Innovation Tools: Empathy

e is for empathy

This is the 9th in a series of posts regarding innovation and mechanisms for achieving it. You can find the previous articles here if you want to catch up.

Hear what the material has to say to you. One must understand “how it grows, understand its parts, understand when something is wrong with it. [An organism] isn’t just a piece of plastic, it’s something that is constantly being affected by the environment, constantly showing attributes or disabilities in its growth. You have to be aware of all that… You need to know those plants well enough so that if anything changes… you [can] look at the plant and right away you know what this damage you see is from – something that scraped across it or something that bit it or something that the wind did. You need to have a feeling for every individual plant.

That’s an excerpt from A Feeling for the Organism, The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock.

Her outstanding contribution to the scientific community is perhaps not her 1983 Nobel prize for the discovery of genetic transposition, though this is surely legacy enough. Some argue instead that her more valuable contributions to the field of science are in the areas of forming a relationship with the research object, and the language with which the results of scientific research are reported.

Consider the dominant model of science…  aggressive, hierarchical, manipulative, it sees conflict between itself and a nature who hides “her” secrets until the scientist defeats her; patriarchal, it privileges knowledge “expressed in a hierarchically arranged, closed system of binary oppositions; [valuing control,] it is concerned with achieving a unity of vision and thought, with everything in its proper place and all conflict eradicated once and for all” (Shotter and Logan 75). It is “permeated by the ideology of domination” (Longino 206).

Barbara McClintock’s legacy to science may be the way in which she has challenged the ideology of domination – championing empathy instead.

A deep reverence for nature, a capacity for union with that which is to be known – these reflect a a different image of science from that of a purely rational enterprise. (Keller, 1983).

The ideology and in particular the language of domination is an area with which I’m familiar, having followed to some extent the Non-Violent Communication teachings of Marshall Rosenberg. You can read about those in some of my other posts here [observations] and here [application]. McClintock makes for a fascinating study in that she applied empathic thinking not only in the language she used to report the results of her research (as if that wasn’t groundbreaking enough for the scientific community) but also to the object of her investigations.

I personally take a lot away from this kind of thinking. As a kind of nomadic software testing consultant, I wander from project to project and am generally tasked with helping an organisation, project or team with improving their existing software testing processes. Sometimes what is there already is actually pretty effective. Sometimes, not so much. But irrespective of what the current situation is, my first and most important task is to discover “that which is to be known.”

Like McClintock, instead of trying to control the order of things,

to force it into conformity with previously-held conceptions, to impose answers on it

I want to understand:

  • The organisation I’m working with – their goals, objectives, strategy, culture, values, market position etc.
  • The project I’m working on – its value to the business, what success looks like, who it’s important to and why they care.
  • The team(s) I’m working with – who they are, how they work, what’s important to them.
  • The technology I’m working with – the code, the architecture, the delivery process.
  • The business I’m working for – their story, their requirements.
  • And most importantly – how the all of the elements above interact with each other, often resulting in unpredictable outcomes.

Empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”

It’s by no means the only definition though, so I reckon I’m on fairly safe ground playing around with it a bit.

I want to broaden my definition to include organisms and systems, and change experiences and emotions to worldview and interactions. I want to do this because I think there’s a lot of overlap between empathising and systems thinking.

I also want to include observation and understanding as essential components, because I think empathy is, to quote Boston – more than a feeling.

According to me then, empathy can be defined as:

The ability to observe a person, organism or system and to understand their worldview, needs and how they interact with their environment, people and other organisms or systems.

I try to practice empathy by applying the principles below.

  • Be totally present – practice awareness. If you’re trying to develop an empathic understanding you need to give the subject your full attention.
  • Be patient – developing an empathic understanding can take some time. Don’t rush it.
  • Observe without judgement – try to see what is happening without evaluating it, identifying specific behaviours and conditions and how they interact.
  • Use your imagination – try to picture what things look like to someone else or understand a different worldview.
  • Listen to more than just words – look for the universal human needs behind them and be prepared to change your view based on what you hear
  • Empathy isn’t about what you do or say – speaking or doing may help to develop your understanding and may also help to create a connection, or it may not. Choose wisely.

Clearly empathy was of great value to Barbara McClintock during the course of her research career. Empathy has also been a hugely valuable tool to me, both in and out of work. It might be useful to you too. Why not give it a try?

Thanks for reading. Feel free to reach out via a comment or on the socials if anything resonates.


One Comment

Leave a Reply