Empathy is an Explanation

We often forget that empathy is, first and foremost, a word.

Words mean different things to different people. Thus, one of the most difficult parts of writing my book has been to come to a resolution on what empathy is.

I browsed through what felt like a hundred different definitions of empathy. It all came down to a simple fact. Empathy is, first and foremost, a word. Not any word, but a word invented to explain an event.[1] An event observed and experienced by a philosopher.

The word “empathy” is a translation of a German word “einfühlung,” invented by Robert Vischer, a German philosopher. His goal was to explain how people can go from not experiencing a sense of unity (often referred to as “connection” or “oneness”) with a piece of artwork to experiencing it.[2] It’s like how Sir Isaac Newton invented the word “gravity” to explain how an apple can go from being above the ground to being on the ground.

Soon afterward, another German philosopher named Theodore Lipps entered the scene. He proceeded to expand the meaning of “einfühlung” to also explain how we experience the same sense of connection and oneness with another human being. A British psychologist named Edward Titchener then imported the word into the English language as “empathy.”[3]

As you can see, the word “empathy” has changed in meaning throughout history. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so. What will stay constant is the opportunity to feel as if we are connected or at one with an “other.” An “other” with which we previously felt disconnected, divided, or even at odds. Whether this happens for a moment or for a prolonged duration of time and whether that “other” is a piece of artwork or another person, the feeling is the same.[4]

I’m seeing popular articles being written to argue for or against empathy. They are well-intended. Those “against empathy” worry that we may do harm by being “for empathy.” Those “for empathy” feel the same way about being “against empathy.” Personally, I find arguing for or against empathy akin to arguing for or against gravity. Whether we like it or not, empathy is here to stay. What matters is how we leverage it and to what end.

When our primary mode of communication is through words, it’s easy to get caught up in a war of definitions. Yet, it is not the word “empathy,” but our ability to move from not experiencing a sense of connection or oneness with an “other” to experiencing it, that will make the most difference in our lives. No matter the route we take to navigate that journey or how difficult that journey may be, the fact that we can move there is what gives me hope for the future of our humanity.

I hope you’ll join me in not losing sight of this.

I invite you to discuss this further in our Facebook Group.


• • •


[1] Herwig-Lempp. Johannes. Explanatory Principle.

[2] Nowak, Magdalena. The Complicated History of Einfühlung.

[3] Titchener, Edward B. Lectures of the Experimental Psychology of Thought Processes, New York, Macmillian, 1909.

[4] Just to be clear, this is not to anthropomorphize pieces of artwork or to claim that they have minds like human beings. It simply means that when it comes to empathy, we’re talking primarily about our ability to have an experience of connection or oneness with an “other,” not merely our ability to analyze them. It is also not to imply that every single person on the entire planet can experience such connection or oneness. I have no way of proving that. There are also various individual differences in the kinds of “other” with which we can feel such connection or oneness. For example, many programmers feel such connection or oneness with computers. Not everyone can feel this.

Original article from Huffington Post / Photo credit to Vanna

Going Beyond Leader-Shaming

It took me about twenty five years before I started to perceive my mother as a human being.

I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that I’m not alone.

We don’t always perceive people as human beings.

“Then how do we perceive them?” you may ask.

As a means to our end.

As a teenager, I often perceived my mother as a means to permission, money, and food. She was the means to me going out with my friends, buying things I wanted, or eating breakfast, dinner, and sometimes even lunch.

Horrible, I know…

Of course, I intellectually understood that I should feel gratitude towards her for giving birth to me and for raising me. Unfortunately, those were rarely visceral experiences. So most of the times, I perceived her as mere means to my end.

The same holds true in our perception of our leaders.

I was once an employee myself. In some ways, I still am to my clients. I have also spent a significant amount of time listening to employees inside organizations as their meta-designer. In this journey, I’ve noticed at least threeinter-related lenses through which we perceive our leaders as mere means to our ends.

1. As a means to our survival: “I joined this company, because I need financial security. I keep my leader happy to meet this need.”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to our survival, they are an object of authority. Through that lens, we tend to latch on to every literal word they say, because it can potentially threaten our survival. A common symptom of this is when we interpret a passing and even humorous comment or suggestion they make as either an order or as a representation of our company’s values and vision.

