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Anyone can be empathetic

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
I was on the Conversations about Software Engineering podcast recently, and we got into an interesting conversation about the definition of empathy and whether anyone can be empathetic.
People often mix up the definitions of sympathy, empathy, and compassion. And these definitional mix-ups, as pedantic as this may seem, can lead to people (wrongly, in my opinion) thinking they aren’t capable of empathy.
Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean caring about someone and it doesn’t mean feeling what they’re feeling.
Developing empathy for someone can lead to caring about them and it can lead to feeling what they’re feeling but it doesn’t necessarily mean that.
Empathy is about centering the other person’s experience and developing an understanding of how they came to be in the situation they’re in.
It’s worth diving into this because sometimes people think having empathy for customers means caring about them yet it goes far beyond that.

Let's imagine a scene.
You’re driving on the highway and notice a car pass you on the left. They’re clearly going over the speed limit, but not extraordinarily so. A short while later, they are pulled over by the police. As you drive by, you have the choice to think one of the following types of reactions to yourself:
Judgmental: Serves them right for speeding!
Sympathetic: Gah, that sucks. I feel sorry for them.
Compassionate: I would feel so embarrassed and worried if I were pulled over. I hope the police treat them fairly. Maybe I should pull over and take a video just in case.
Empathetic: I wonder why they were speeding in the first place. Were they late to pick their children up from school? Did they wake up late and have an important meeting?
Empathy = curiosity
Another way to frame the empathetic response is curiosity. How did they end up here? Why were they doing that in the first place? What were they trying to do overall? What are the factors that led to the current situation?
Anyone can be curious.
Maybe it’s an instinct that’s been stamped out of you after many years in stifling environments but we all have a natural instinct for curiosity, and the core of being empathetic is allowing yourself to be gently curious without judgement.
Anyone can look for facts and see how a situation came to be.
Any product is just one step
Customer empathy matters because any one product or service is inevitably only one step in someone’s journey.
Their goal isn’t to buy a coffee machine or make a cup of coffee. Their goal isn’t to send an invoice. It isn’t just to watch a TV show. It’s to have energy or get paid or connect with their friends over a shared experience. It’s to do some larger thing that goes far beyond any one individual thing they might use, even if that thing solves many different steps.
Oftentimes, the products we call “intuitive” are the ones that solve some series of steps we’re going through in a way that matches our internal understanding of the process.
And a key to creating something that is intuitive is by developing customer empathy and understanding how they go about things and why.
Michele Hansen on Customer Interviews and Deploying Empathy - CaSE: Conversations about Software Engineering - Podcast
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