How to extend the same level of empathy to the people around you, as you do for the people you design for.

Humans are funny.

Particularly humans that have jobs that require them to genuinely care about the needs of other humans (like me). I’m talking about designers, researchers, psychologists, anthropologists, school counselors, mentors, advisors, nurses — any role that lends you responsible for advocating for the needs of specific segments of people you serve. This of course, requires a lot of empathy.

em·pa·thy /ˈempəTHē/ noun

1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another -Oxford Dictionary

Sometimes we become so in-tune to the needs of those particular segments in our work — like online shoppers, therapy-goers, kids in school, patients in a hospital — that our ability to empathize with others outside of that segment can become compromised. Ironically, over time compassion lessens because we are conditioned to be constantly compassionate!

One result of this empathy fatigue (or compassion fatigue)? Conflict with our colleagues, our clients, or our own loved ones at home.

I’m a UX researcher. In my case, I’m paid to care about the needs of anyone that visits my company’s websites. To do this, I’ve been trained to ask non-leading questions that look at the holistic journey a site-user takes. I empathize with their hiccups in the experience.

I’m then able to translate those hiccups into actionable things to do to eliminate them. Getting rid of the pain-points for end-users is the goal after all. Then, I share those recommendations of how to do so with stakeholders– the others responsible for the business and design pieces to the product puzzle. All of this is in order to keep our end-user’s needs front and center.

After one particular instance where I shared findings to my product managers, designers, solution owners and other business unit stakeholders we ran into a few roadblocks:

~There was a business requirement that said we needed to update something on the backend, and there wouldn’t be funding for UX updates.

~Then, there was a technical limitation that had a work-around that would have actually made the experience harder for an end-user.

~And then, a leader simply didn’t “like” the solution.

~And then, another division wanted to add their own suggestions to something outside their expertise.

And by the end of it, I was beyond perturbed. I vented to a fellow UXer about how illogical the process felt. “Why did they pay me to care about our customers and then not listen to what I heard from them? What’s the point of asking users what they need, when we wouldn’t be able to deliver on it anyway?”

In my head, I thought it was the other people’s fault we couldn’t make progress. “They’ve roadblocked my work. They don’t care about the customers really, just the profit margins.” I didn’t understand. I became worked up.

And then, I caught myself.

Why can’t I use the same process I do for customers, and place myself in my stakeholder’s shoes? Why can’t I come up with ways to navigate this, like I do every day to help customers navigate sites?

Had I really used up all my empathy trying to advocate for users, that I had none left over to extend to the people I work with?

More likely, it was a blend of compassion fatigue and cognitive biases.

I looked up at the Cognitive Bias Codex I have pinned above my desk. I put it there to keep me in check when I’m consolidating user feedback before creating my user research reports. It’s to ensure I do my best to create objective recommendations for improvements based on data, not how I feel.

Could it also help me navigate my work-place misalignment?

Surely, there was a logical reason as to why tensions were rising, and the project couldn’t move forward. Why was there such friction when making product decisions like these? After all, there are a lot of moving parts when delivering digital products, and every stakeholders’ needs are different before we get there.

In order to understand those disparate needs and find a path to move forward, I pivoted towards trying to understand internal users instead of the external customers I was used to focusing my research on.

Part of the solution? Checking my own cognitive biases.

I wasn’t extending the same level of empathy that I did for end-users in my research, to my colleagues in other departments.

Because we are human, we are really, REALLY bad at understanding how other people feel (illusion of transparency); we’re even worse at figuring out why others act the way they do (fundamental attribution error); and we’re particularly bad at removing our ego from situations, because we subconsciously need to protect our own self-esteem (self-serving bias).

I was guilty of all three.

In order to make progress— for the sake of our customers, and for the sake of the business — I first needed to become aware of the biases at play. Secondly, I needed to extend the patience, space, and empathy to the stakeholders I was struggling to align with. After all, I should be comfortable doing this because it would be the same process that I use everyday when I’m researching site-users.

Illusion of transparency

“The illusion of transparency is a tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others.[1] Another manifestation of the illusion of transparency (sometimes called the observer’s illusion of transparency) is a tendency for people to overestimate how well they understand others’ personal mental states.”

Some ways to handle it:

  • Talk about your whole self. Before diving into a meeting that you know might be difficult, carve out the first 5 minutes of the agenda to ask the other people in the room how they’re doing. How are their projects going? How was their weekend? Set aside that time and space to better understand the human across from you. This will let you get a read for the emotional climate in the room, and will act as a reminder that we are more than just the job title we bring to the meeting.
  • Literally, just ask. How are others feeling about the project? What are their needs? Instead of making assumptions about the people in the meeting, simply ask in plain terms what their goal is to get out of the [project/task/meeting]. We overestimate our ability to know our colleague’s mental state. Before assuming they’re frustrated, or stressed, or that they indeed understand the scope of the project, avoid conflict by asking what they need and how they’re feeling about it. This will help get everyone on the same page, decrease reactive or defensive responses, and hopefully lessen the need to guess what’s on other people’s minds.