2. As a means to achieving our goal: “I joined this company to make cool things that make an impact in the world. The leader will help me achieve that goal.”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to achieving our goals, they are an object of either our aid or obstacle. Through that lens, we tend to feel entitled to judge them, because it’s clear to us whether they are aiding us well enough or downright getting in our ways. A common symptom of this is when we spend an exorbitant amount of time talking about how wonderful we are compared to how bad our leaders are. According to Dr. Goldsmith, on average, 65% of all interpersonal communications in companies involve talking about (or listening to someone talk about) how smart, special, or wonderful we are and how stupid, inept, or bad someone else is.

3. As a means to our identity: “We have such an amazing leader! The leader is my role model!” or “We have such a horrible leader! The leader is my anti-role model!”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to our identity, they are an object to be either copied or rebelled against. Through that lens, everything they say or do is something we aspire to replicate or differentiate ourselves from. A common symptom of this is when we side with our leaders to argue against the fresh perspective of a new team member or when we side with a new team member against our leader.

Instead of judging these lenses as good/bad or right/wrong, I want to highlight how they give rise to misunderstandings inside organizations.

1. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of authority, we’re likely to interpret their suggestions as promoting compliance. If we end up feeling repulsed by these interpretations, we’re also likely to distance ourselves from our leaders.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage autonomy and self-direction. Sometimes even to connect with their team members through said suggestions. I find this akin to my mother saying things to me casually or with the intention of connecting with me, while I would merely interpret them as coercive or offensive. I just thought an authority figure should know to do better.

2. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of our aid or obstacle, we’re likely to interpret their decisions as short-sighted and selfish.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to make decisions for the company’s long-term sustainability and the well-being of the team. I find this akin to my mother making difficult decisions for the long-term benefit of our family and my well-being. Without having been part of the honest emotional struggles of the decision making process, I had no other choice, but to interpret her decisions as short-sighted and selfish.

3. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object to be copied or rebelled against, we’re likely to interpret their communication efforts as a form of indoctrination.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage creativity and critical thinking. It’s also often the case that the communication efforts came from a place of worry. Worry of their team making a mistake or getting lost. I find this akin to my mother telling me what I should do in the future and what she thinks are the important things in life. She was saying these things because she was worried I may get hurt or lost, while I just thought she was trying to get me to think like her.

Once again, instead of judging right/wrong or good/bad, I want us to recognize that these misunderstandings are born out of the inherent difficulties of seeing through the eyes of others. It’s too simplistic to judge them as a result of poor leadership.

It’s true that some less experienced leaders try so hard to be equal that they have more trouble seeing themselves as their team members see them. At the same time, experienced leaders can also have the same blind spots. What’s important to note is that we can all develop the skills required to better prepare for and manage these blind spots by learning to realize our empathy.

Now that I’m in my 40s, I find that things have changed since I was 25. I am more likely to perceive my mother as beyond mere means to my end. I also interact with her in ways that are mutually empathic. Is it perfect? No. I’m happy that it is simply possible.

It all started with noticing myself shaming or blaming my mother, then gradually learning to choose a different set of contexts with which to interpret her words and behaviors.

Are we also willing to do the same with our leaders?

Some are. Some are not. For those willing, here’s a question you can ask yourself to get started.

“If I were unafraid of getting fired or judged, and wanted to use all the creativity and critical thinking I had to help the leader clarify and achieve the organization’s goals instead of my own, what would be the smallest next step I need to take?”

To be clear, you may say you’d rather leave the company. That is your choice. I just hope you’ll choose a better alternative than staying stuck shaming or blaming your leader. That isn’t helping anybody. As the saying goes…

“Holding on to resentment is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else.”

May you let go of the hot coal.


• • •


Photo credit to Shawn Harquail

The Perils of Hyper-Empathizing

All of the CEOs I coach are also practitioners of a craft.

Some of them are sales agents or consultants, others designers or engineers, still others researchers. This is true of myself, as well.

They are also founders of their companies.

Most of us founded our company because we wanted to keep doing what we wanted to do. Then came a time when we realized that we could no longer do it alone. We realized that we either needed people to whom we could offload what we were doing or people who could do what we ourselves could not.

What commonly happens in this process is that we get stuck in a pattern of first hyper-empathizing then not empathizing.

