Harsh empathy

I’ve come up with similar findings in a series of studies done in collaboration with the Yale graduate student Nick Stagnaro. We start by giving people a simple test that measures their degree of empathy. Then we tell them some awful stories, about journalists kidnapped in the Middle East, about child abuse in the United States. And then we ask them how best to respond to those responsible for the suffering. In the Middle East case, we give a continuum of political options, from doing nothing to public criticism, all the way to a military ground invasion. For the domestic version, we ask about increased penalties for the abuser, from increasing their bail to making them eligible for the death penalty. Just as with the genetic study, we found that the more empathic people are, the more they want a harsher punishment.

Paul Bloom described the dark side of empathy recently in The Atlantic.

I knew immediately on reading Bloom’s article that there was something in it, something that I wanted to get it. It’s been a week since I read it, and I think I’m nearly there.

I knew, of course, that this applied to me. In the article, Bloom mentions “scans for specific genes that make people more sensitive to vasopressin and oxytocin, hormones that are implicated in compassion, helping, and empathy.” I’ve not taken one of these tests, but as someone who has been known to cry at television commercials, I’m fairly sure that I’d test fairly highly for these genes.

The dark side Bloom discusses certainly applies to me. I immediately dislike someone hurts someone else—physically or emotionally. I may think I can hide the fact that I dislike them, but experience has proven otherwise. I’ve twice had people I once knew come up to me years later and say “I got the impression that you didn’t like me much.” They were right. In both cases, the person had once done something to a close friend. Not anything terrible, just the standard unkindness of someone who is being thoughtless.

Empathy can be a dark lens through which I view people. I don’t think I fully realised this until reading Bloom’s article. When friends and family are involved, this has affected my personal life. But I can see now that it’s affected my professional, as well.

I can recall a conversation with a colleague at a new job. Another new recruit and I had a question about some button copy. We were both fairly convinced that the copy wouldn’t be clear to our customers. It was a gut feeling on both our parts, but the copy just felt wrong. We started to discuss it with someone who had been at the company for much longer than us. His response was something along the lines of “that copy works.” It was said with absolute certainty. My immediate response was “Really?” You know the kind of “really?” I’m talking about. The kind intended to make the other person feel like an idiot, dripping with disdain.

Just as Bloom describes in the article, this disdain was coming from the right place: empathy for our customers. The reaction was over the top, though. I may have been taken aback by their certainty, but it proved well founded. It turned out, I was the idiot and I had jeopardized a relationship with a person I’d need to work with closely on a daily basis.

My first job out of high school was working for Greenpeace. I spent about a year there, but eventually left. One of the reasons I left was because of the way we talked about the people who ran companies. At a city council meeting, one of our members found herself talking to the head of a company responsible for an incinerator we were trying to shut down. It wasn’t until halfway through the conversation that she realised who he was. She told us about this during one of our meetings. She said said he was actually rather nice. Perhaps we should see if we should speak to him. She was immediately shouted down.

Greenpeace didn’t manage to shut down the incinerator, at least not while I was there. The thing I learned from being at Greenpeace is that you can’t talk to a monster, and we choose who to turn into a monster. Perhaps, though, our empathy for other people makes this choice for us.

A lot of people who do what I do for a living spend a lot of time with the customers of they companies they are working with. We spend even more time thinking about those customers. Our job is coming up with solutions with those customers in mind. This is absolutely what we should be doing.

However, that dark side or empathy comes up again and again. Our empathy for customers results in unnecessarily harsh judgements. We judge the people who did the work that preceded us, the people that run the companies we work for, the people that we work with on a day to day basis.

I was once speaking with a friend about a usability review of a website he’d worked on over a number of years. It was clear that he felt the whole thing was a waste of time. It turns out the problem was that the review contained comments along the lines of “Clearly, no consideration has been given to…”, “It appears that no one has thought about…”, “Not sure what the aim was here.” These comments were certainly coming from the right place: empathy for the customer, but the end result of these comments was that nothing in the usability was going to be acted on.

This friend had worked passionately over a number of years to make his company succeed and had been involved in most of the areas of the website which were being commented on. His response to the comments was something along the lines of “F*** them. They clearly don’t understand the challenges and thinking that went into those pages. They didn’t even ask about it. We’re not changing anything.”

I didn’t write that usability review, but I could have. There are several heuristic reviews I’ve written that may well have contained that kind of language. Now I find myself wondering whose work I was dismissing and if I managed to offend someone to the point that they simply ignored those recommendations. 

Empathy for people—for our customers—is a good thing. It can backfire on us, though. Our misplaced judgements can inadvertently make our jobs difficult if not impossible. If I had asked questions instead of coming out with a thoughtless “Really?”, I would have had a better starting point making improvements. If Greenpeace had managed to speak to the head of the company as a human being rather than a monster, perhaps some compromise could have been made. If the author of the usability review had been able to apply the Peel mantra and honor the work done by others, some of the opportunities for improvement would almost certainly have been acted on.