Fundamental Attribution Error

“The fundamental attribution error describes the habit to misunderstand dispositional or personality-based explanations for behavior, rather than considering external factors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain and assume the behavior of others.”

Some ways to handle it:

  • You don’t know what you don’t know. This means that you can’t prescribe the reason why your colleague is pushing back on your idea, or why your partner at home is feeling upset — so don’t make assumptions. You don’t know what your colleague’s boss is requesting of them, you don’t know what your partner went through before they got home, and therefore you might not know where to start in order to understand. By clearly asking about what the other person’s goals are, and why they have them, you’ll be able to more accurately understand where they’re coming from. This will enable you to move conversation forward in a positive and productive direction, and you didn’t incorrectly attribute a faulty reason for anything in the process.
  • Be patient. If someone can’t articulate what they’re feeling, or why the business requirements are the way they are, don’t jump in and try to to answer for them. Be patient in your questions and responses with others, particularly if their previous answer showed they were having a hard time with something. If a meeting or conversation is not making meaningful progress, don’t be afraid to table it and come back to it at another time. Maybe more research needs to be done, another stakeholder needs to be in the room to answer questions, or your partner needs alone time to recharge. Spending the time to dig deeper into information, or time away from a topic when it’s heated, might allow it to become more successful later.

Self-Serving Bias

“A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner.[1] It is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.[2] …they are protecting their ego from threat and injury.”

Some ways to handle it:

  • Reflect introspectively. Try to list out your reactions and review how you’ve been navigating a project or point of conflict. Did you respond defensively? Did you talk over someone accidentally? Did you refrain from speaking up even though you wanted to? Did you try to put yourself in the other’s shoes while you were speaking with them? You may have contributed more to the conflict than you realize, and it’s this bias that creates a blindspot. Attributing all the issues with a project’s progress to your stakeholders most likely means you’re deflecting ownership of some responsibility yourself. Take note of your positive reactions in relation to your negative ones, and spend some time trying to understand why you may have reacted to things in the way you did, or what role you played in the conversation or project. Be kind to yourself, but also be firm when pin-pointing the areas in which you can improve when listening and internalizing what others across the table have to say.
  • Be aware. After you review your feelings, goals, needs, and previous reactions, make a plan to do better in the areas you noted. The first step is just being conscious of the fact that you naturally deflect blame, and take credit for positive outcomes- it’s human nature. Noting it though, is the first step in not falling victim to this bias again. Next time you confront the colleagues or partners that have been challenging to align with, make it a point to really understand the reasons why they were pushing back on you before. Be conscious of how you will react. Instead of anticipating answers, making assumptions, and feeling like your voice in the issue is more important than theirs, simply listen to what they have to say. Hopefully you’ll be able to arrive on the same page this way by giving them the space and time to share without confrontation.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen Covey

Compassion Fatigue

“Also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time… This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.[2]

Some ways to handle it:

  • Self care. Take the time to replenish your energy by turning your compassion inward. Unplug, light a candle, sip something tasty (warm, cold, fizzy, your choice), maybe read something fun or cozy up to watch your favorite show. Cook something healthy and nourishing, and then treat yourself to satisfy your sweet tooth (if you have one like me) and maybe try that new face mask, or new shaving kit you’ve been putting off. Go work out, in whatever form that means for you, and spend some time with a loved one, either in person or on the phone. Or don’t! Spend quality time with yourself, doing things only you want to do, and follow your energy. Listen to what your body needs. By tuning in to your own needs, and spending the time to nurture yourself, you’ll be able to return to your responsibilities of needing to understand and care about others. It’s just like the airplane oxygen masks — without putting your own on first, how are you supposed to help others?
  • Seek support. If you’re feeling burnt out, take some time to find the people around you that are there to care about you. Since it’s your job to be understanding and compassionate towards others for a majority of your time, seek out the people that fill that role for you. Humans are social animals, even the most introverted of us need to feel accepted, supported and ultimately loved. Take the time to re-connect and reach out with the people who understand and support you, so that you can bring your whole self to your work afterwards.

Through self-reflection and psychology research, I realized that the process I use to empathize with end-users should be the same way I approach my own interpersonal relationships.

Taking the time to allow space for other’s goals and needs, truly listening to how they’re feeling about a scenario, and removing my own ego from a less-than-ideal situation, afforded the opportunity to turn the conversation around.


How do you extend empathy to your colleagues when there’s some conflict in your work? Do you check your biases? What works for you all? Let me know in the comments below.