For example, what often happens when we hire people to do what we already know how to do? We assume they can do the job just as well as we do.

Now, of course, we intellectually recognize that they are different from us. We may also intellectually recognize that they have less experience than we do. But this does not always stop us from feeling as if they will know what we know or notice and do things the same way we do them.

This is an example of hyper-empathizing.

6 Basic Concepts of Empathy

When we hyper-empathize, despite an intellectual understanding of the difference between two people, we are either unwilling or unable to distinguish ourselves from others at a more visceral level.

When we hyper-empathize with others, only to be proven that they are not like us, we often experience emotional tension. After all, our subconscious expectation has been violated. This may then push us to the other extreme: not empathizing.

We may experience a variety of unpleasant feelings when we make this shift out of tension. At the very least unpleasant, we may feel confused why they are not like us. When more unpleasant, we may feel contempt, thinking to ourselves…

“How incompetent or stupid do they have to be to not know what I know, not notice what I notice, or not do things the way I do them?”

To be clear, I do not wish to judge this good/bad or right/wrong. I simply want to highlight the fact that hyper-empathizing is very common. It happens to all of us. Wives do this when the husband doesn’t put the dish in the dishwasher. Husbands do this when the wife hangs the toilet paper under (or behind) the roll instead of over (or in front of) the roll.

At the same time, this is a slippery slope to micro-management. Micro-management is a source of tremendous stress for both the CEO and their staff. Sustained for the long-term, CEOs will burn out and staff will become passive and disengaged.

Hyper-empathizing also plays a role when the person we hired has skills we ourselves do not, but we still have an opinion on their skills.

And boy, do we have opinions.

For example, we may not be a software engineer ourselves, but we’ve heard that pair programming is an effective way to build software. So we hire a bunch of programmers and demand that they do pair programming. Oh, and to make sure they don’t misunderstand our intentions, we show them proof why pair programming is great. After all, we’re good leaders. We don’t make irrational demands. So we share research findings, success stories from our past lives, or things we’ve heard from our trusted sources of information.

When we do this, we often assume that since we are convinced of the value of something, the others will also be convinced. Now, of course, we intellectually recognize that they are different from us. We may also intellectually recognize that they have more experience than we do in their field of expertise. But this does not always stop us from feeling as if they will think or feel like we do.

To our surprise, we may hear our newly hired engineers express their concern about pair programming. Here, we, once again, experience emotional tension and we are often moved to not empathize. This time, we may feel contempt, thinking to ourselves…

“How closed-minded and fearful do they have to be to not accept data, facts, or science?”

Once again, I do not wish to judge this good/bad or right/wrong. I simply want to highlight that this is very common.

At the same time, if you demand they follow without questioning your authority, the approach can merely give rise to resentment and begrudging commitment. When people are carrying out a change initiative not only without a genuine sense of commitment, but also filled with resentment, chances are good that it will have a negative impact on the potential for the change initiative to succeed.

Moving from hyper-empathizing to not empathizing and getting stuck there is one of the most basic patterns of struggle I see in leadership.

The alternative is simple, but not easy. You have to have greater mastery over realizing your empathy so you can start by empathizing without hyper-empathizing. This can be difficult. At the same time, if you’re willing and motivated, you can learn it through deliberate practice.

Afterwards, you can also engage others in an empathic conversation so that you develop a sense of unity not merely a hierarchy of command. When we carry out a change initiative from a place of unity, there is a far greater chance that the initiative will succeed — despite disagreements. This is not magic. It’s simply because when a united group of committed individuals come across an obstacle, they are more likely to figure out a way to make things work. On the other hand, when a divided group of uncommitted individuals encounter the first sign of an obstacle, they are more likely to either give up or stay stuck blaming the people who gave the order. As the famous saying goes “See? I told you it won’t work.”

Once again, I know this is easier said than done. At the same time, if you’re willing and motivated, you can learn to do this through deliberate practice.

Heres a question you can ask yourself to get started.

“How can I involve others in the decision making process in a way that sufficiently fulfills their need to be heard and understood even if the ultimate decision may not be to their liking?”

May you get unstuck from the pattern of first hyper-empathizing then not empathizing.

• • •

Photo credit to U.S. Army

The Cost of Withholding Gratitude

One of the most clear patterns I see when coaching CEOs is this.

