Emotional intelligence in design: the skill of empathy
Here’s how you can build it up in six simple steps
On Valentine’s day — like on any other normal day — I asked my fiancée about how her day went.
She’s transitioning careers from nursery teaching to web development, and it’s fair to say she’s a bit intolerant to her current job situation. While she’s building up the skills and experience needed to get a full-time job in this new field, doing what she does at the moment just feels like an obstacle between her and her new job.
I empathised with her. I went through the same thing a few years ago, and I know exactly where she comes from.
I really (really) wanted to interrupt her half-way through her rant on how she doesn’t want to be there anymore, to tell her that all of her complaining was useless. Sooner rather than later, she’s leaving that place anyway. It’s just a matter of time!
Of course, my intuition told me not to — don’t ever do that to your fiancée if you care about your own health — instead, I patiently listened, and we exchanged a few opinions as she talked herself out of the rant.
That conversation led me to a revelation:
This is something I use in my day-to-day life when designing!
Emotional Intelligence in Design
In this 3 episode series, I’ll cover the practical steps needed to master emotional intelligence: an essential skill we need in both our professional and personal lives.
The first definition you get for this phrase when you google it is this:
Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
As designers, we have to deal with emotions in most of our choices, and unless we live as hermits, we have to deal with other humans. This requires us to master some of the thoughts and emotions we have on a regular basis.
To do this, we’ll start with the three traits that make a great designer: empathy, intuition and creativity.
To understand these traits we might think we need some type of Psychology or HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) degree. If you have this type of education, and you work in design, thank you for choosing to work in this field. We need more people like you!
But what can people like me — who don’t have a degree in psychology — do?
This is the simplest conclusion I could come to for myself:
If we have some sort of familiarity about how people, including ourselves, behave in a certain way — and why they do it — we should be at a pretty good starting point in understanding and interacting with them.
Emotional intelligence is something I’m trying to practice more myself. I know I need to master it to understand the humans who use the products I design.
You feel me? I hope you’re nodding, because the first skill to learn is Empathy. So let’s get to it!
What is Empathy?
The term empathy is used to describe a wide range of experiences around understanding and sharing the feelings of others. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Have you ever experienced fear or discomfort when watching a horror movie?
When the main character is running for her life, we empathise with her in that situation and feel like we’re running for our own lives too.
When we observe someone perform an action, the cells in our brains fire in the same way as if we performed that action ourselves, this phenomenon takes the name of mirroring neurons. The mirror neuron system (MNS) plays a great role in social cognition as it helps us to understand others’ actions, intentions and emotions.
To master the ability to empathise is essential in the design industry. It gives us a deep understanding of end users, and it allows us to create great, engaging products. But there’s a caveat:
So we want to understand what our users’ feelings and intentions are, yes, but we really need to do so from their perspective. One person’s reaction to frustration or excitement might not be the same as the one we (designers) would experience in a similar situation.
In my experience, one of the best ways to wear someone else’s shoes is to sharpen our listening and observation skills. These skills allow for interpreting the difference between what people say and what they actually mean.
They are the key to all effective communication: when you listen effectively and try to understand what someone is really saying, there’s a much lower chance of misunderstanding it.
Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology, once said:
“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”
How to practice Empathy
It won’t come to a surprise, but to practice your listening and observation skills involves that you speak with another person.
Start with someone you’re comfortable with. I don’t suggest you try all of these steps at once, or you’ll look like you’re trying too hard.
1. Shut up
I don’t mean to be rude but, don’t interrupt. If you’re speaking, you’re not listening, simple as that.
Wait for the other person to pause before you speak. Wait for a second or two, and allow them to finish their thought before you jump in.
Waiting for a second could lead to nothing, but it could lead to a cool insight from the other person too.
2. Picture what you’re listening to
Block out distractions from your mind, to do so, literally picture what the other person is saying.
Say your friend is telling you all about her last holiday trip. Picture all the sandy beaches and sunsets she’s describing to you, picture the experience she went through, try to live it yourself.
At this point, you’re not busy thinking about your own thoughts, and you’ve actually immersed yourself in the scene.
3. Be open-minded
Always assume the other person knows something you don’t — which in most cases is true anyway — and approach the conversation with an open mind.
Whenever you have a strong feeling of disagreement, try your best to take a step back and assume the other person’s perspective is just different, and not necessarily wrong.
Don’t attach yourself to an opinion too much and try to understand other perspectives and ways of thinking.
4. Check twice before you challenge
If you want to disagree or challenge someone’s opinion, try to repeat what the other person is saying back to them.
This is also called “the echo effect”. Psychologists found that mirroring people’s words can be very important in building likability, safety, rapport, and social cohesion.
Repeating what the other person says helps to make sure you “got it” and that you listened correctly. It also sets a common ground of understanding and makes them feel listened to. The other person will be more open to your challenging views too. Win-win.
5. Watch the cues
There are so many non-verbal cues and body language we miss in conversations sometimes. Posture, facial expressions and tone of voice are just some of them.
By paying attention to body language you can understand what the other person means. But don’t fixate on the details. You could get distracted and miss the point.
There are numerous resources for this, but this article on understanding body language should give you an understanding of the basics of body language and facial expressions.
6. Avoid technology
Put your smartphone or laptop away. Focus on the person that’s speaking and maintain eye contact.
You simply can’t have a good conversation if you put a technological wall between you and your interlocutor. There’s nothing worse than speaking with someone that doesn’t look invested.
You can always answer that text message later. And if you think you can multitask easily, think again.
When we talk about empathy, intuition and creativity, we just expect these mental traits to be built within us. Thing is: they aren’t.
We rarely see these traits as actual, learnable skills. But if we understand that they can be learned and developed, we can take a more proactive approach to improve ourselves in both our professional and personal lives.
Ask yourself this:
How many great conversations could you have with your family and friends if you were a better listener?
How much better could your meetings be if you started to understand what your colleagues mean when they ask you something?
How could the quality of your work improve if you knew how to listen to your users?
Start with simple steps, and keep practicing!
In the next episode, I’ll dive deep into the vital role Intuition plays in our decision-making process, and how adding it to our design flow is a total game changer.