Indi Young podcast interview: practical empathy

Indi YoungIn Episode 29 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Indi Young about practical empathy. You can follow Indi on twitter @indiyoung.

To learn more about these themes, come to #dareconf: people skills for digital workers, 22-23 September 2014 in London.

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Jonathan Kahn: I’m speaking to Indi Young, who’s joining me from San Francisco today. She’s the author of a book about mental model diagrams and an upcoming book called “Practical Empathy.” So, Indi, thanks for taking the time to join me today.

Indi Young: Thanks so much, Jonathan.

Jonathan: You’ve chosen to write this new book about practical empathy, can you talk to us about why this is a topic that’s interesting to you?

Indi: It’s really come out of the mental model diagram. The feedback that I get from people is that mental model diagrams tends to be, sounds somewhat overwhelming because of the processing of that we do with the data.

The real key to it is the non-directed interviews that I talk about there. When I really started looking into it and really started teaching that, it’s really all about listening.

It’s learning how to get better at hearing what’s somebody’s trying to say and getting underneath the layers that typically go into conversation and find out what’s really making a person tick? What’s their thinking? What’s their guiding principle underneath there?

I think that’s really a very, very powerful thing and I wanted to emphasise that for people and make it more accessible. Take it out of the wrappings of the mental model diagram and put it out there.

It’s actually the base, the root that you use when you’re making personas, as well. It’s not just limited to that kind of research.

It’s a base from which you can make a lot of different things. So, when I take it out of all those wrappings and make it very accessible, as I was doing that, I learned a whole bunch about it. It expanded into some new things.

That was the original impetus and a whole bunch of other things came from it after that.

Jonathan: For people who don’t know the book, the mental model diagram is this research technique where you have interviews with people who maybe interested in your product and try and understand what’s going on in their brains around the area you’re interested in as a company?

Indi: Yeah, basically. It’s a strategic device to help you understand the things that you’re offering, the services that you have for people how well are they supporting people, in terms of their intent.

It’s not a part of the check… check cycle. It’s not a part of the, well, how well is this particular feature helping this person get this one thing done.

But it goes back upstream from that and it’s like, what is this person intending to get done? What are their reasons for coming here? What are they going to do next? What else is going on in their life? Understanding sort of that greater scenario, that bigger interconnected picture of the person and the person’s mind that really has nothing to do with your offering.

Then matching that up against what your offering is, that’s where organizations can take a look at those mental model diagrams and just have that aha moment. It’s like, oh, whoa, we’ve got this gap here. We’ve got like really weak support for this area where people are having a lot of trouble or doing a lot of extra thinking and worrying or something. We can be fed up.

It’s really a strategic diagram. It’s meant to help guide you in one direction or another in terms of what you want to do, fixing what you’re offerings are.

Jonathan: Right, so when you say strategic, you’re talking about, I guess, a big piece of work, a big piece of research. You were saying before, maybe quite challenging or daunting task to sift through lots of interviews and transcriptions and stuff.

Indi: That’s how I present it in the book. But I also try to say in the book, and then I tried to say in a whole bunch of blog posts, it’s like, it doesn’t have to be big and all encompassing.

Jonathan: Right, right, right.

Indi: Yeah, and in fact, I have run out and done little mental model diagrams with a client in a day, just based on what people understand.

I think this was the misunderstanding, the frustration that I had was that people were thinking, oh, I don’t have time for doing this big piece of research. It’s like, no, no, no, it’s not a big piece of research. Doesn’t have to be. You can keep adding to it over time, because this stuff is evergreen.

You learn a little bit one week and then two months later you learn a little bit more and then another year later you learn a whole ton more over a course of four weeks or something. You just keep adding to it and it just keeps getting deeper and deeper and more rich of an understanding of what people are intending to try to accomplish.