They all had one or more people who have significantly and positively changed the trajectory of their lives.

When I hear them talk about these people, I see their eyes light up with admiration and exuberance. It’s clear to me how much of an impact these people have had on their lives.

What’s interesting is that alongside these expressions of admiration and exuberance, I sometimes hear their expressions of shame or regret as well.

For example, one CEO told me that his mentor went through a major bankruptcy and has since become impossible to locate. He regrets that he never had the chance to fully pay him back for the help he has received. Another CEO told me that he is making steady progress toward paying his mentor back. At the same time, he feels ashamed to admit that he’s yet to achieve enough success to do so.

These are painfully familiar feelings for me.

In college, I studied under a professor named Dr. Randy Pasuch. You may have heard of his famous talk titled “The Last Lecture.”

Dr. Pausch was a computer science professor and a virtual reality researcher. He once gave an inspiring and uplifting talk titled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The talk was remarkable not only for its positive message, but also for being delivered while he was suffering from pancreatic cancer with 3 to 6 months left to live. The talk went on to become a viral sensation on Youtube.

In college, Dr. Pausch significantly and positively changed the trajectory of my life by giving me a reason to study computer science. Some may find it strange to think that one needs a reason to study. But to be completely honest, without a clear reason, or a sense of purpose, retaining interest in computer science was a struggle. All that kept me going was a sense of pride and duty. The school I was attending was best known for its computer science program and I had promised my parents I would be studying computer science.

That was, until I took Dr. Pausch’s class.

What I learned from Dr. Pausch’s was that I didn’t have to be interested in computers to learn computer science. According to him, all I had to be interested in was connecting with other people through shared experiences. Experiences that may include such feelings as joy, sorrow, surprise, or even fear. For him, the computer was nothing more than a means to that end. It was a medium to facilitate the realization of our empathy.

And that resonated with me. Profoundly.

And just like that, I had finally found a reason to study computer science.

But then I lost touch with Dr. Pausch.

For 8 years.

As a matter of fact, a month before “The Last Lecture,” I sent him the following e-mail:

I don’t know if you remember me. My name is Slim from your BVW class from way back in 1999. I worked on the Van Gogh project. I’ve been working at MAYA design for the past eight years!

I now serve as the assistant director of engineering here, and we’re looking to hire some hardcore thinkers who are also genius makers.

I thought ETC would be full of such people! Are you the right person to talk to if I want to figure out how to lure that talent over? Are there protocols for doing such a thing? (i.e., hold an informal info session at ETC)

Any advice would be awesome.



To which he responded:

Slim, Good to hear from you, and *of course* I remember you — things like the Van Gogh world leave long memories!

I’m sure the ETC would love to have MAYA come and recruit — and there are definitely venues for that. Unfortunately, I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day of the ETC, so I’ve CC’d Drew Davidson, who can help you out with things.

Best wishes,


I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I had no idea he was ill. In fact, the subtext of my e-mail was me showing off to him that I had made significant advancements in my career since graduation.

Why was I showing off to Dr. Pausch? Because I wanted him to be proud of me.

I’ve come to learn that this is one of those silly things we do to those whom we love and admire.

Instead of just telling them that we love them or that they mean a great deal to us, we try to gain their recognition by bragging to them about something that is utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things like status, fame, or fortune. And because we get so blinded by our desires to be recognized by the other person, we fail to tell them what it is that we really mean to tell them, which is that we are grateful.

A couple weeks after “The Last Lecture,” I found out that he was terminally ill.

Guess how I found out?

By watching “The Last Lecture” on Youtube.

On Youtube.

A talk held just a few miles from where I worked.

How could have I been so poor at keeping in touch with someone I considered my hero? I tried blaming it on my shyness. I tried blaming it on my busy life. I tried all sorts of excuses before giving up, and quickly writing him a long e-mail pouring my heart out.

But upon hitting the “send” button, I realized that his inbox was probably overflowing with e-mails in response to “The Last Lecture.” It was unlikely that he would ever read my e-mail. He may never know how he changed my life.

Staring into the computer screen, I couldn’t help but ask “Why?” Why couldn’t I have told him sooner? How stupid does one have to be, to wait so long to say something so simple?

