Empathy vs. Sympathy: Why you are not the hero

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Design Thinking puts people at the center of innovation. As designers, we try hard to build empathy for the people we are here to serve. We go out in the world to observe them, talk to them, and learn from them. We seek to understand their pain points to inspire solutions that will improve their lives. For most organizations, it’s becoming clear that customer empathy is a key component of good design.

But what happens when we confuse empathy with sympathy? What happens when we start judging our customers’ lives and think of ourselves as their saviors? What happens when we fall in love with our solutions so much so that we convince ourselves that people’s lives simply suck without our products and services?

How can something as selfless as empathy turn into something as judgmental as sympathy? Before I go on, I’d like to share this short Nike commercial – it’s served for me as a great reminder of what true empathy means.

At first glance, one might jump to assumptions on why the seemingly obese teenager is running, “he must/should lose weight, obviously he’s too fat and he can’t possibly be happy living that way. I feel bad for him and we should help him with our products.” This is simply human nature – as people, we want to help those who struggle with resources we are most familiar with. We often sympathize for people who face adversity. But what if we were wrong? What if the teenage boy was actually not running to lose weight? What if instead he was running because his dad had just passed away from a massive heart attack? What if he was actually running to look good for an upcoming school dance? What if he was running to make the Football team next year? What if he was running to prove to himself that strength is more than an idealized body?

This commercial does an amazing job of making the customer the hero of the story. This is not about Nike saving the obese teenager. This is about him taking control of his life – oh, and by the way, it happens that Nike will be there to support him as he sees fit. Nike is essentially meeting the customer where he is on his personal journey. Nike does not own the journey, or the destination for that matter. He does. He is great.

As innovators, we all have an obese teenager we are trying to save, whether he comes in the form of a struggling small business owner or a patient fighting a chronic disease. We need to go beyond the obvious sympathetic feelings and really dig deeper to better understand people’s motivations and attitudes.

So the next time you find yourself using words such as should and must, ask yourself whether you’re truly approaching the problem from a place of empathy (caring and empowering) vs. a place of sympathy (judging and saving).

Find the greatness in your customers. Just do it!