Happy National Nurses Week! Thank you to all the amazing nurses who have helped the Hub on the floors and in the Hub.
The Hub spends a lot of time exploring. Depending on where you are in the hospital, you have probably seen members of the Hub roaming around doing interviews, observing what’s going on, or showing people some strange looking prototype. It is likely that we have even asked you at some point for advice, information, or an interview. We definitely ask a lot of questions and talk to a lot of people, and, as any Hubster might tell you, the reason for many of these explorations is to empathize with users to learn about their experience—a key to the design thinking process. We need to hear, see, breath, feel, and live the life of the user to the best of our ability in order to make sure that our design matches their needs.
As someone in the Hub and even before my time here, I feel that the word empathy is used quite a bit. It has surely become a bit of a buzzword similar to how innovation and patient-centered are used in so many contexts. Because of this, it can be difficult to decipher what these somewhat vague and abstract words actually mean. One of the concepts most commonly mixed up with empathy is sympathy, and differentiating between the two can be hard. It is important, however, because the projects that come out of design thinking and the Hub are fueled specifically by empathy instead of sympathy.
Empathy and sympathy both involve listening and processing another person’s situation—the nuance comes in how they involve feeling. Sympathy is when you feel for someone. Empathy is when you feel with someone. Sympathy is hearing someone’s situation and feeling good for them, bad for them, pitying them, relieved for them, etc. Empathy is joining them in that moment. It is having the same joy, sadness, fear, or anxiety of the other person. Empathy is not judging or interpreting or trying to problem solve right away. It is just being with that person in that moment.
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In our design work in the Hub, it is important that we take the time to feel with our end-users and not just feel for them. Spending this time allows for us to more accurately think of ways to address their needs, because we focus on carrying those same pains and work to directly address them. Conversely, feeling for the user leads to coming up mostly with ideas that we think are interesting, and we quickly fall into the trap of assuming that our users will think they are too. Resisting interpreting or processing feelings is one of the hardest things to do. We are so used to serving others by trying to immediately provide them with something—an answer, a plan, a service—that simply listening can feel uncomfortable.
In a place like a hospital where we see people at their most vulnerable and can listen to full and rich life stories every day, the opportunity to practice using empathy is all too prevalent, but there is a reason that emotional and empathy fatigue exists. Empathy demands energy and restraint. It is an added emotional burden—one that we are not always prepared to carry.
Know though, that we can share. We have each other. We can carry the burden together. In the Hub, it is part of our work to share the moments and emotions—they are vital to our ability to design and create as one group. Together, we share the joys and stresses and cultivate that resulting energy for action. So, although things can sometimes be overwhelming wherever we are in the hospital, remember that there are always people that are ready to feel with you—we all share that responsibility.