It's easy to talk about empathy. We often talk about how we need to empathize with other people. We need to see things from their perspective or need to understand their side. But that's often as far as it goes. I feel like I see this frequently as a product person. We talk frequently about empathy in our profession. It is a staple in articles and at product management conferences. We need to empathize with our users and customers. But too often it is easy only to pay lip service to empathy. Not to truly empathize and understand.
Empathy vs Sympathy
It's easy to mistake empathy and sympathy. We may feel for someone. That's sympathy. When we see someone in a bad situation and feel sorry for them or sad for them, that's sympathy. There is an important difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is feeling with someone. It is about feeling, or trying to feel, the same emotions that that they are feeling.
Brene Brown has a great video about empathy and sympathy. When someone is in a pit, sympathy is looking down on them and telling them you're sorry that they are in that pit. Empathy is about getting into the pit with them.
It can often be difficult in product development to fully embrace empathy, despite all our talk about it. No matter how many conference talks we hear or articles we read, it is so easy to think that our users just don't understand the beauty of our products. Or our users are just dumb. You all know you've thought it at some point.
But your users aren't any more dumb than you are. The truth is that we all don't really care about products any more than we care about ourselves and our own lives. Why should we? I don't really care about the apps I use, but only how they improve my life. And if they don't do that in a way that makes sense to me, then why should I use them? Or why should I care?
So as we look around, we need to take a moment to go deeper into the "why" behind what people are doing. Understanding their true motivations, and then finding within ourselves the similar emotions that drive our motivations, will allow us to much better understand and empathize.
We were with our son at a restaurant recently when he spilled some water on his shirt. He was horribly embarrassed since we were out in public and he was wearing a nice shirt. It wasn't a big deal. It was only water. But it was a big deal to him. Rather than try to convince him it wasn't a big deal or that it would dry, I tried to practice exactly what I'm preaching here. I told him how frustrating it is to spill water on yourself in public. I then showed him the place on my sport coat where I had spilled water earlier that day and told him how frustrated I was too. We talked about the frustration together and he really enjoyed having someone to commiserate with whom knew what it was like. To not be alone.
Ultimately, embracing empathy is about finding the emotions within ourselves to find understanding. We may not fully understand everything that someone else is going through, and that's okay. Sometimes it's just about understanding that we can share the same pit together for a time.
As we embrace empathy, as product professionals and as people we can build the products that will not only move the world forward, but we can build the communities and the organizations that will make the world better. We can build the understanding person to person to make each other better.
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