Why Empathy Matters

How empathy — the heart of design thinking — can help policy become more inclusive and effective.

By: Kristina Rodriguez, Policy Innovator

“Hear what they Hear. See what they See. Feel what they Feel.” -Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care, Cleveland Clinic
Source: The Interaction Design Foundation

Source: The Interaction Design Foundation

Last December, Policy Innovation Lab Co-Director Director Kayla Auletto outlined the design thinking process and it’s application in the public policy space. After several months as a Policy Innovator, I find myself reflecting on the importance of this process.

Source: The d.school: Institute of Design at Stanford (http://dschool.stanford.edu/)

Source: The d.school: Institute of Design at Stanford (http://dschool.stanford.edu/)

Throughout the Fall and Spring semesters, I’ve worked with other Innovators to Empathize with community members and partner with them to Define the problems we (together with community members) should address. I found myself at community gatherings and small meetings, attempting to soak up as much information as possible. At the end of these conversations, I walked away with the same feeling — I know nothing, and it’s okay.

After a meeting with Brenda Richardson (Managing Director of the Earth Conservation Corps) about her experiences in Wards 7 and 8. Honored to be part of her first selfie!

After a meeting with Brenda Richardson (Managing Director of the Earth Conservation Corps) about her experiences in Wards 7 and 8. Honored to be part of her first selfie!

Meeting with community members forced me to acknowledge and genuinely confront the fact that my background and experiences may not be the same as theirs and, thus, my solution to an issue may not be their solution. This was admittedly uncomfortable at first. For most of my schooling and career, I’ve been trained to always have the answer…and when I don’t, to “fake it ’til I make it.” I quickly learned that this may not always be the best approach.

On one hand, it’s productive to do your research and be fully “prepared” for a meeting, but what about situations when research just isn’t enough? I learned that there’s a point where research provides little to no information about what other people see, feel, and experience. This is where empathy becomes crucial. Being willing to listen to others and step into their shoes can lead to amazingly generative conversations that meaningfully fill gaps in your knowledge.

Earlier this week, I came across an article on the Mind/Shift blog about empathy in education (one of my personal policy interest areas). The article highlights the experiences of school and district leaders who participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge to better understand the effects of policies on the ultimate recipients — students. Overall, adult leaders walked away with new insights about their students and teachers. One principal summed it up perfectly, he realized that, “how he experiences school is different from anyone else; each student has a unique experience.”

Design guru, Tim Brown, has also shared his thoughts on empathy as crucial to understanding complex social systems and designing solutions that support many and various needs. In one of his blog posts, he highlighted the video below from Cleveland Clinic:

The video show just how complex a health care system or hospital can be and raises questions about how a good system design could address all of the illustrated needs and circumstances that could be entirely overlooked with a top-down idea. This has been my reflection for applying empathy to public policy.

What should be the first steps in designing effective policy that truly addresses community needs?

Listen. See. Feel.