What is empathy?

Empathy is our ability to sense how other people are feeling and also imagine their experience. Often called ‘perspective taking’, this ability is deeply rooted in human evolution with behaviours of social cooperation, caring, and strong attachments. Empathy can trigger the brain to mirror and respond as if we are feeling similar experiences as other people. We hear about a painful experience someone else went through, and for most people our brain responds as if we are feeling a similar pain even though we have never been in such a situation as the other person. The focus of empathy is the ‘other person’ rather than ourselves, while sympathy is based on us have experienced something similar that others have. Empathy is about you, while sympathy is about me. With empathy, we have the ability to reach far beyond our own lived experiences and gain understanding of what other people experience. Empathy can take us out of our own ‘in-group’ of people who are similar to us, and open new views of what it’s like to be in the ‘out group’. As such, empathy is a key to increasing allyship, especially within people in the powerful majority groups.

Empathy is key as an ally for inclusion

A wide body of research shows that by putting ourselves in ‘the shoes of another person’ through empathy, we can reduce bias, discrimination, harassment, and inequalities. Empathy helps us to be better able to deal with situations where ‘difference’ may be perceived as a threat and trigger polarisation. But perspective taking is sometimes really hard to do on our own. We are working against the ‘egocentricism bias’ of seeing things in the wider world from our own point of view. Also, other factors can make this hard to do, for example empathic perspective taking decreases in people who have high power and status.

For some people, they have a natural ability to overcome this. While for others, they have a deeply practiced skill that they developed over time. But this requires effort which can lessen empathy and perspective taking becoming more wide-spread. This is why we suggest another way. We can help ourselves and others to see situations through other’s perspectives by applying behavioural designs to trigger empathy in the unconscious mind.

The empathic reaction in our brains takes place in the System 1, fast cognitive system , where nearly all of our judgements, decisions, and actions originate. System 1 is also where mental shortcuts and biased errors occur. Inclusion Nudges target this part of our thinking system to make it easier and more effective to be inclusive. To behave inclusively and be an active ally, triggering empathy and perspective taking is key. So, what are some ways to do this?

Designs to increase empathy

In our work, we have designed many Inclusion Nudges using storytelling for increasing perspective taking, plus there are several in the Inclusion Nudges books that have been shared by others in their work. Some of these include using storytelling and asking flip questions.

Storytelling is one way to support empathy. Throughout time, humans have used stories to help make sense of the world, attach meaning to events, connect with others, and build memories. This is a powerful force in inclusion change-making work. Empathy can increase by hearing the stories of others, especially when they are conveyed to evoke emotional reactions which activates the brain in the same way as real-life experiences. Storytelling can increase perspective taking of others’ experiences, trigger emotions, and increase a sense of connection to people. This can have a lasting impact on our support commitment to changing attitudes and behaviours. This heighten commitment can lead to taking decisions and actions to be more nurturing of difference rather than polarising.

See the Inclusion Nudge called Telling Employees Stories for Inclusion which gives a step-by-step process for writing up impactful stories to trigger empathy and a proven design to share these stories to increase empathy and action taking in any context, such as the workplace, schools, and in communities. This design is fully described in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, and also in the Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies.

Another very effective design that leverages storytelling to trigger empathy and action-taking is called The Speech Bubble Intervention. You can read about how this works in this blog post .

To increase perspective taking, here’s a powerful technique to ask questions that intentionally challenges thinking by offering another view to the same situation. See the Inclusion Nudge called Ask Flip Questions to Change Your Perceptions in the Moment. Asking these types of questions works as a trigger to help us spot hidden bias and enable us to step into an alternative perspective. This is an easy-to-do action that all people can start using right away to increase their allyship and inclusive behaviours. This design is fully described in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, and also in the Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies.

These are just a few of the ways that you can apply designs to support empathy and perspective taking. For more inspiration see the blog article Ally by Actions.

Get access to more designs to being an inclusive ally

By applying Inclusion Nudges, you can more effectively reduce the impact of bias and be an active ally for reducing inequalities within your own context. The designs in this article are described in step-by-step details in the Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, and also in the Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies book. We encourage you to try applying the change methodology of Inclusion Nudges. These make inclusion the norm everywhere, for everyone, and by everyone.