Empathy is Hard.


For the majority of my life I have been baffled by a very deep, very stupid question. “How can someone who has taken a loan, enjoy anything?”

Now, I understand why that would sound stupid to you. It sounds stupid to me now. But as a twelve year old kid, all I could think when I saw my relatives who took a home loan, going to an expensive restaurant, was “How can you enjoy this moment? you have hundreds of thousands worth of loan! You should be saving every penny you can to pay back the loan! STOP ENJOYING!”

I believed this stupid thing till the day I got myself a student loan. I still vaguely remember the day I actually got the loan. After, I finished signing all the documents at the bank, came back to my hostel room exhausted and instinctively went to the cafeteria to have a hot cup of coffee. I don’t remember precisely but, probably that was the time I realized what every debtor ever in the whole word know: “I will not be changing my daily behavior or stop “enjoying” just because I got a loan.”

Let me tell another instance of similar behavior. I couldn’t believe people liked drinking coffee without sugar. I thought they have something wrong with their taste buds or they intentionally want to drink bad coffee or they just don’t want to be happy. And of course I started drinking coffee without sugar recently. Now, why I started it is a story for another time. But the important thing is that I now prefer my coffee without sugar and yes my taste buds are fine.

Similar story repeats when it comes to me starting to use public transport, switching to Ubuntu OS and using fountain pens.


Now, apart from highlighting the stupidity of my younger self, the point I want to make here is that Empathy is hard. It was hard for me to get into thought process of a debtor until I became one. Same goes for those drinking espresso or writing with fountain pen.

Ah…Empathy, the hottest new buzz word in technology and corporate scene. Everyone from designers, to product managers to the CEOs are supposed to have empathy now. That’s the rule according to the popular twitter wisdom at least. The likes of Satya Nadella have attributed it to the success of their companies. Countless others have written blogs and books about it.


What is Empathy?

Let me do the cliche thing first. {In generic old English man’s voice} : Websters English Dictionary define empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

If you skipped the last paragraph, you are not alone. No, seriously. I copied the definition from the Webster’s website but haven’t read it. Let me give you a simpler, more metaphorical definition. “To empathize with someone is to put yourself in someone’s shoes.” That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. More methodically it is creating emotional and behavior model of someone for yourself. It is not holding hands with someone, but looking through their lens.

It definitely not the touchy-feely thing you only feel for the less fortunate.(Hint: That’s sympathy)

With this definition in mind, it becomes obvious why many businesses want their employees to empathize with their customers. And it seems very easy to do, especially if you are the target customer. But if you are not, it can be very difficult as I have demonstrated earlier. It is hard for a charter jet interior designer to empathize with their billionaire customers. And it is hard for a millionaire CEO to empathize with poor malaria victim customers of her medicine.

I am in a minor Empathy deficiency of my own right now. I am developing an internet product for migrant blue-collar workers. I find it extremely difficult to judge what product feature someone will use, what will they like and what they wont.


I have found two ways which seem to be working for me to empathize with my target audience. I think they are general enough to be applicable for most readers.

1. Talk with them when they are emotional.

Talk to your customers or whoever you want to empathize with. But talking to them when everything is good and happy is not that helpful. Talk to them when they are angry, when they are frustrated and sad. What frustrate someone? What makes them angry and sad? Answers to these questions will tell you what they care about, what is important to them. This will help you create a better mental model of their emotions and behaviors.

If they are angry and frustrated at your particular service or product, That is the golden opportunity. Don’t avoid such customer calls. Those calls would probably save you hundreds of A/B tests later on.

2. Read or Watch fiction.

Fiction, where the characters belong to your target audience can be a very useful tool for developing empathy. If the creators and writers have done a good job, not only you will be able to empathize better, but you would find it difficult not to empathize with the characters.

You are essentially outsourcing empathy creation to the writers and storytellers. This can be a powerful and entertaining tool of forming empathy.


Of course, Empathy is hard. If it would have been easy every other guy would be Satya Nadella.

In any case, what do you think about empathy? Or do you think about it at all. Leave a response below. I would love to read your views on the subject.

Connect with me on twitter here if you want to discuss something.

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