4 Ways to Activate Your Empathy

Rachel Cope

  • Reading Time  Min Read
  • Publish Date March 15, 2017

As a child I loved listening to the stories of my grandma. I remember sitting at
her breakfast table, the sun shining through the rainbow prism reflecting
dancing flecks of light through the kitchen.

She told me stories of her childhood, the Great Depression, and the War. The
tragedy of her father’s early death, and the tenacity of her single mother who
baked 13 pies every morning to make ends meets. She shared the joy of meeting
her life-long “sweetheart” and wept at the loss of her brother who died when she
was 5.

Her stories moved me. They invited me into her childhood and made me feel
connected to relatives I never met. They taught me about human relationships,
their complexities, of pain and losses, and of life’s deep joys.

Her stories taught me empathy.

The Dust Bowl

Em·pa·thy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by
imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

Great designers are great empathizers

As UX designers, we hear a lot about the importance of empathy. We know that we
build better products when we have a deep understanding of what users want and

Empathy is a required skill, up there with creating user flows, mastery of
Sketch and Illustrator, and prototyping in HTML/CSS. While there are no
bootcamps or courses on empathy, here are 4 ways that we can activate the
empathetic centers of our brains and learn to emotionally tune in to our

Rachel B&W image

1) Read Literary Fiction

Stories, like the ones told my by grandparents, have the powerful ability to
evoke strong feelings and draw us into the lives of other people.

Studies have shown that reading literary

(in contrast to non-fiction or popular fiction) enhances the ability to
understand others’ mental states and decipher complex social relationships.

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s
eyes for an instant?”

— Henry David Thoreau

Literary fiction requires readers to make inferences about characters, tune into
emotional nuances, and use imagination to fill in gaps. In turn, we become more
empathetic, socially perceptive, and emotionally intelligent.

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2) Spend time in nature

Recently, I did an overnight winter hut trip. We hiked into a Forest Service
fire lookout with 360° views — where the cold, wind, and beauty were strong
enough to take your breath away.

We awoke to a glowing sunrise and
spent most of the day gazing at mountain peaks and feeling immersed in the
nature that surrounded us. We were there for less than 24 hours, but on
returning to the city, I felt distinctly more calm, creative, and connected to
those around me.

In scientific
, the
experience of hiking in the snow, watching the sun set and rise again, and
feeling connected to nature lit up the “anterior cingulate and insula” areas of
my brain.

By looking at scenes of nature we not only become more relaxed and happier,
but the sociable areas of our brain associated with empathy and altruism are

Tip: Plan a picnic in the park, trek through Patagonia, or go on a weekend
camping trip. As designers we should make nature a part of our lives.

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3) Travel

Travel may be my personal favorite way to cultivate empathy. I don’t mean
traveling to an all-inclusive resort, but rather meaningful travel — with the
purpose of experiencing new cultures, people, and perspectives.

When you travel with that purpose, you are pushed out of your comfort zone and
share in another’s culture and humanity. In other words, you develop empathy.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in
having new eyes. — Proust

My first taste of meaningful travel was an 8th grade mission trip to a Mexico
orphanage. That trip impacted me and was the “travel gateway drug” that led me
to do home-stays throughout Latin America, move to a remote village in Guatemala
for two years, and what still inspires me to travel today.

While full
immersion is not always feasible, there are ways to make travel meaningful and
share genuine interaction with other people and cultures.

Tip: If you have friends (or friends of friends) in another country, travel
there. If not, find a home stay or book an Airbnb. While Airbnb is not fully
immersive, staying in the home of stranger is an intimate encounter with their
culture and way of life.

Rachel Church

4) Meditation and prayer

The ancient practices of prayer and mediation train us to observe our thoughts
and to refocus ourselves from “self-centered” to “other-centered”, making us
more empathetic and more able to intuit the needs of others.

A study on Buddhist meditation

showed that mediation increases activity in the empathy regions of the brain and
helps improve the ability to read facial and emotional expressions of other

Tip: Start with 5 minutes a day. It will change your life.

Empathy Makes Us Better Designers and Humans

By incorporating these four activities and habits in our lives we can build
empathy into our brains and lives.

With that deeper empathy, we will better understand users’ experiences and
motivations and design products and solutions that meet their needs.

Not only will we become better human-centered designers, but we’ll become better
partners, coworkers, and humans in the process.

Article orginally published on Medium.

Rachel Cope

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