If your life was significantly and positively changed by someone, the question need not start with “How can I pay them back?” The question can start with something much simpler. “How can I communicate my gratitude?” You do not have to wait until you achieve “success” to do this. Let them know what it is they did or said that you appreciated. Let them know how that made you feel. Let them know why this was significant to you. Do it for them. Do it for yourself.

Thank you Randy. I cannot say enough how much I appreciated your honesty. When I heard you say that your interest in computer lies not in the computer itself, but in its ability to facilitate empathy among people, I felt a profound sense of resonance. You made me realize that I’m not the only person who feels that way. You gave me the permission to be who I am. To realize that it is ok to feel the way I felt. Once I felt comfortable being who I am, it completely reframed my relationship to my subject matter of study. To this day, my interest in computer science is strong. All because it helps me facilitate empathy among people.

• • •


Photo credit: Gabriel Robins

The Gordian Knot of Disrespect

I’ve often heard executives ask me “How can I learn to be a better listener?”

Some of them have also told me about a workshop they partook to learn a technique called “active listening.”

In my experience, techniques only take you so far. This is especially true when we experience too much tension.

Let me share the story of one of the most memorable events that happened during my 2012 book tour.

After my talk, a woman came up to me and said how much she loved the talk. I thanked her. She then said “I wish my husband were here with me.” to which I replied “Awww~ That’s so sweet…” Only to hear her say “No, what I mean is that he’s the one who needed to hear the talk, not me.”

I was surprised.

I thought my talk was about us realizing empathy, not demanding that other people realize empathy with us. I felt annoyed. The message I wanted to communicate was not being communicated. I felt misunderstood.

I then became contemptuous.

I thought to myself “Doesn’t she recognize the irony of her not yet having realized empathy with her husband herself while faulting him for not having realized empathy with her?” I could almost hear the sound of my inner eye roll.

But then I remembered that I just gave a talk about realizing empathy.

So I paused for a second, breathed deeply through my nose, and said “You sound frustrated,” to which she replied “Oh, yes I am!”

I stood there, nodding silently.

After what felt like an eternity, she continued.

“He passed away 2 years ago…”

I found myself silently agasp.

“We fought so much toward the end of his life. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. He kept explaining why I shouldn’t feel so scared. He even said my life was going to be better without him… I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing. I couldn’t stop yelling at him…” I could see her welling up. “I wish he had just shut up and listened to me!” she continued.

Boy, did she humble me…

The Gordian Knot

In hindsight, it’s easy to notice the other irony in the above exchange: me not yet having realized empathy with her while expecting her to realize empathy with me. So easy to see this when other people do it. So hard to see it when we do it.

What a vicious cycle this creates…

I’ve come to think of situations like these as the Gordian Knot of inter-dependent relationships.

One manifestation of the Gordian Knot is as follows.

  1. Person A observes something she interprets as person B’s lack of respect for her needs.
  2. The observation is significant enough for person A that it leads to a tension in her body.
  3. Person A holds on to her tension as she starts to focus in on her feeling disrespected.
  4. Since person A is only focused on her own feeling disrespected by person B, this naturally makes it difficult for her to realize empathy with person B.
  5. Person A then protests person B’s lack of respect for her needs.
  6. Person B interprets this as a sign that person A does not respect his needs.
  7. The sign is significant enough that it leads to a tension in person B’s body.
  8. Person B then holds on to his tension as he starts to focus in on his feeling disrespected.
  9. Since person B is only focused on his own feeling disrespected by person A, this naturally makes it difficult for him to realize empathy with person A.
  10. Person B then protests person A’s lack of respect for his needs.
  11. Person A interprets this as a sign that person B still does not respect her needs.
  12. Thus, a Gordian Knot is formed.

In this woman’s case, she wanted him to say nothing and, perhaps, simply hold her in his arms.

He didn’t.

He had good intentions, though. He probably wanted to alleviate her fear. So he tried to cheer her up and put a silver-lining around their situation by saying what he said.

At the same time, this was not what she needed. What she probably needed was to fully experience what she was feeling in all its complex glory and, perhaps, even to fall apart in the safety of her husband’s tender, compassionate, and confident embrace.

When this need was not respected. She yelled in protest. Now he probably felt his need to feel understood or even appreciated was disrespected. After all, he had good intentions. So to fix this, he tried to explain his intentions. Well, that still does not respect her needs. So she yells again. Thus, a Gordian Knot is formed.

