The Limits of Empathy ... and Getting Past Them
June 22, 2021 | Empathy
by Greg Warman

Empathy has been a hot topic in the business world for a couple of decades now. At ExperiencePoint, where we teach a customer-centered approach to innovation, it’s really the foundation of everything we do. The longstanding rationale is that you’re only going to develop products and services that truly meet your customers’ needs iffollowing the cliché you put yourself in their shoes. Through careful observation and in-depth interviews, radical understanding lets us think and feel from someone else’s point of view, letting go of our own biases, preferences and assumptions. At least, so the theory goes.


My first gnawing doubts about empathy were cast mid-pandemic. As the first COVID summer gave way to tighter restrictions last fall, we wanted to be sensitive and responsive to everything our employees were going through. We made brief employee check-ins a part of every group meeting, hoping that this new ritual would make us better equipped to work together as a team. 

A few weeks later, after one of these group meetings, an employee asked if we could chat over Zoom. She was visibly embarrassed as she explained how stressful she found the check-ins. It wasn’t in her nature to discuss personal things in a professional setting, she said, and recounting her troubles at home only exacerbated them in her mind. “If you want me to go there, I can do it,” she said. “It’s just that I’d really rather not!”  

I left that Zoom call feeling lost. In my attempt to be compassionate and receptive to my employees, I’d effectively done the opposite. I subjected everyone to my own idea of what it felt like to be supported and understood, without considering for a moment how different other people’s notions and definitions of support might be. I committed a cardinal sin of human-centered design by projecting my individual assumptions onto the group. For someone who extols the value of empathy, it was more than a little embarrassing. It was a tough blow.


The reckoning that followed that Zoom call led me down a more productive path. I started to wonder whether there’s something misguided about our faith in empathywhether there’s even a degree of hubris in it. No matter how hard I try to imagine another person’s reality, my attempts at empathy will only ever reduce their experiences to what I can understand or have been through myself. To revisit the original cliché: You may put yourself in someone else’s shoes but, effectively, you’re still the one doing the walking, with all the tics, habits and preferences that are uniquely your own. So despite the noblest intentions, you’re neglecting the fullness and complexity of another person’s experience. 

The problem of understanding the “other” has been an enduring one in philosophy. One of the most noted thinkers on the subject was 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who believed that understanding another person necessarily involved comparison to the self, and limited our comprehension accordingly. His theory presents an unsolvable conundrum: we can only understand each other through what we already understand. Consequently, there will always be limits to what we can empathize with. Worse still, the very nature of our ignorance will be unknowable to us.


 In an attempt to get more meaningful feedback from employees, my co-principal and I hosted individual one-on-ones. We started conversations on what we’d learned during the pandemic, and what aspects of these learnings we wanted to retain. But my rethinking of empathy has kickstarted something bigger at my company. It’s generated a larger discussion about that first, capital “E” step of human-centered design—how illusory empathy may be and whether it’s possible to get past its limitations. We’re discussing new methodologies that could enable those living a particular experience to become an integral part of the design process. We’re asking how we can broaden the direct input of human-centered design, instead of trying to interpret other people’s experiences. We’re questioning the best ways to codify inclusivity and diversity into our approach to customer-centered design. 

 The conversation is still in-progress, but it feels urgent, exciting and long-overdue.

Read more about leadership and compassion in our post Leading Through Empathy