The more I do what I do, the more I feel that the hardest part of my job is taking the time to listen. I really like what John Maeda has said about storylistening. Each of the examples of harsh empathy I’ve given above involves someone “getting stuck in their own story.” That button copy is worse for our customers. Anyone who runs a company that pollutes is inherently evil. Whoever designed this website didn’t have their customers in mind at all. None of these things are true. And believing they’re true clouds our judgement and means that we’re quite simply misinformed. It takes time to listen past our judgements, but in the end doing our jobs well means doing the hard work of listening before we make a decision.


Switchtracking is a pattern in feedback conversations that is so common that it’s instantly recognizable: someone gives you feedback and your reaction to that feedback changes the subject.

A switchtrack is that place where the track is going a long and there is a switch. Depending on the way the switch is turned the train will glide smoothly onto a second track or stay on the first track.

So what’s happening is a conversation starts, the first person stays on their own conversation, the second person smoothly switches to a different topic which is their own reaction to the feedback and often the feedback that they have themselves for the first person. They get further and further apart and they don’t even realise that they’re going in different directions.

There are really two topics on the table… and [each participant] is hearing the conversation through the lens of their own topic. They’re not even realising that there are two topics on the table.

Sheila Heen discusses switchtracking on the first episode of Shankar Vedantam new Hidden Brain podcast. The Hidden Brain podcast is one I’m going to continue to listen to. You should definitely listen to this episode, if only for Heen’s entertaining example of switchtracking.

Heen was right. Switchtracking is instantly recognizable. I’ve been focusing on improving the conversations that I have with other people, both at work and outside of work. While I had a vague notion that either I or someone else was “changing the subject,” having the idea of “switchtracking” is going to make it much easier to identify when I’m doing this.

It will also make it easier to identify when someone else is doing this. As with asking more questions, identifying when someone else is switch tracking is useful not so that I can catch people out, but so I can identify what is important to the person with whom I’m speaking. Heen also addresses this in her discussion with Vedantam:

For the person doing the switchtracking, you’re just thinking, “Well, that’s not the most important thing to talk about. What we need to talk about is your problem.”

The person who started the conversation sometimes actually does realize that the other person is changing the topic, and they view it as making excuses or distracting or trying to take us off on a tangent. To the second person, it’s not a tangent at all. It’s the most important thing going on.

So that’s what the fight then becomes about. We’re both aware we’re having an argument, and the real argument is about what’s the most important topic here between us.

Interestingly, Vedantam asks Heen what happens when both people feel their topic is the most important and neither wants to give way. Heen’s response: “You’re sunk.”

This, for me, was the key insight of the podcast. I’ve been in more conversations that end like this than I’d care to admit. “You’re sunk” is exactly right. Those conversations go nowhere. Or rather, they go round and round like a screw that’s lost it’s thread.

These situations aren’t irrecoverable. The parties can come back later, but in the heat of the moment, an impasse is reached. To overcome this, someone has to give up their agenda and start listening. I’m working on becoming that person.

Ask more questions

There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions.

Jason Fried offers this nice comparison between asking questions and pushing back in Give it Five Minutes. The advice to “give it five minutes” comes from a conversation Fried had with Richard Saul Wurman after Fried immediately started critiquing various points in a talk that Wurman gave. As Fried points out, giving it five minutes is about thinking something through rather than immediately disagreeing.

Over the last few years, one of the big efforts I’ve made is to listen better. I’ve written about it repeatedly over the last two years, though it feels longer than that since I first wrote about listening up. It’s been a big focus of my life recently.

Nevertheless, I constantly catch myself reacting to something before I really give the other person a chance to explain their ideas. Instead of asking “why?” five times or restating what I’m being told to make sure I understand, I put forward an idea of my own or explain why I don’t think their idea will work. I’ve improved, but slowly. I’m still working on listening and asking questions instead of reacting to an idea I don’t like or falling in love with my own idea.

Yesterday provided good examples of both my success and failure in this realm.

A conversation at work involved several people with different points of view. Instead of immediately putting forward my opinion, I asked questions about the problem and the various solutions being proposed. The conversation concluded with everyone speaking their mind. Not everyone got their way, but everyone got the chance to explain their ideas.

A second conversation between a colleague and myself didn’t go so well. It started off well, but got derailed when I made a point about in idea the other person had. The other person dismissed my idea and proceeded to make the same points they’d previously been making with more force. My response was to make my points with equal force (perhaps even more force, if I’m honest). And with that our conversation became a heated argument.

