An experience in an 8th grade classroom changed my thinking about empathy. In a #KnowMyStory session, the students were asked to define sympathy and empathy. Sympathy implies that you have compassion for someone even though you may not have shared the same experience. Empathy implies that you've had a similar experience and that you know how it feels.
Through my work as a program designer with innovation teams in Richland Two as well as through my work as a coach for the Teachers Guild and IDEO U, I've often used the word empathy. "We start with empathy" is a common phrase in design thinking sessions, but do we take the time to understand what it means? Observations, interviews and analogous experiences give us insights into someone else's experience but, if we stop there, we haven't gone far enough. To be empathetic is to be vulnerable and find a a common thread that connects you with another person on a deeper level.
We may not be able to replicate someone else's experience for ourselves, but if we have a deeper conversation with that person, we may find some elements that we have in common. Someone without children may not fully understand the experience of caring for a newborn child, but that person may be able to empathize based on their own experience of caring for an aging parent. By finding the threads that we have in common and taking time to dig deeper, we can connect our experiences.
Empathy can be a gut feeling if you've been through the same situation as someone else but it also needs to be a cultivated skill that develops from connecting with others through deep conversations.