Developing Creative Empathy

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Empathy is one of the most important ingredients of creativity. Whether you’re designing a campaign for a nonprofit or trying to write a song for your EP, your goal is to make other people think and feel, “me too.”

So how do you actually do it? How do you make art that makes people feel less alone?

Your own vulnerability is required.

Empathy is all about joining somebody in their emotional experience. To meet somebody at an emotional wavelength, you need to tap into the times you’ve felt that emotion the strongest.

If you think of the songs that give you all the feels, it’s because their songwriters were able to translate their own emotional journey into a work of art that applies just as much as your own.

So get real about how things make you feel. Develop emotional intelligence. Get good at saying “when ____ happens, I feel _____.” Take it a step further and describe that feeling in as many ways as possible. Is it a knot in your throat or your stomach dropping? Is it a light going dark all of a sudden? Is it a sense of bravery that you haven’t felt since you were six and went exploring in the ocean?

Process the problems you’re solving.

You are offering something of value to the world- a product, a service, a work of art. But most of all, you’re offering a solution to a problem. Name the problem.

What is it? Climate change? Loneliness? The lack of disabled persons of color in mainstream media? Think of how that problem makes you feel. React to it. Go back to the first time you learned about the issue. Recreate the physical space in your mind. Process it.

Then think of how that problem makes other people feel. If people are currently aware of the problem, how would it make them feel? Meet them there.

Don’t create in isolation.

The worst environment for a creative to work in is isolation. This isn’t to say that some people shouldn’t retreat to a quiet, focused area to do deep work, but to say that you shouldn’t cut yourself off from people in a way that makes you lose empathy.

The design company IDEO is so committed to empathy that they make it Step Zero of their processes. They insist on listening as a practice and get to it before brainstorming even begins.

When do you take the time to listen? How do you listen? Make sure you take the time to leave the walls of your studio or office or lab.

Make sure you stay abreast of what makes people anxious, hopeful, angry, relieved, embarrassed, or proud. Don’t be afraid to name people’s concerns for them, after you’ve validated that your suspicions are correct.

Try empathy mapping.

If you’re looking for a really practical, hands on tool to give some direction to your practice of empathy, consider using an empathy map.

This is a framework that breaks down what your audience says, does, thinks, and feels. It’s helpful to have this distinction because these four things aren’t always uniform.

I personally find it helpful, because I often experience people saying one thing that ultimately doesn’t line up with their actions. Steve Jobs famously believed that customers didn’t know what they wanted until it existed in front of them. I often think that way myself, but I still believe listening matters. What people say isn’t the full story, but when combined with what they do, think, and feel it becomes much more complete.

Empathetic creativity calls for listening, observation, experience, and vulnerability. In and of itself it’s an art form. The makers who succeed at it reap the reward.

Philippe Lazaro