Building empathy

During our first day of field research yesterday, it wasn’t hard for our group to relate to the gamut of sentiment expressed by the individuals that we interviewed. We heard perspectives ranging from a deep frustration with the public transit system and some of its pain points, to a goosebumps-evoking sense of pride felt by an interviewee recounting when she brought her nieces (now regular transit users) on their first bus trip. So, when are we called upon to actively build empathy?

I was most aware of working to emanate empathy during our interviews when an individual attempted to describe and justify their paranoia about technology, actively seeking positive affirmation and validation of their views from our group. I was conscious of arranging my face and body in an attempt to make the interviewee feel that I exactly understood, valued, and felt their fears… while secretly having personal flashbacks to a period of life where I worked hard to maintain a positive relationship with a family member whose religious and spiritual beliefs became largely divergent from my own. It felt akin to not wanting to hurt or stymie the individual’s vulnerability and openness — by letting on that you inherently feel differently — in an effort to draw out their most pure perspective and opinion.

Perhaps these moments elicited my most intentional reactions because the stretch to step into their shoes and see the world from their point of view felt the most challenging. If I have one goal by the end of this program, it is to master that stretch such that it no longer feels unnatural or constructed to slip into a mindset vastly different from my own… and, perhaps, uncover what it means to build empathy.