The value of empathy in human centered design is now widely recognized as critical for aligning offerings with customer values, norms, priorities, and practices. Far less common, however, are efforts to extend that same empathy to the people with whom researchers and designers work everyday—the engineers, strategists, marketers, managers, executives, and many others who are critical to the daily functions of an organization. Like customers or constituents, each of these people bring their own lens and set of experiences to an organization’s culture, and each of them has a set of practices, beliefs, values, and worldviews that influence how projects develop—as well as how the organization and it’s culture evolves.

Empathizing with your colleagues in the same way that ethnographers do with research participants in the field might feel a bit counterintuitive at first, but the results of ‘inverting’ empathy in this way are quite tangible. It allows you to identify with their plights, understand their perspectives, and interpret their position within the organization’s culture. In short, you can understand them from a cultural perspective, which allows you to position their needs, emotions, dispositions, and motivations within a holistic framework. From this framework, you can develop strategic communications aligned with their practices, beliefs, values and worldviews in ways that advance both their interests and your own. Eventually, building empathy in this way increases the odds of support and buy-in from colleagues who appreciate your sincere interest in their circumstances and contexts.

So what does this look like in practice? I’ve found that the following strategies, while not exhaustive, are particularly effective:

Read the social cues your colleagues send

The workplace is an ethnographic field site like any other; and the observational data you need to empathize with your colleagues is surrounding you everyday. Shifting your lens from emic (insider) to etic (outsider) in the workplace can provide you with insights you need to better understand your colleagues, and their priorities, values, and worldviews.

While observing, you should be continually on the lookout for cues that will help you paint a fuller picture of the culture you’re exploring. Your aim is to look beyond the obvious and familiar to discover the key components that collectively make up an ‘ecosystem’ of behaviors and interactions. Some of the most common include:

body language, physical interactions, behavioral triggers, contradictions, unspoken priorities, normalized practices, sequences of events, affinities, attachments, repellants, workarounds, social transgressions, implicit hierarchies, priorities, neglected people/places/things, honored people/places/things, displays of comfort (or discomfort), unconscious habits and practices, and interactions with material goods.

These behaviors are made up of both intentional and unintentional expressions that people use to send signals about their current state of mind. Thoughtfully observing them involves continually sorting and prioritizing your observations to determine levels of relevance and the degree to which they begin to form collective patterns. Keep notes and play close attention, and eventually the patterns you identify will help you interpret your observations and develop a much more insightful understanding of cultural contexts that drive the perspectives, motivations, and priorities of your colleagues. Over time, you may also begin to identify broader themes that arise across and between the behavioral patterns you identify—a sort of ‘ecosystem’ of organizational priorities (both explicit and implicit) that will allow you to better understand overarching influences that drive your colleagues’ behaviors.

Adapt (and time) your stories to your colleagues’ needs

Stories participants tell are one of the primary sources of data ethnographers use to interpret cultural meaning as they explore new worlds. Stories set context, indicate values, demonstrate flows of power, and signify intentions—all in a narrative that’s (hopefully) engaging and personal. In short, they ground cultural phenomena in everyday lived experiences.

Stories are also one of the most effective vehicles for ethnographers to convey their findings and insights. Stories help them generate empathy, encourage appreciation for difference, broaden perspectives, and make the unfamiliar familiar. Good ethnographers bring their field experiences to life by ensuring that their stories are directly relevant to the lives of those who are listening.

In Ethnographic Thinking I call this practice “empathic storytelling,” and the core principle is ensuring that your messages are aligned with your colleague’s interests and needs. You should always be asking yourself whether or not your stories matter, and whether or not they’re timed to matter most to the people listening. Sometimes this involves breaking stories down into ‘mini-narratives’ that are timed and dispersed strategically for when you think your listeners are most likely to be receptive. This involves thinking back to the patterns from your observations and looking for key moments in your colleague’s lives to enlist storytelling that facilitates new and relevant understandings for them. Ask yourself, “Is this the time when this colleague is most likely to identify with what I’m saying? Why should they care? What is the likelihood they they’ll become an advocate and share my perspective with others if I tell this story now and in this way?” Of course, to do this, you’ll need to be sure you’re actively reading the social cues around you (see above). Which brings us to…

Usher a process of self-realization

In a well-crafted, well-timed, and skillfully configured story, the listener is invited to imagine a whole other world, and empathize with the particular lived experiences within it. In contrast to pedantic lessons or long morality tales, truly resonant ethnographic narratives are most effective when they’re situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary. Their goal isn’t to persuade others of some universal truth, but to introduce ideas and images that resonate on many levels for their listeners. They may integrate elements of logic, reason, or rationality, but their ultimate strength rests in their imagery, emotion, and personal experiences.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou

So, rather than arguing for (or imposing) a position, you can use empathic storytelling to gradually shift the overall platform of understanding for your colleagues by helping them internalize the feeling behind what you have to say. When timed well, this type of storytelling helps your colleagues integrate new perspectives of their own—to reach their own realizations rooted in stories that tap common human experiences. Since everyone’s interpretations are made up of small moments of realization, using empathic storytelling in this way helps them construct their own realizations with an emotional anchor, which eventually grow to form insights that emerge from within their own thinking and feelings. In short, they end up owning the story (not you). This attention to relevance and small-scale points of emotional relation can prove to be far more relevant, persuasive or convincing than grand narratives or lessons that risk being perceived as dogmatic, pedantic, or moralizing.

Bringing it all Together

Some early anthropologists such as Margaret Mead were keenly aware of the fact that in order to help people see the value of ethnographic insight, they needed to think strategically about how their work would be received among their intended audiences. Mead intentionally embraced ethnographic film in part for the purpose of reaching broader audiences. She also wrote regularly for Redbook magazine, lectured to a wide range of audiences, and made frequent appearances on television talk shows.

In each case, she prioritized her audiences’ interests and situated her content and style of messaging to maximize the potential for impact and adoption of the concepts she wished to convey. She did this first by directing the ethnographic gaze toward those audiences, and then responding in ways she knew they would be most likely to absorb her messages. At her most effective, she also tailored her communications toward institutions that she believed either need to reform their policies or positions, or had the potential to carry on her message and influence others.

Ethnographic thinking is most impactful when it extends empathy not only to those outside an organization but also to those who live within a company’s organizational culture. By facilitating and embodying empathic connections on both sides, it ultimately enables more relevant and meaningful innovation.


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