When I wrote out Dynamic4’s values over a decade ago – which I frame as our guiding principles – People First was number one. This is the driving principle and core approach to everything we do. We always start with the people, so this was the natural place to start. As a designer, this is where I’ve always started – long before I had the language for it and a more structured set of tools.
A simplified version is on our website as “design with and for people to deliver great experiences”, but at the time I outlined three layers to what people first means to me.
- Personal people: myself, Marls & Jaz (Jaz was on the way, Za was a few years off), friends, and other family
- Dynamic4 people: the team and partners. People centred design for Dynamic4 clients
- Community & society: people centred design for customers of Dynamic4 clients
Note: At the time, I was experimenting with using the term “people centred design” because I think it has more warmth to it… but it wasn’t resonating with people, so I switched back to “human-centred design”.
What’s this actually mean? What’s it look like in practice? Well, it all starts with empathy…
Human-centred design is built on empathy. It’s the bedrock on which all good design happens. It’s a word we use a lot, but it can mean different things to people.
It’s a really interesting area of research. The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley do a lot of research in this area and they say “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”.
You might be wondering why it matters. The GGSC goes on to say “research suggests that empathic people tend to be more generous and concerned with others’ welfare, and they also tend to have happier relationships and greater personal well-being. Empathy can also improve leadership ability and facilitate effective communication”.
If you’re wondering empathic you are, do their simple quiz. I score 105.
When I ask people what empathy means to them, the most common response I hear is “walking in someone else’s shoes”. I think this is a good start because we’ve at least switched places – or as I joke, maybe stolen someone’s shoes. To be more specific, the important thing is not just to be in someone else’s shoes, but to also see and feel things as that person does. From their point of view and experience.
To potentially be controversial, I see empathy as the exact opposite of the Golden Rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – which in some cultures, is held up as the pinnacle of human interaction. That view leads to the judgements that tend to follow the phrase “if I was them…”. This is the antithesis of empathy. Taking the position that because I want something, I’m going to push that on others, is a very self-centred and selfish perspective. Instead, when we build empathy, we seek to understand and connect with the other person. How do they see the world? What’s important to them? How do they want to be treated? Why?
Empathy is a big concept and foundational, so I’ll share one more layer of detail.
Daniel Goleman, the psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, identified three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. The neuroscience shows that each activates different parts of our brain. There’s a spectrum of empathy and the three types work together.
Cognitive empathy is what we’re using when we “walk in someone else’s shoes”. It’s sometimes called perspective-taking. We see things from the other person’s perspective, but we don’t really feel it. This is mostly an intellectual exercise and keeps the other person at a distance. For the type of work I do and to be a good leader, this is not enough. With this type of empathy, we can understand other people’s mental models and the language they use to describe their world. This is valuable to communicate effectively, but without emotional or compassionate empathy, it can just be used to manipulate people.
Emotional empathy is when we “feel with” someone. Daniel Goleman says this is the type of empathy you need for any role where you relate to people. This is the empathy that creates a sense of rapport. It’s about connection. Our mirror neurons fire when we experience this type of empathy – which is important for all kinds of social interactions.
This type of empathy is one of the key behaviours in great leaders and high performing teams.
With compassionate empathy or empathic concern, we have both the emotional empathy and when we see someone in need, we’re moved to take action and help however we can. This type of empathy can allow us to feel more empowered and positive because we’re helping someone else.
It’s important to remember though, empathy is not about what we want – it’s about what the other person wants and needs. When we’re displaying compassionate empathy, it’s not about how we’d want to be treated if we were them… it’s about how they want to be treated. This is the key point on empathy that I really want to emphasise.
What I’ve Learnt
It Feels Good
As Brene Brown says… it’s all about belonging and connection.
“Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. What we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is neurobiologically how we’re wired – it’s why we’re here.”Brené Brown
I have nothing to add.
Start with Myself
It might seem strange to have started my three layers of people with myself – but there’s a strong link between empathy and our own personal sustainability. We need to practice self-awareness and self-management to look after our own wellbeing. This is for a couple of reasons. The first is it’s very hard to practice empathy when we’re not in a good place emotionally or feeling threatened and defensive. Empathy comes from a place of being open and engaged. The other reason is when we’re practicing empathy in a social impact context, we can often be dealing with some very confronting realities. This can result in emotional exhaustion or compassion fatigue – which can lead directly to burnout. We still need to set boundaries.
What I expect from myself is to always be very empathic. I don’t always achieve that and sometimes I get it very wrong… but I’m always working on building my empathy. There will be critics but most of us are our own harshest critic. I’m far from perfect and more aware of it than anyone else, which is why I consciously put the work in to always be improving. The little scripts that run subconsciously. The stories we believe about ourselves. Self-compassion can be one of the hardest things.
This is why I apply human-centred design and action learning to the design of my life. Over time I’ve got better at building sustainable rhythms of reflective practice. A key part of this is recognising and celebrating the wins, identifying and prioritising things to improve, running experiments to test my thinking, and ongoing reflection. I take the time to write these reflections down to get the noise out of my head and make it concrete… and so I can see how my thinking and situation changes over the years.
The other key thing that makes a massive difference for me is mindful practices and meditation. It’s key to keeping my sense of perspective and working with my energy.
It can often be easier to feel empathy with people who are more like us, but it takes more work to build empathy with people who are very different to us.
I love that over the years there’s been increasing acceptance of the importance of inclusion with diversity of representation and diversity of thought. It surprises me in some situations when this is still held up as a lofty ambition, rather than a baseline principle. As something to do one day when it’s more convenient, rather than a core principle that drives everything. Always.
I’m very self-conscious that I have the obvious attributes of the privileged and over-represented… as a straight white man, who is now increasingly middle-aged – and despite growing up very much in the lower socio-economic working class trades bracket, I’m now perceived to be at the more affluent end of the spectrum. I was also lucky to be born in Australia and grow up here and in NZ, a couple of the richer countries in the world. I won the systemic privilege lottery a few times over. So, despite feeling like I have no or little power in most contexts, others may assume I have more power than I actually do. The irony being that with that assumption, they give me more power than I had. Power dynamics are fascinating and complex. I worry about this, and I’m braced for what would feel like unfair criticism a lot of the time, but I try not to let that fear paralyse me from doing what I can to help. I’ll use the privilege I have in the best way I can.
Whatever I feel the reality is, I try to build my empathy to feel things as others experience it. I do my best to be an ally with groups of people who’ve been systemically and unfairly marginalised and disadvantaged. I can’t possibly fully understand all that these people have experienced – and still experience. But I try. The least I can do is be mindful of the voices I amplify and the space I take up… and where I can, get out of the way to make space for others.
When we’re talking first principles in design/problem solving, we’re usually talking facts and logic. The desire for axioms and absolutes. We crave certainty. As part of taking a first principles approach (which I’m a big fan of), I focus on the people involved and start building on first principles in their context. This results in a lot more assumptions and thinking to test but it’s worth it.
My lens on this is no doubt skewed with the bias that I’ve always focused more on adaptive challenges than technical challenges – and the complexity has increased over time… but I’ve found that if I don’t do enough to test my thinking on how the people think, feel, and behave and what motivates them – the technical aspects of the solution may be great, but ultimately things don’t work out because people don’t adopt the solution.
As always, I’m still constantly learning and experimenting…
Dynamic4: The 20th Year
It seems a good time to reflect on the journey so far and some key things I’ve learnt on the way. This is Part 4 in a blog series as we count down to our 20th birthday on 1 October 2021.