Empathy is the first step in a human-centred design journey. Designers are encouraged to use empathy to identify the motivations, wants and experiences of the people who will be impacted by a design. But is empathy an innate trait? Can it be learned or developed?

Stepping into somebody’s shoes is a precursor to developing empathy, but that – by itself – isn’t enough. We also need to walk the pavement in those shoes. I find it helpful to draw on the work of ethnographers, who aim to understand the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of human behaviour. They do this by immersing themselves in a culture to learn what values are important to the people of that culture, and how and why those values are expressed in behaviours.

If your immersion stops with stepping into others’ shoes you will get the ‘what’, but not the ‘why’. This kind of ethnographic research is known as ‘etic’ – observing a person’s behaviour and forming an outsider’s perspective. We understand that the shoes we’re wearing are comfortable, but we don’t know what research was done before we got them, what the alternatives were, or what other pairs were desired and why.

Through an ‘emic’ approach, instead, we observe human behaviour from an insider’s perspective, thereby understanding why people do and think what they do. We not only wear the shoes, but we go for a walk to feel the pavement, how they feel in the rain, the dents and grooves of the sole. In other words, we share the other person’s experiences, needs and desires and identify with them emotionally.

Seven tips to bring empathy into policy-making

  • Think broadly about audience. A common pitfall of empathy in public policy design is only empathising with the policy subjects. By only thinking about people who are directly affected by the policy, you leave out the people who will be responsible for implementing and maintaining the product of the design process - they are your users too.
  • Don’t forget policy owners. Policy owners are as important as the policy subjects – without them, the policy doesn’t get implemented. So, the exercise of empathy needs to include policy people, operational staff and the executive.
  • Think like an insider. Having a view of their plights and perspectives will bridge the needs and wants of policy implementers and policy subjects and lead to a solution that connects and satisfies both.
  • Get ready to be uncomfortable. Not everybody has the ability or the desire to get an insider’s perspective. As Dr Brené Brown says, “empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one”. Demonstrating empathy requires us to recall and reflect on personal experiences and feelings that may be uncomfortable.
  • Practice helps. Empathy is not necessarily an innate trait in people, so get ready to hone those skills. Pay attention to what you’re noticing, listening and feeling with subjects.
  • Check your bias. We tend to have more empathy for people who are similar to us. Empathy should be agnostic – we need to be mindful that we don’t over-empathise with one group of people and under-empathise with another.
  • Make it a story. My team find story-telling one of the most effective ways to help develop empathy. We can learn about what it is to be a person or better, about what it is to be different kinds of people. Stories (for example, role play, personas, quotes or narratives from another person’s view) help us imagine not only what the individual felt but also the reasons, purposes and explanations for their decisions and behaviour.

So, lace up those shoes and get walking. They might be a little uncomfortable to start with, but it gets easier.

Do you have other methods for developing empathy? Do you think empathy has a place in policy? We’re keen to know what you think. Let us know below, or at PolicyLab@finance.nsw.gov.au.

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