Can Empathy Be Taught?

Scientists think so. 

There’s evidence that empathy is both a trait and a state. People can be naturally empathic, just like some people are naturally creative, humble, or diplomatic. And good news… less empathic people can learn to get better at it.

design thinking framework

When using the design thinking framework (above), UX and CX teams talk A LOT about empathy. But, what does it actually mean to “empathize with customers?” Does everyone on the team have the same understanding of empathy and same level of proficiency in empathy skills? Probably not.

Before empathizing with customers, you may find you must first teach empathy skills. First, it’s critical for everyone on the team to understand that empathy has 3 dimensions:

  • Cognitive empathy
  • Affective empathy
  • Behavioral empathy

How to Teach Empathy (and How Not to)

I’m still researching scientifically-tested and effective ways to teach empathy, but here is what I have uncovered so far that seems to work (or not work).

Perspective-Taking

Perspective-taking exercises seem to be effective. These include role-playing exercises, writing exercises, and workshop exercises (e.g., empathy mapping) where employees are asked to take the perspective of a customer and metaphorically walk in their shoes. 

Simulations

Simulating what it’s like to be someone else—either virtually or in real life (e.g., weighted garment to “experience” pregnancy, blurry glasses to “experience” being visually impaired)—seems to increase people’s knowledge about a particular condition. However, the jury’s still out whether this leads to increased empathy, too. (Currently leaning no.)

Coaching

Coaching and training seems to be an effective method for teaching empathy. Employees practice mirroring and communicating empathy with virtual, pretend, or real customers—and get constructive feedback about their performance from an empathy coach.

Goal-Setting

Asking employees to set their own goals only seems to work if employees are truly motivated to be more empathic. Like anything, doing something because you were told to doesn’t usually have a lasting impact.

Lecturing

Teaching employees about customers in a lecture-style format doesn’t appear to work at all. In fact, some research has shown it to have the opposite effect. Lecturing can actually reinforce and amplify some employees’ biases toward others.

In Conclusion

When evaluating an empathy training program, consider which of the three dimensions of empathy you want to improve—or how you might supplement the training to include all of them.

For example, a common empathy-building technique is creating an empathy map. However, this process only helps employees build their cognitive empathy. Consider adding role-playing exercises so that the team can also strengthen their affective empathy and behavioral empathy skills, too.

See also: Thinking, Feeling, and Doing Empathy
See also: Can Empathy Be Measured?

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Author: Kristine Remer

June UX is led by Kristine Remer, a CX / UX research and strategy consultant in Minneapolis. She helps companies drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. When she's not creating customer journey maps and conducting diary studies, Kristine is either kayaking or watching her kids play soccer.