Empathy, Experiences, Stories, Oh My

Joe is walking down a street when he falls in a hole.

The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by, and Joe shouts up “Hey you! Can you help me out?”


The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole, and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and Joe shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?”

The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.

Then a friend walks by. “Hey Larry, it’s me, can you help me out?”


And the friend jumps in the hole!

Joe says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!”

And Joe’s friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

Empathy goes deeper

Sympathy is feeling sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters.

Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another. Becoming that person for a while.

That’s why actors often talk about it.

In fact, here’s Meryl Streep’s take on empathy and it’s importance to her work.

We can learn a lot about empathy from actors.

Sticking with it

Sympathy is an expression of, “That’s bad, and I know it’s bad. But now that I’ve acknowledged your tough situation, it’s time to move on.”

But empathy encourages you to double down and explore the why and how of the situation.

When you do that it leads to more intuitive and creative solutions.

Sticking to them

Empathy is about acknowledging the biases of your tribe. And then genuinely imagining and feeling what it’s like to be in their shoes.

You’re putting yourself right there, in the thick of their emotion.

Empathy fuels emotional connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.

How to find more empathy

There are four qualities we can develop to increase our empathy:

Shift perspective
That is the ability to take the perspective of another person. Or recognize their perspective as their truth.

Turn off judgment
That means staying out of judgment. Refusing to judge others’ motives, emotions, actions. Not easy when you enjoy judging people as much as most of us do.

Sense feelings
Recognizing emotion in other people. Understanding how emotion goes beyond what people say. We have to discover what they feel.

Connect emotionally
Communicating emotion back to them. What we do should focus on connections. Connecting emotionally with tribe members. Connecting tribe members to each other. And finally, connecting them to others to bring new people into the tribe.

Empathy is a choice

Feeling empathy seems to come more naturally to some people. But that isn’t because they have some innate empathic personality trait.

It’s because they have made a choice.

We can choose to start seeing things from another perspective. We can choose to see things through another person’s eyes.

In return, we get to experience real growth. Growth that comes from feeling new emotions and taking on new and unique viewpoints.

Empathy is feeling with people

So empathy is a choice you make.

But it’s a vulnerable choice.

Because to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.

That’s why true empathy is so difficult to gain. And even harder to practice.

Why should you care, anyway?

Why is this so important?

Because empathy is the heart of storytelling.

And empathy is the guiding principle of designing involving experiences.

When it’s there, you can see it in the work you do.

Here are some examples. They’re from different kinds of organizations. They’re for different products and causes. See if you can spot what they all have in common.

Empathy in storytelling

How does it feel to be a member of the dads-with-little-kids tribe?

An everyday story of an everyday situation. But seen through the eyes of someone living with autism.

And here’s a story with a plot twist to touch high school students. Say no more.

Empathy in experiences

Empathic experiences reflect a tribe’s hopes, dreams, and desires. And make those feelings doable. Like this experience platform for the color blind tribe.

Empathetic experiences can add up to something meaningful, sharable, and irreplaceable.

How do you help an international tribe of globetrotting fashionistas stay in touch? Send a kiss to someone half way across the planet?

Feeling it yet?

There are some things we can do to help ourselves feel empathy.

The first is to recognize that empathy is about the tribe.

You can’t have true empathy for everyone in the world. But you can for your unique tribe.

For me to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his place.

Instead, I must imagine myself as him. More than that, I must imagine myself as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself.

Empathy’s not for everyone

I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling.

To empathize with a particular person, I need to understand who he is and what he is doing or trying to do.

As John Steinbeck wrote,

It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.

I know this sounds obvious

But it’s crucial.

Take a step back in your life.

Try to identify with the needs and interests of people in your tribe. Try to see the world through the same lens that they do.

They are functioning through their own unique worldview. It is what drives them.

As a wise man once said,

Empathy is about the tribe

To be empathic, purpose-driven organizations must focus on three areas:

  1. How their tribe sees the world that is. How does it work? What’s wrong with the way it works?
  2. The tribe’s vision of the world that can be. How should things work? What does a better future look like?
  3. What needs to change to go from the world that is to the world that can be?

Empathy is about understanding mindsets

The friction caused by these three mindsets is what drives them to action.

It lies at the heart of their purpose. It is what connects them to one another. It is what connects them to the tribe’s cause.

Yes, we also need to understand what they value most in the world. And what they believe their purpose is.

The cool part is that we can put all this information in perspective and see how it all relates by mapping it.

Enter the empathy map

An empathy map is a diagram. A model. It is divided into sections that call out different aspects of a tribe member’s experience.

In this map, the sections relate to the tribe’s mindset in four areas.

Their view of the world that is.

What they believe the world can be.

What needs to change to go from what is to what can be.

What they feel matters most in the world.

Sticky notes are put in each section. They highlight the thoughts, influences, actions, and feelings of people in each area.

It’s a map of the heart

Empathy maps are important because they serve dual purposes. They help us structure our ideas around empathy.

And they create a very clear artifact that can be easily shared and understood.

When everyone understands those four areas, the work you do will connect with your tribe. It will be more compelling. It will inspire action. Because they are the heart of designing great experiences and telling great stories.

Another empathy exercise

Think about the mind-set of the very first person from your tribe you see each day

  • What’s their story?
  • What might be their needs and wants?
  • How are they responding to their environment?
  • How is their environment responding to them?
  • What would it be like to walk (or sit, or stand) in the shoes of that person?
  • What do you think you would feel?
  • What can you learn from imagining their experience?

Ask these questions and you’ll start seeing things from another person’s perspective. And that is the core of empathy.

Beyond empathy

But there is something that goes beyond empathy. It makes empathy actionable.

It’s called compassion.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy.

It is associated with an active desire to ease what’s wrong.

With empathy, I share your emotions. With compassion I not only share your emotions. But I also elevate them into a transcending experience.

Compassion builds on empathy

Compassion is the great opportunity for purpose-driven people. Especially those who design experiences and tell stories.

We have the power to convert empathy into action. Action that changes things. Things that really matter.

It all starts with empathy.

A deep desire on your part. To care. To actively listen. To ask questions. And to be curious.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s your take?