Traditional views of empathy view it as a mystery. Too many of us think empathy is magic, and we’re either born with it, or we can’t do it. But empathy is a skill like any other: we can train it individually or in teams.
To empathize with someone else, we need to have some empathic ability and some proximity to the other person’s experience. If either of those factors is absent, empathy can’t happen. But increasing one factor can offset a lack of the other.
I first articulated this model in Eindhoven during my keynote at UX Camp NL 2014.
It’s true that some people are better at empathy than others, but anyone can learn (yes, even psychopathic individuals). Like training a muscle, we can train empathic ability by e.g. practicing mindfulness meditation, taking acting classes, and consciously experiencing life in new, different ways.
A person with high empathic ability can empathize with relatively little proximity.
Experiential proximity refers to how close another person’s experience is to our own. We can increase proximity by conducting research, interviewing people, simulating people’s contexts, or otherwise immersing ourselves in people’s experiences.
Increased proximity can help a person with low empathic ability to still empathize.
Besides improving our relationships, we can employ empathy in creative settings. Whether commercially or artistically, empathy can help us create things that resonate with other people in meaningful ways. Check out The Creative Empathy Field Guide for more.