Spectrum of Empathy

Finding Hope Through Empathy

Empathy has been a strong buzzword in corporate boardrooms for the past few years. We have conducted countless projects over the years where the objectives have included helping our clients empathize with their ‘target’; to walk a mile in their shoes.


The weight of empathy:

Near the end of 2020 I started to become a bit disillusioned with empathy. The Upwords team had been working on a number of very complex strategic projects. We were privy to hearing stories of loss and burdens brought on by COVID. And this year we seemed to be finding tragic stories coming out of many of our non-COVID projects as well. I could sense the team was starting to struggle with our own stresses as well as the weight of empathizing with our participants experiences.

The weight of empathy became exceptionally heavy when one project required me personally to go deep with people who had experienced severe physical and, in many cases, emotional trauma. This project challenged me in ways I have rarely experienced professionally before. Despite using trauma-informed methods and language, I came out of a set of in-depth interviews feeling completely drained from ‘empathizing’ with the participants.


As I was thinking about how to turn the learning from the interviews I had conducted into meaningful insights, I stumbled upon this ‘spectrum of empathy’ from global UX thought leaders at the Nielsen Norman Group.


Spectrum of Empathy

Spectrum of Empathy

With a bit of digging, I realized there are a few different versions of this idea. Sometimes empathy is broken down into cognitive, affective and compassionate empathy. Any way I looked at it left me with the same insight. Even though one of the client’s objectives for the project was to help the team ‘empathize’ with their customers’ lived experiences (walk a mile in their shoes), it became clear to me that empathy alone would not be enough to achieve the change that was required by this client.

Why empathy matters:

Empathy is understanding another person’s experiences and/or feelings to the point where you feel them too. Empathy is absolutely important for managers and brand leaders. They need to deeply understand the experiences and feelings of the people who use their products and services. Additionally, it’s important for them understand and empathize with team members and employees.

Empathy is the first step in the design thinking process and we’ve followed this process in so many of our iterative projects over the years. So how can we now say that empathy is not enough?


Why empathy is sometimes not enough:

It was the participants in an especially complex service design project that revealed the answer to me. They were part of a highly iterative process, that was in some cases emotionally draining for them. At each stage in the process, we thought some would decline to continue, but they didn’t. They were instead motivated by the idea that sharing their experiences would help me (the moderator) understand what they had gone through and create action that would change the outcome for others. They were in fact empowering me to become a catalyst for positive change.


Armed with that insight, I realized that my client needed to rachet up their goals. The response of their customer support staff should not simply be to ‘understand’ and feel what their customers are feeling. But they would need to reach higher and be moved to act based on their appreciation of what the customer is feeling.


This desire to act is compassion.


Compassion is the action:

While we often see compassion and empathy used somewhat interchangeably, there is an important distinction. Compassion is the response to empathy. Compassion is active and dynamic, where empathy (emotional and or cognitive) is static.


This Forbes article outlines four reasons why compassion is more important for leaders (and humanity) than empathy. To me, the most interesting of the four reasons they cite is that ‘Empathy is draining. Compassion is regenerative’


Feeling for another person’s suffering is depleting over time. When empathy is triggered in the face of another person’s struggles, it can bring a relentless bombardment of negative emotions and experiences that, over time, can sap our cognitive resources and take a toll on our mental well-being.


Because compassion is intentional and solutions-focused – centered on how to help another person while actively considering the various trade-offs – it is restorative versus draining. And, when we deliver that help, we get the added bonus of a dopamine hit. Helping feels good, and we are motivated to do it again in the future.’


An important distinction:

It’s not a matter of doing away with empathy and replacing it with compassion. There are certainly cases where we need to simply understand the person we’re talking to. For me and the Upwords team when we’re conducting interviews we should not be trying to ‘fix’ their pain points for them. The objective of the interviews is still for the interviewer to empathize with the participant and deeply understand their unique perspective. But rather than empathy being the ultimate goal (which would have left me drained), having compassion means I’m moved to act on their collective behalf as I help my clients create positive change.


With this new knowledge, I no longer feel the heavy emotional weight of the stories from the research we conducted in 2020. I feel empowered that we’re able to share the insights from the stories in ways that will help make a difference in the future.