Empathy: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings

Over the last year or so, the user experience community has been talking a lot about “people skills.” We tell each other about how our work is more than the deliverables we create. And it’s true. But I think we are getting pretty close to jumping the shark on this topic. We’re approaching what I’d call the “kumbaya phase.” And I say this as a person who just gave a talk at the IA Summit in which vulnerability, patience, and empathy were used prolifically to talk about leading change. Indeed, all these qualities and more are needed to get our work done. No argument there. We absolutely need to step out from behind our screens and understand the people we work with and our audiences.

But if we start saying that empathy is going to get our work accepted and implemented, I’m going to have to call bullshit. I’ve got an unused content strategy in my drawer dated 2008 (5 years before I started the job) that, despite perhaps enormous amounts of empathy, could never have been implemented at the time. I know the people who created it. I don’t doubt there was plenty of listening and talking before and after the document was delivered. They knew what they were doing, they understood the audience, and recommended exactly what was needed. So why did this strategy – and so many others – get banished to a drawer? Because there was no one inside the organization to champion it. No single point of contact to shepherd the implementation. No internal change agent to lead the way.

Instead of a constant stream of empathy, maybe we need to throw in a few lessons of hard knocks. Empathy is not education. It won’t bring clarity to murky situations, or otherwise help clients fully understand what work really needs to be done. It doesn’t provide the leadership needed to make bold decisions that will change the course of organizations. Empathy builds trust and relationships, but it won’t get the work done.

Employee vs Consultant

I am in a position of having been on both sides of the fence. For 10 years I was a consultant. I’ve been the in-house web director at a mid-size organization for over a year now. I look back at sites I helped develop as a consultant and weep at what happened to them. So many have not followed advice on what makes good content, have messed with the carefully thought out architecture, or otherwise put their strategy in the drawer and just do what they want.

Now that I am in the client’s shoes, I think back to what I and my colleagues could have done differently to prevent that from happening. Rarely have I thought “we should have been more empathetic.” In fact, sometimes, we were empathetic to a fault. Mostly I think about better education. As in, “If only I had taken the time to sit down and explain what was going to need to happen throughout the organization to get this to become part of the business process” – and ask if they were prepared to do that. But I doubt most of them would have listened – or been prepared to become a change agent. They weren’t ready to hear it. Many people and organizations need to learn the hard way, by making mistakes themselves instead of learning from others.

Just as others who have gone from being a consultant to an internal team member, I discovered that it is only by being a cog in the wheelhouse that you uncover the biggest obstacles – and learn how to overcome them. As a consultant, I witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly in clients. There is no small amount of empathy needed to get people to trust you and listen. But it takes a lot of guts to speak up and challenge the status quo, to lead the way to making user experience (or IA or content strategy) an integral part of the business.

Can consultants challenge the status quo from the outside? Sometimes, but only if they have the right partner on the inside. In my case, not only did the consultant fully understand the path ahead, they documented it, and outlined exactly what was needed to make it happen. But it has taken 5 years and someone new in-house to say the same things before anyone would listen. I know I am not alone in this experience.

Should consultants listen to their clients and help them understand what kind of effort will be needed to implement recommendations? Absolutely! Should they commiserate and empathize with their clients when they are bumping up against obstacles? Of course! But to go into every project thinking that empathy is the main ingredient in making change happen is going to make for a lot of disappointed and frustrated consultants. Instead, as a consultant, you need to go in with a sense of realism, a willingness to listen and make hard decisions to walk away from projects that are doomed to fail, and to make recommendations that could put yourself out of a job. This attitude is going to get us all further down the road. Only when clients hear more of this will they learn and accept the truth: That change is hard and takes a lot of guts to make it happen.