“I know how you feel.” How many times has someone said that to you and you thought to yourself, “No, you really don’t”?
Whether it’s a time of grief, frustration, challenge or celebration, our society has a deep-seated need to make another think we know just what he or she is experiencing because we’ve been there. When it’s sincere, it’s sometimes helpful to know you’re not alone. When it isn’t, it can make things worse. It’s often just a matter of someone trying to express sympathy, mistakenly presenting it as empathy and lacking raw emotion behind either.
The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy
Sympathy can relate to being a supporter, such as being sympathetic to a cause. But it usually has a melancholy context and refers to sharing someone’s burdens by feeling sorrowful about their situation. “I’m sorry for your loss” is genuine and sincere sympathy. Tacking the inevitable, “I know how you feel,” onto the end of it is well-intentioned but possibly misguided if they’ve never truly experienced the situation. It’s often a hollow statement, and not really empathetic, either.
Empathy is the term we use when we try to understand how someone else feels by experiencing those feelings ourselves. David Kelley, the founder of IDEO wrote, "We’ve washed other people’s clothes by hand in their sinks, stayed as guests in housing projects, stood beside surgeons in operating rooms, and calmed agitated passengers in airport security lines—all to build empathy." This is empathy – to truly see and feel what the other person sees and feels as though you were going through the experience yourself.
Why start an empathy blog by distinguishing it from sympathy?
The two are often used incorrectly and interchangeably, and it’s a life skill when you understand the difference and use them appropriately. Although sympathy came first, both words are rooted in the Greek “pathos,” meaning feelings, emotions and suffering. It’s in the true roots, emotional nature and personal experience of empathy that you find its real meaning.
Empathy has become something of a buzz word in design circles. We’re told, “Empathize with your user.” “Develop deep empathy for those experiencing the pain point.”
Most people interpret that as simply meaning you should understand what they’re going through, and it’s become a shallow phrase that just grazes the surface. Understanding something intellectually and understanding something because you experience those feelings are as different as loving the smell of coffee but hating the taste of it.
Cultivating true empathy is what makes Geneia solutions resonate with our clients.
At Geneia, we cultivate true empathy as we try to experience a problem for which we will ultimately search for solutions. We work in healthcare, which is a passionate space to start.
So empathizing with our clients and users isn’t easy work. It can be intense. It’s taxing. It’s emotional. But it’s what makes our solutions resonate with our clients. It’s why we have nurses, clinicians and care managers on staff and at client sites informing our product roadmap. It’s why we ask so many questions and sell solutions instead of software. It feeds our Why.
In a design thinking workshop earlier this year with our sales, marketing, product, client and implementation teams, we developed several different client personas and empathy maps. Creating a persona is always fun. You’re part of a group of people recreating another person. You laugh, smile and give your creation seemingly silly characteristics that somehow always come to bear when you need to figure out why this person wouldn’t respond to a particular sales tactic or marketing campaign.
Empathy mapping is an emotional experience – even when it’s a persona.
- She’s exhausted.
- She has a staff of care managers and a workload twice what they can handle.
- She has team members out sick and on vacation.
- Her staff is burning out and she’s aware of it but feels powerless to fix it.
- She knows what they need but is only in a position to recommend and not make decisions.
- She’s at the end of her rope.
As you plow through what she’s feeling, you feel it, too, like a weight sitting on top of your shoulders. It’s at that point that you can start to look for the gains. Some of the questions we ask are:
- How might we make her feel supported?
- How might we give her something that will both ease her load and make her team more productive?
- How might we help her have a positive impact on her patients so she feels like she’s helped someone in a significant way at the end of the day?
Connecting Empathy and the Theon® Platform
This is where Geneia’s solutions begin to take hold and products like our Theon® Platform for Care Management come to life. We’ve been through the emotional exploration, and now that we’ve been able to feel that pain, we know where to begin to help solve the problem.
Companies like IDEO have used empathy to solve world problems – “incubators for babies in rural third-world countries with no electricity” type problems. Imagine a world where our entire society is empathetic to one another – not just understanding, but truly empathetic.
How many COVID-19 mask arguments could we end? How many racial equality issues could we finally resolve? To how many people would our country extend a better life? Try empathy for a day in every interaction you have – you’ll sleep well that night, and it just might change your life.