He became a pilot, and this plane that he was building is actually a World War Two replica plane. Replica of a very slow moving plane that could be used as a spy plane, and also ferried Winston Churchill around. It was very important to him to explain to everybody who saw the plane, the history and the facts about what happened and where the technology was headed during the time it was built.

As you listen, as you’re developing empathy, you really want to turn off any thinking in your head. This is not an interview. In fact I don’t use that word anymore, use interview as overloaded. I call them listening sessions, it’s just about hearing what that person has to say, and not about solving any problems that you have within that session.

It’s very much like going on a tour. You’ve all been probably on a tour in a foreign city, you follow the tour guide around, the tour guide tells you about historic things that happened or people that built certain architecture, or whatever. If you’re standing in the street with this group, and you see that church spire down the road, and you’re really into churches or history of the church, or architecture or something like that, you don’t interrupt and ask the tour guide to explain what that church is about, because that church is not on the tour guide’s agenda, it’s not part of the roster. It’s not important to the thing or the purpose that tour guide is trying to convey to you, with the spots that he is visiting along the tour. Follow the tour guide. You don’t come into a listening session with a list of questions, you don’t prepare yourself because you can’t know what’s going to be important to that person.

A listening session is all about following the last few details that person brought up as they were guiding you through their thinking process, as they achieved that purpose the last time they did it. Indeed, your purpose is just to understand the details. Find out why they said something, why did you say this, why did you think that, how did you make those decisions, why did you form that opinion? Because people are going to tell you their opinions and their preferences, and you have to dig deeper.

It’s a lot like being a toddler. You know the toddlers that ask “why” incessantly? The really beautiful thing about a toddler, is not that they ask “why?” incessantly, which can be very frustrating to the person answering, but that they don’t care that you are judging them for not knowing.

All of us in our careers have been very focused on proving to other people that we are knowledgeable, that we are a good team member, that you want to hire us, that you want to give us a good grade or whatever. We’ve always been focused on that, that’s one of our purposes. In a listening session, that is not your purpose. You don’t want to be embarrassed about not knowing, or not completely understanding what that other person is saying. Indeed, you need to start becoming aware of the assumptions that come up as somebody is saying something.

This example here, the person was saying, “I have to go really slowly down the front steps because I’ve got this back injury,” and I’m assuming, “Oh, those front steps are scary, you might fall and further injure yourself.” No, that was an assumption. It turns out each step jars her back enough that she has to sort of wait for the pain to die down before she takes the next step. Assumptions are pernicious, assumptions are in a lot of our thoughts, and we need to start noticing when we make an assumption, and be that toddler and not be embarrassed to ask about it. To recognize when we’ve made an assumption and dig in deeper.

Also, you don’t want to play the researcher, you don’t want to act as if you’re the know it all. In fact in this case, you know nothing about how the interior of this person’s mind works. You know nothing about their thinking process, you don’t even know if they have the same guiding principles that you do. Don’t act as if you know it all, act like the person who’s really just trying to follow along.

Speaking of following along, don’t take notes. This is a hard one for a lot of people, a lot of people stop and do that sort of like, “Haha, you’re kidding right?” You can take notes after the listening session when things are fresh in your head, and that works fine. If you want, you can record the conversation if it’s super formal, or you can have someone else along who’s the person taking notes.

The act of writing things down in a notebook, or on a page, on a screen, takes up so much of your brain that you can’t listen as well as you could if you weren’t taking notes. Notes are something that you want to avoid, notes are something that you can write up afterwards, and you’ll remember enough of it that’s important so it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to capture absolutely everything. If you are building some sort of artifact like a mental model diagram, or an experience or journey map, and all the details are important, you really want to look for patterns between people.

This is what Healthwise was doing, they recorded everything, they made transcripts out of all the recordings, and then combed through those transcripts for the different points that people were making. Then they were able to compare those points across different people, to understand where patterns were, and come up with, say for the weight loss there’s three different patterns of thinking.

The other thing is again, this is not an interview, it’s a listening session. There’s no time limit. Don’t watch the clock. I especially like this clock in this picture. Don’t make a move to say, “Oh okay, well thanks very much I’m going to end this now,” because the very act of you moving stuff along, or even trying to urge the person speaking onto a different topic, it telegraphs to them that you’re not that interested in what they say. That’s the opposite of what you’re trying to do, you want to set up a really strong rapport with this person, you want them to trust you so that they’ll open up, and you want them to understand that you really are interested in the depth of what they’re saying. So, your listening session is over when it’s over.

If you’re doing formal listening sessions, and at the very beginning the person said, “Oh, I’ve got a hard stop at 3:00,” well when 3:00 rolls around you’ll say, “Hey, it’s 3:00. You said you had a hard stop.” 75% of the time I’ve done this, the person’s like, “Oh I have a couple more minutes, let me just finish telling you about this thing,” so we’re really into it at that point, we’re rolling with the concepts. The way that you start one of these things, when you talk to somebody on the street, they’re like, “Oh yeah, I want to ask you how you did this thing.” “How did you build that plane?” in the case of my dad. That’s not how you want to start a listening session. That way gets them off into explanation land, and opinion land, and preference land.

If you started off instead with, “What went through your mind as you were building that plane?” That’s when you can sort of telegraph or guide them, or show them the first few steps into the direction that you want to pursue, which is all about the thinking, the reactions, the guiding principles. What went through people’s minds as they were doing that? You can say this in context with the last time that person was doing it, or a memorable time that person was doing it, but you want to avoid generalities. When I was working with the airline, we would get a lot of people speaking in generalities, “Oh yeah, every time I go to the airport… blah blah blah.” What happened the last time you went to the airport? I want to know the details of what went through your mind when such and such happened at the security check. That’s when you’re going to get the details that you can really empathize with.

