The Empathy Puzzle

For the past few months, I've been looking for a job.

A pink-haired woman and a blue-haired man talking while sitting on the bed by the window sill.
Image Credit: Dall-E

Whenever I'm presented with a challenge where I don't have a lot of first-hand knowledge, I like to reach back to the second original superpower of humanity: books.1

So I found a few great reads and while devouring their advice about resumes and cover letters, networking, and job interviews, I noticed a familiar pattern. Virtually all authors started with the same piece of advice:

To be successful in your job search, you need to empathize with the employers looking to fill a position.

This sentence looked eerily familiar to me because of the very similar ones I heard both as a doctor and as a product designer:

To successfully treat a patient, you need to empathize with them. This will allow you to gather an accurate history and make them feel safe.

To build a successful product, you need to empathize with your users. Only this way you can understand their real problems and create solutions they will want to use.

It seems that whenever you want to do something that involves another person, you ought to start with that person. And the continued need for advice such as the ones above shows that we are generally not very good at that.

I have a couple of ideas why.

Maybe it is because we like to put ourselves first. After all, we are wired to look at the world through our own personal lens and it requires effort to consider others. Still, there are plenty of selfless, generous people who give a lot but fail to give empathy—at least occasionally.

Maybe it is because we simply don't know about the essential role of empathy. There are definitely a lot of surprised faces when product people first learn about Design Thinking or med students attend their first Communication in Healthcare seminar. On the other hand, there are also seasoned designers who occasionally skip user testing and senior doctors who fail to connect with patients.

No, lack of knowledge alone cannot explain the lack of empathy.

Maybe it is as simple as empathy costing time we don't have. I've seen this one a lot: people convincing themselves they don't need to listen because they already know what the other person wants to say.

Let's skip those user tests now because we need to ship the feature soon.


Please, understand, Mrs. Rosenberg—it's not important to talk about every single medical procedure you had during your eighty-one years of life.

To be fair, sometimes they are right. But more often than not, people can surprise you if you let them talk.

What trips me up is that even though I consider myself an altruistic person, know how useful and essential empathy is, and generally have enough time, I can still fail to give it sometimes.

I mean... what's up with that?

It took reading Marshall B. Rosenberg's phenomenal book2, Non-violent Communication to finally have the last piece of my own empathy puzzle. Dr. Rosenberg makes the following observation in a chapter titled When Pain Blocks Our Ability to Empathize:

It is impossible for us to give something to another if we don’t have it ourselves. Likewise, if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to empathize despite our efforts, it is usually a sign that we are too starved for empathy to be able to offer it to others.

It's not that I'm selfish, uninformed, or in a hurry. I simply don't feel heard so it's impossible to hear others.

Once said out loud, it sounds simple, dumb even.

A lot of great unlocks in life are like that.

Realizing the problem, the solution sounds pretty simple too. But I'll let Dr. Rosenberg do the talking:

Sometimes, if we openly acknowledge that our own distress is preventing us from responding empathically, the other person may come through with the empathy we need.


At other times, it may be necessary to provide ourselves with some “emergency first aid” empathy by listening to what’s going on in ourselves with the same quality of presence and attention that we offer to others. [...] If we become skilled at giving ourselves empathy, we often experience in just a few seconds a natural release of energy that then enables us to be present with the other person.

If you need empathy, ask for it and if that's not possible, be the bigger person in the situation, take a deep breath, give yourself some emergency empathy, then offer it to the other person too. You will give them what they need to finally be able to hear you and then both of you can start to escape the empathy deficit tailspin together.

Move first to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous one.

Simple, right? Easy? No.

This is one of those things where the theory is straightforward but the execution requires real effort. It's hard to give yourself empathy, and it's even harder to give it to another person, especially if you feel hurt by them.

Not to mention that empathy for others need to be backed up with healthy boundaries for yourself and a stable sense of self-worth, otherwise, you can easily find yourself as the emotional trash can for the people around you.

Still, even with all of those caveats, I think it is worth trying. Immensely so.

Empathy is fundamental whenever other people are involved in your life and I challenge you to find stuff that does not involve other people in some way. On the flip side, it also means that if you master this one skill, you'll become a better version of a lot of things all at once. A better job searcher, doctor, designer, spouse, parent, friend.

In short, a better human both for yourself and for everyone around you.

And that seems like something worth striving for, no?

1. The first one being language.

2. See, another book. I maintain that they are magic.

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