This exchange reveals a weakness of mine: I respond to pushback by pushing back harder. A later conversation with the person I’d been arguing with was helpful. It made me realize that if someone is pushing hard for an idea, that it’s because they believe in that idea. It seems obvious, but it’s something I often overlook.

I think that the Peel mantra applies here. If I don’t understand or don’t like someone’s idea, I should assume it’s my fault. Rather than poking holes in some of their arguments, I need to get a better understanding of two things: what problem are they trying to solve and why do they believe their solution is going to solve it. In short: ask more questions. I have the techniques to do this, but those techniques go out the window when things get heated.

Apparently, Jason Fried has experienced something similar.

Learning to think first rather than react quick is a life long pursuit. It’s tough. I still get hot sometimes when I shouldn’t. But I’m really enjoying all the benefits of getting better.

I whole-heartedly agree. The are definitely benefits to working on this. Professionally, I feel that it equips me to make better and better-informed decisions. Both professionally and personally, it has improved many of my relationships. Listening up is worth it, but it’s not easy.

Grandmother sources

The histories I’ve written have often been hidden, lost, neglected, too broad or too amorphous to show up in others’ radar screens, histories that are not neat fields that belong to someone but the paths and waterways that meander through many fields and belong to no one. Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend primarily from painters. Just as the purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branches and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers.

Rebecca Solnit’s idea of grandmother sources (from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, pp.58-59) is a neat shorthand way of referring to a problem I have with many books. I find that non-fiction (and to an extent, fiction) books that I get enjoy most explore a topic, rather than building an argument. Strangely, this is true even when I agree with the argument that is being made. The inevitable exclusions and cherry picking that such an approach requires result in a work that lacks depth. On the other hand, openly and honestly exploring a topic—including stories and facts that might interfere with a simple, straightforward narrative—results in something I can immerse myself in and return to again and again. These are the kind of books that I learn something from every time I read them.

Solnit’s grandmother sources, and my preference for books that use them, strongly reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s plea to reject the single story in order to empower and humanize people that might not fit into the dominant narrative. It also brings to mind Matthew Chalmers’s idea of beautiful seams that allow many digital tools to flourish, rather than one dominant tool.

There is also something of Franklin’s gambit here: post-hoc rationalisation disguised as considered and informed decision making (though there are those who are honest enough to admit that most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive) . This results in a teleological history—the inevitable march of progress, manifest destiny—that erases stories from the past and obscures the many possibilities and opportunities of the present.


The Peel mantra

Any time I hear a piece of music I don’t like, I just assume it’s my problem.

John Congleton, in his interview on All Songs Considered, says that this is his mantra. He borrowed it from none other than John Peel, who said this shortly before he died.

I haven’t been able to find where John Peel said this, but I like it. Congleton gives a bit more on why he chosen this quote as his mantra.

Somebody spent the money, spent the time. They put everything they had into this. No matter how bad he thinks it is, it’s just a bummer for him that he can’t enjoy it. And I think it’s very brave to feel that way.

I’ve been doing something similar of late. For books, music, movies, television programs I don’t like, I’ve been saying “It’s just not for me” and moving on. (In my more cynical moments, I say,  “I’m not the target demographic.”)

I like the Congleton/Peel mantra more, though. I like the fact that it honors the effort people have put into creating something, whether it appeals to me or not. I like that it implies that with a bit of effort, I can understand why other people enjoy something I don’t. I like that it acknowledges that as I grow and change, so do my tastes, that something I strongly disliked before can become something that I love.


What’s the future of storytelling? I think it has a lot more to do with listening than telling. I think leaders discover so often how they can get stuck in their own story. It’s a great story, but no one is listening. They may be in the room, but no one can hear them. The only way they’re going to hear them is for the leader to listen to them first. Storylistening has to come before storytelling.

John Maeda discusses his idea of story listening as a part of The Future of Storytelling 2014.

I like the idea of storylistening. What I like more is the idea of “getting stuck in their own story.” In many ways it’s like Tolstoy’s screw on a larger scale.

The third side

Normally, when we think of conflict, there’s always two sides. It’s Arabs vs. Isrealis, labor vs. management, husband vs. wife, Republicans vs. Democrats.

But what we don’t often see is that there is always a third side. And the third side of the conflict is us. It’s the surrounding community, the friends, the allies, the family members, the neighbors.

Interestingly, for a talk about getting from “no” to “yes”, William Ury’s talk is less about persuasion and more about stepping back to get an idea of the shared context of two sides of a debate.

This approach assumes that we’re all working toward a greater good, but perhaps the point is that stepping back makes that easier to see, and to come to some sort of compromise as a result.