This is all about cognitive empathy, and that cognitive empathy is all about collaborating with people within your organization, and about creating or making things for people within your organization, and external to your organization. Empathy can apply not only to the projects you’re working on, but to the pieces that you’re writing, the communications that you’re making, the incentive that you’re inventing for people. The marketing text, the subject line for the email blast that you send out, maybe you send out several different email blasts for the different audience segments that you have in terms of behaviors. It applies to policies and processes, it applies to all sorts of things, so empathy is a pretty far-reaching thing.

With that, I want to say thank you, and make a couple of announcements, and then open it up to questions. For those of you who are in the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Area, or might be March 4th, that evening we are having a book party at the Adaptive Path offices on Pier One. Beautiful place, you’re welcome to check it out on Eventbrite and come visit with us. We’re also giving a couple books away at that event as well. My two books are shown here, if you do get the book, and you’re interested in having others find the book, I really appreciate Amazon reviews. Amazon only shows these kinds of subjects based on whether or not the book has reviews, and so that’s something that we need to sort of get ramped up. Also, the images that Doug Cobo did for the book are hopefully coming to a t-shirt near you soon. Thank you, very much.


Q&A

Martha: Indi, this is really fascinating stuff, and I think the whole concept of conducting a listening session rather than an interview, I think it rings true for me, and it probably rings true for a lot of our audience. It seems like something that is probably simple, but not easy to do without a lot of practice. Not easy to do well. There was a couple of questions, that I’d love to just use up this last five minutes of our time on. A couple questions that came in from the audience. Someone mentioned that you, in your books, say that if a person doesn’t bring something up in these listening sessions, it probably isn’t important to them, but if it’s something that you wanted to touch on, or wanted to sort of hone in on, what’s an effective way for you to sort of bring that up without steering the conversation, or asking a direct question?

Indi: I really am serious, don’t bring it up. Bringing it up is a part of a different tool. That different tool is to get some sort of feedback or input on a particular thing that you’re maybe working on. The only way that you get to bring something up is in the very beginning of the listening session. Just say, “Here’s the scope that I want you to unfold for me.” If I really want to hear about how you do your laundry, I will sort of, in that scope statement say, “I’m interested in all of your thinking in terms of laundry, in terms of keeping your clothing clean.” If in my head is about dry cleaning, which is not technically laundry, and I want them to talk about dry cleaning, that’s why I said that second thing, keeping your clothing clean. Or making your clothing look its best, or preserving … something like that. We don’t want to influence them to go that direction, because perhaps they don’t do dry cleaning.

Martha: That makes a lot of sense. I guess there are a couple of other questions that are along the same vein. When you have someone who isn’t being responsive, isn’t opening up or being talkative about it, how do you handle that?

Indi: In that case, if you get someone who’s just not responsive or talkative, or maybe they were in a great mood when they signed up for doing this, but they’re not in a great mood right now. Just let it go, excuse them. Say, “Hey, it sounds like now isn’t a good time,” or, “I think we’ve covered everything, I’ll let you go now.” I wouldn’t try pulling teeth, because it’s just not a fun experience for either of you guys. If this person has actually signed up because they’re going to get a stipend, and they’re just not forthcoming, maybe you got a little bit out of them. Offer them the stipend anyway, it’s usually not that much money, and just let them go. It’s not going to go anywhere. Generally, people start to open up after about 5 minutes, 7 minutes. I’ve had one woman who was really doubtful and distrustful, and it took me about… I kept going because I kept thinking there was something there, and at the 13 minute mark she turned the corner and totally opened up.

Martha: So patience pays back as well.

Indi: Well, not always. With that one I sort of knew something was going to come, I really thought it could happen. In others, if they’re just like pulling teeth and it’s been 7 minutes or 8 minutes, I’m like, “Whatever, let’s call it a day.”

Martha: A question came in on the flip side of that: when you are going to your stakeholders inside the organization and saying, “We could improve our understanding of our personas through these listening sessions,” and you say… or I give them a prompt and my instruction ends there and I’m not going to ask any further questions, or delve into any sections because that would pull away from it being a listening session. How do you sell this internally?

Indi: My talk at Interaction15 was all about how you sell it internally. I’ve got a little bit about that in the book as well, and I think my talk got recorded, so it will be released sometime in the next couple weeks, so you might be able to visit that. That’s like a whole another hour. There are a lot of ways to do it, and we don’t have that much time to answer that. I hate saying that, I totally want to get into it, but we’ll be here for another half an hour.

Martha: That’s Interaction, which was a conference that happened here in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, is that right?

Indi: Yeah, and if you watch my tweets, I will tweet it as soon as it’s released.

Martha: Oh, perfect.

Indi: Yeah, that’s a huge question, because a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I get it but the people around me aren’t getting it so much. How do I do it?” There’s a bunch of different tools that I give in that… some of it is actually quite frankly defining empathy as cognitive empathy. That helps a lot. That’s one thing I can tell you right now. Really helping people… those first few slides that I was showing, really helping people understand the difference between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy, and that also goes a long way toward it.

Martha: Okay. Well, I am sorry to say that we are out of time for the day, but thank you so much, Indi. This has been enlightening, if only scratching the surface. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book, and very happy, it looks like our hashtag is doing very well today too, so I know that other people enjoyed this session.

Indi: Well, I hope everybody gets a chance to go out and practice, even with a familiar stranger in line at the coffee shop, with a bit of listening.

Martha: Excellent. Thank you so much, and we will host this webinar online in a couple weeks, and we’ll let everybody know who registered. Thanks for joining us this morning, or this afternoon, wherever you are, and that concludes today’s webinar.

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