It takes skills of noticing, of awareness, of empathy both with one’s own sense of “self” and that of “other” to recognize when a Gordian Knot is formed. It then takes a deliberate practice of respect to untangle it.

This is not easy.

At the same time, if you’re willing, you can learn it through practice.

Heres a question you can ask yourself to get started.

What emotional need of the other person am I not respecting, because I’m only focused on my own feeling disrespected?”

May you break free from your Gordian Knot.

• • •

Photo credit to Rachel

A Blindspot of User-Centricity

There was a time in my life, when I had a hyper-focus on user-centricity.

I met with users in person. I spent hours listening to their concerns. I genuinely felt for them.

When I returned to the office to transcribe every word they had said, it all came rushing back to me. I remembered some of them tearing up with gratitude simply because I was willing to listen. Empathizing with these users… That was probably one of the most fulfilling part of my job.

But then… Upper management entered the scene, and messed things up. They would come up with all sorts of excuses to either cancel the product we were designing for these users or kill the feature that these users most needed!

“How dare they?!” I proclaimed with great indignation. “Can’t they see how much goodness this project could bring to the world? How evil and greedy do they have to be to do such horrible things?”

I was furious.

So furious that I was determined to solve this problem called ‘upper-management.’ It was clear to me that it was the thing getting in the way of bringing about a better world.


I never solved the problem.

I eventually ended up leaving the world of design, thinking to myself “There’s got to be a better model of innovation.”

This question lead me to research how artists innovate differently from designers.

One day, during the course of this research, I found myself in a woodshop. I had come into the shop with a beautiful vision of a chair I wanted to build.

My vision of the chair was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also highly ergonomic and comfortable for the potential user of the chair. I could not wait to finish it!

But then… The wood started to mess up my vision. It resisted, no, refused to bend in the exact way I wanted it to bend so I can make it feel comfortable for people to sit on it!

“What a piece of crap?!” I proclaimed with great indignation. “What good is a material if it can’t bring value to its users?”

I was furious.

So furious that I was determined to solve this problem called ‘wood.’ It was clear to me that it was the thing getting in the way of realizing my vision of a better chair.


I never solved the problem.

But this time, I did not leave wood behind in search of a “better” material. I thanked it for teaching me a valuable lesson.

What the wood had taught me was that I had a tendency to think of anything or anyone who got in the way of achieving my goal as a “problem.” This realization forced me to take a good look at all my relationships. Sure enough, I was treating my parents as problems. I was treating my friends as problems. I was even treating myself as a problem from time to time. The pattern was everywhere.

Users are important. Yes, they are.

At the same time, they are a part of a larger whole. There are many kinds of people involved in what we call the “design process.” Unless we think of all of them as human beings with equal dignity, it becomes exceedingly easy to treat any one of them as mere problems to be solved. This is a natural blindspot that develops when we hyper-focus on a single group of individuals.

Please don’t get me wrong… Doing this is easier said than done. It takes great energy, not to mention skills to do it. Skills that fall under the umbrella of realizing empathy.

In fact, even after having learned my lesson, I still notice myself treating people as problems to be solved.

So what I now do is pause to ask myself this question. “What is it that I’m having difficulty appreciating about the other person that makes it so easy for me to resort to treating them as mere problems to be solved?”

I have a feeling I’ll do this until the day I die.


• • •


Photo credit to Seattle Roamer


Micro-Innovation by a cashier at Five Guys

I wanted to write this in appreciation and celebration of a customer service agent (the young lady pictured below) I met this past Saturday.


Saturday was a tough day for me.

Earlier in the week, I had facilitated a meeting. The meeting was part of an ongoing effort to restore trust between two cultures inside an international organization.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well.

If you’re on a similar journey as I, you know how disheartening it can feel when we struggle to facilitate greater empathy among people.

Sometimes we shake it off and move on. Other times, feelings of discouragement and disappointment pierce us with such blunt sharpness that we spiral into a vicious cycle of rumination. The kind that compels us to ask a simple yet deadly question: “Am I good enough to have a positive impact in the world? Is all this effort worth it?”

Having been at it for almost 5 years now, I thought I had become tough enough. I thought nothing could bring me down any more. Yet here I was, doubting my ability and the fundamental worth of my journey.