Pluralistic ignorance

In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, however, we are likely to overlook a subtle but important fact. Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too. Especially in an ambiguous situation, the tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to a fascinating phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance.” A thorough understanding of the pluralistic ignorance phenomenon helps immeasurably to explain a regular occurrence in our country that has been termed both a riddle and a national disgrace: the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.

Robert Ciadini in Influence describes pluralistic ignorance as one of the mechanisms that underlies social proof. In an unfamiliar situation, people look to other people for guidance. If no one acts nothing happens because people assume that the correct course of action is to not to do anything. Whereas, in the same situation an individual on her own would be far more likely to act.

To illustrate pluralistic ignorance—and the way it can be engineered—Cialdini gives the example of the Jonestown suicides. He makes a convincing case that the mass suicides wouldn’t have happened if the People’s Temple hadn’t moved to Guyana.

To my mind, the single act in the history of the People’s Temple that most contributed to the members’ mindless compliance that day occurred a year earlier with the relocation of the Temple to a jungled country of unfamiliar customs and strange people. If we are to believe the stories of Jim Jones’s malevolent genius, he realized fully the massive psychological impact such a move would have on his followers. All at once, they found themselves in a place they knew nothing about. South America, and the rain forests of Guyana, especially, were unlike anything they had experienced in San Francisco. The country—both physical and social—into which they were dropped must have seemed dreadfully uncertain.

Cialdini also offers some advice on how to overcome the effects of pluralistic ignorance:

An automatic-pilot device, like social proof, should never be trusted fully; even when no saboteur has fed bad information into the mechanism, it can sometimes go haywire by itself. We need to check the machine from time to time to be sure that it hasn’t worked itself out of sync with the other sources of evidence in the situation—the objective facts, our prior experiences, our own judgments. Fortunately, this precaution requires neither much effort nor much time. A quick glance around is all that is needed. And this little precaution is well worth it.

Social proof

The principle of social proof states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat the chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.

from Influence by Robert B. Cialdini

I’ve been thinking about social proof lately. I decided to actually pick up and read Cialdini’s Influence, which has been repeatedly recommended to me.

One of the things that occurred to me while I was reading the chapter on social proof is that it might be useful to make a distinction between phenomena that have been observed by psychologists and techniques that are used by marketing, sales and UX people. If the phenomenon is referred to as social proof, what should we call the use of social proof to try to change behavior? Cialdini offers some help here:

There are two types of situation in which incorrect data cause the principle of social proof to give us poor counsel. The first occurs when the social evidence has been purposely falsified. Invariably these situations are manufactured by exploiters intent on creating the impression—reality be damned—that a multitude is performing the way the exploiters want us to perform…

We need only make a conscious decision to be alert to counterfeit social evidence, and the smug overconfidence of the exploiters will play directly into our hands. We can relax until their manifest fakery is spotted, at which time we can pounce…

And we should pounce with a vengeance. I am speaking here of more than simply ignoring the misinformation, although this defensive tactic is certainly called for. I am speaking of aggressive counterattack. Whenever possible we ought to sting those responsible for the rigging of social evidence. We should purchase no products featured in phony “unrehearsed interview” commercials. Moreover, each manufacturer of the items should receive a letter explaining our response and recommending that they discontinue use of the advertising agency that produced so deceptive a presentation of their product.

Cialdini is particularly vitriolic here, but he has a point. Social proof works best when people are uncertain of what action to take. If we think people might be uncertain about our product or service, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we’re fabricating social evidence or simply highlighting. Even then, it’s worth asking whether highlighting social evidence is the best course of action.

If we’re trying to create value or to create opportunities rather than trying to change behavior, perhaps social proof isn’t the best way of addressing that uncertainty. Perhaps the best solution is spending some time listening to the reasons for that uncertainty, rather than trying to change behavior.

Connective listening

This is listening of the highest order, and it’s the human listening that all of us crave. It’s listening into other people to discover what’s going on inside them. It’s listening on their terms, not yours. It’s understanding where people are coming from to establish genuine rapport.

To master the art of Level Four Listening, resist the urge to defend yourself, explain yourself, or offer quick fixes. You can help more effectively later, when the time is right, if you don’t pre-judge what another person needs (which might be very different than you think). Instead, remember that you are listening to learn.

Mark Goulston and John Ullmen discussing how to listen past your blind spots.

In both my personal and professional life, listening is something I’ve been working on improving. The four levels of listening that Goulston and Ullmen outline are definitely familiar. I have definitely been guilty of avoidance and defensive listening. On my good days, I hope that I’m capable of problem-solving listening.

Much of the advice they offer to master connective listening reminds me of the psychoanalytic practice of mirroring. It’s a technique, along with yes anding and the five whys, that I’ve been using to improve my listening, to get to the heart of a problem and to try to understand where people are coming from instead of jumping to conclusions.

The ultimate goal is to become a better collaborator, neighbor and friend.