A concrete pie: empathy’s handprint

January 25th, 2012

Next to my desk sits a pie-size piece of concrete. An impression of my daughter’s hand is in the middle of the pie. The concrete, when it was wet, embodied empathy. It molded perfectly to shape and size of my daughter’s hand.

Empathy is our commitment to accurately comprehend another’s inner, unseen reality. Our authentic curiosity and inquiry make it possible for people to impress upon us their ideas, feelings, perspectives, and experiences. As we listen and seek to understand, we create models in our minds that represent another person’s inner world. Our models can mirror this reality with remarkable accuracy.

Empathy promotes exceptional and effective work—it infuses what we do with unmistakable human-centered elements. This kind of work combats our inclination to relate with others, even the people we serve, on terms that meet our needs.

Much like the handprint, empathic work molds to the needs of others. This is why, for example, the relative comfort of your chair is a direct commentary on the chair manufacturer’s degree of empathy for its customers. If you’re not comfortable, they clearly didn’t prioritize you in their design process. Avoid this mistake in your projects.

Make sure your 3Ms—messages, materials, and messengers—represent the actual needs of the people you serve. People intuitively respond to empathy. Projects that embody empathy cultivate engaging environments that change lives. They prioritize the needs of the people they’re intended to serve, not its practitioners.

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