And then… I met this lady.

I had visited this Five Guys in Seekonk, MA several times. Yet, I had never met someone who greeted me quite the way she did. In particular, she had a certain way of saying “Al-right.” Every time she’d say it, I’d feel so much sincere enthusiasm in her words that I felt compelled to repeat after her.

In fact, I did! (Just once, though. I didn’t want her to misinterpret my behavior as having the intention of making fun of her.) Her energy was so contagious!

The vibe with which she greeted me to the restaurant shook me and woke me up. The resonating effect was so strong that I got out of my context and synchronized with her’s. In that new context, I immediately realized the unencessity with which I was ruminating. And just like that, I was back up and ready to take another step in this journey of realizing empathy.

Standing in the dining area, I felt a slow and steady rise of gratitude take over me. This is not the first time I have experienced this kind of slow rise of gratitude. It’s always a bit surreal when I do. The underlying energy is somewhat overwhelming. It compels you to express your appreciation and acknowledgement. This can be vulnerable. It’s not the kind that can be fully expressed by a meter utterance of “thank you.” It’s not always clear how we can express it.

On my way out, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind if I took a picture of her. She was gracious enough to give me permission. I told her I thought she was enthusiastic then quickly left, still feeling vulnerable. On my way back, I continued to experience the rush of gratitude.

It was beautiful.


It is beautiful. Because I still feel it.

Thank you for your energy dear customer service agent. What you may have done without much thought meant the world to me. It was a wonderful example of a micro-innovation. Thanks to you I have found the energy to get back into the ring. To continue on this journey.

Thank you. Thank you so much.

May you stay beautiful.

with warmth and gratitude,

Seung Chan Lim

Micro-Innovation by Gailshen at Verizon

On Dec. 3rd of last week, I called Verizon Wireless Customer Service for a quick phone swap. The customer rep said “How are you?” I said “I’m good, how are you?” and the rep said “I’m doing well. By the way, thanks for asking that.” I laughed at the unexpected response.

After the phone swap, she asked “Is there any other question or concern?” I asked “Do people normally not ask you how you are?” and she answered “Some do, and some don’t. Most don’t, so I feel it’s significant enough to acknowledge those considerate enough to ask.” I said “Thank you for acknowledging.” and she went “Oh, no problem. That’s just how I am. I think people should be acknowledged.” After exchanging good byes, I hung up, inspired.

What I realized in that moment was that we often forget that those behind customer service lines are dignified human beings worthy of our respect and consideration. To be clear, this isn’t because we are malicious or mean. It’s because we’re flooded with emotion when we call them or we’re focused so narrowly on achieving a goal that we perceive the customer reps as a means to our end.

Having transitioned from being a designer to a meta-designer, I’m reminded once again that focusing on user experience is not enough. The user is not whom we serve. What we serve is the relationship. And relationships are made of a continuous and dynamic give and take of conversation, which can only be given life if we are awake enough in each and every moment to at least notice whether we are respecting or not, whether we are considering or not. That is what the design practice asks of us. How we respond to that ask, of course, is up to us.

Easier said than done, isn’t it?

Thank you Gailshen A. Thanks to your appreciation and acknowledgement, I was given the opportunity to pause and reflect. That is so much more than what I expected to get out of a phone swap. It was a beautiful experience. It was a display of genuine leadership. It was a wonderful example of a micro-innovation.

May you stay beautiful,

Seung Chan Lim
photo credit: Phil Dowsing Creative

Micro-Innovation by Melissa at US Airways

Yesterday, I was at the Ithaca airport on my way back from a day trip working with the executive MBA students at Cornell. As soon as I got to the airport, I tried to check myself in at the Kiosk. For some odd reason, the kiosk wasn’t able to find my reservation. So this lady (pictured) at US Airways helped look my reservation up manually.


And now get this.

After looking up my reservation, she said:

“Ha… I see that you’re taking a stop at Philly, then another one at Charlotte before getting into Providence. Would you like to take a direct flight to Providence from Philly instead? That’ll shave you a few hours.”

And I was like. “Uh… Sure?”

At first, I couldn’t believe my ears. In my head, I’m thinking “Am I getting charged extra for this or what?” But, no. Through the magic of her typing she just made it happen.

After receiving the new flight assignment, I felt that something was off, but I wasn’t sure what. I walked through security, and sat down to process my emotion. After several minutes, I slowly came to the realization that what I was experiencing was an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Several minutes had already passed since I had uttered two reactionary words, “thank you,” to this lady. It felt awkward to go back and bring it up again. I tried to distract myself for a few minutes, but the feeling wouldn’t subside. So I finally decided I had to do something. I stood up, walked up to her, and told her that I would really like to mark this event as a special moment. I asked if we could take a picture together. She seemed surprised, and probably thought that I was an odd ball, which I can totally understand. Thankfully she agreed, and we smiled together at the camera before snapping a picture. I thanked her once again.

I don’t know of a time in my recent flight history, where I felt such sense of gratitude in relation to someone behind the ticket counter. Flying back and forth over the course of an overnight trip can be tiring. The last thing you want to do is spend more time in the plane or waiting in the airport. (Especially after experiencing several hours of delay the day before) What she did was not only surprising, but also meaningful and valuable to me. It was a great example of something I would consider a micro innovation. The kind that can only arise from realizing empathy. Thank you once again, dear lady whose name I failed to get. I will not forget the experience you made possible today.

May you stay beautiful,

Seung Chan Lim

UPDATE: I tweeted this story to US Airways, and they promised to let her manager know. They just made my day!


MORE UPDATE: Corporate communications at Piedmont Airlines (operating for US Airways) has contacted me to let me know that Melissa (I now know her name!) and her boss has seen it. Love the internet. Love it.


Embodying and Understanding

Some people seem to think that if we can merely understand someone we can empathize with them.

This is not true.

In Korean, we often say “이해는 되는데 납득은 안돼.” Literally translated, this means I can understand, but I cannot let the understanding in. Figurately translated, this means “I can understand, but I cannot empathize.”

To explore what this means, we need to talk about the difference between understanding and embodying.

Understanding something implies that we have a model, which we can use to articulate the underlying structures and relations of that thing.1

Embodying does not automatically connote understanding.

Take walking as an example. Most of us have never bothered to understand walking, but it’s something we have embodied nonetheless. Although, if you spent a few minutes right now, you could probably arrive at an understanding—regardless of how inaccurate, imprecise, or limited it may be.2  And once you do, you will be able to articulate your model in some way, be it using words, images, or physical demonstrations.

Understanding does not connote embodying, either.

Let’s say you spent a whole year reading a book that articulates a model of how snowboarding works. Even if you have become a master at articulating this model, when you actually get on a snowboard, chances are good that you’ll fall flat on your ass. That’s because you have yet to embody it.

Given this, one can say that even if you understand, if you are unable to augment it with an embodied experience you can have a difficult time empathizing or letting the understanding in [to your body].

Say you’re engaged in an empathic conversation with another person through words. Chances are good that you’ll start developing an understanding based solely on what you can directly perceive from them—their words, tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, etc.

But an understanding of the other is not all you’ve got.

You also have embodied experiences from your own past. If you’re able to appropriately use these past experiences as references, you will be able to augment the understanding you are developing. In other words, by relating an experience you have embodied in the past with what the other is articulating, you can start to appreciate and resonate with the qualitative aspect of what the other is articulating. This can help you empathize, even if you do not understand.

The catch, however, is that you have to relate it to an experience that is qualitative similar enough instead of superficially similar enough. For example, if you try to empathize with someone’s experience of going to school you may fail to empathize simply by relating it to your own experience of going to school. That’s because while the experience may be superficially similar enough they are not necessarily qualitative similar enough. In other words, to empathize you may have to augment your understanding with an experience that has nothing to do with going to school, but nonetheless qualitative similar enough.


Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

It’s tempting to define understanding as being intrinsically accurate and complete, but this is overly ambitious given that understandings often prove to be inaccurate/imprecise/limited only in hindsight. For example, geocentricity was a model proven to be inaccurate and Newton’s theory of gravity was proven to be accurate and precise only within a certain range of scale, and therefore limited. By allowing room for error or incompleteness, we can more precisely refer to these understandings as inaccurate/ imprecise/ or incomplete in hindsight instead of having to retroactively refer to them as not understandings.

3 For a related discussion surrounding various kinds of understandings, check out Dr. John Bigg’s research on the SOLO taxonomy.