That was really, it was like, no, wait, wait. OK, so that’s why I wanted to unwrap this whole listening piece out of it and say, OK, look, you can listen to somebody in an hour and have all sorts of insights from that that will help you for weeks. You can listen to somebody for an hour once a week or you can listen to somebody for an hour twice a day for two weeks and then that’ll be a big research project, but that’s it. You don’t have to do anything different.

Jonathan: The largeness of it isn’t essential to getting value from it?

Indi: Yeah. I wanted that message to come out.

Jonathan: When you’re talking about listening to somebody, is that what you mean by practical empathy? Are you specifically talking about listening to customers?

Indi: This is part of the thing that surprised me when I started writing the book. I thought it was just about listening to customers, but it’s bigger than that. It’s also listening to your teammates and, very much so, listening to the leaders at your organization. Let me just back up a step. Many, many people are in this situation where their leaders aren’t quite making the decisions that they had hoped they would be. [laughs]

It doesn’t seem very customer-focused, it seems too hurried and too engineering-focused, et cetera. A lot of people are going, “I want at seat at the table so I can tell these people what they should really be doing.” What I found out is through listening, if you can actually sit down and listen to these decision makers on a regular basis and start to establish an understanding of what they’re after at a deeper level then you will have a much better collaboration with them.

This goes for peers and other people that you’re working with, as well. This key in collaboration comes out of it, which surprised me. I didn’t really expect it. It’s more along the lines of instead of using your listening skills…this idea of empathy actually breaks up into two parts. The listening skills come in in developing empathy, but there’s also applying empathy. Those are two separate steps, two very separate mindsets.

You’re listening when you’re developing empathy, you’re thinking about what a person said and going back over it in your head or on paper, whatever. Then, when it comes time to actually use that knowledge, it is really rich. When you’re using it, you can use it in a bunch of different ways. A lot of the time, people are trying to use it to persuade somebody to change their mind or change their ways.

One of the things that came out of this is that I want people to let go of that need to change other people and just support other people. A big part of empathy when they teach it to children is understanding that other people have other points of view and it’s fine. Their points of view are just as valid as your points of view. Perspective-taking is one of these things they use as an exercise with children.

I want that lesson to come through for us in our workplaces.

Jonathan: There’s a lot there that I’d like to go through. That last point you talked about letting go of the need to change other people. I would say that’s not actually a need. It’s a projection of one of our needs. We have a need to be understood, appreciated, accepted, included, and we can go into situations quite offensive and say, “I know I’m an expert in Web content so I need you to do this so the Web content is quality because that’s my job.”

That’s actually an unmet need of mine. I don’t actually need other people to change. It’s much more that I need to get my own needs met for appreciation, understanding, whatever it is, even if it’s giving myself understanding, giving myself acceptance.

It’s really interesting that you’re seeing a link there between empathizing and listening and having to change the action that I take as a result of that from being trying to persuade you to do something to I may be looking inwards in terms of if that’s what that person wants what do I want?

Indi: One of the things that I see people coming up against and hitting the brick wall and ending up quitting their jobs and going on to someplace that looks like greener pastures at first — we’ve all done this — is because it seems like we’re not being heard. We just can’t keep repeating what we know to be important, and the other people are just not listening.

It’s like you need to listen. It’s not me. You need to learn to listen. The interesting thing is as you start listening to these people you can start to use these exact same techniques you would use for listening to customers to understand what’s underneath what they’re saying. There’s always something underneath.

Let’s say you’ve got a micro-manager or something. The micro-manager is all like, “This has to go into the newsletter this week.” You’re like, “I’m going right off and put that into the newsletter.” Instead, you’re like, “What’s the intent of putting that newsletter. I want to understand you better so I can support you better.”

Jonathan: What would that give you?

Indi: That would give you, then, the chance to have him tell you, “This needs to go in the newsletter, because the readers need to hear it. What haven’t they heard? Who are these users?” Then you can get down into the details of which user, which persona say, “That micro-manager had in mind what scenario he thinks they’re fulfilling.”

Then you got communication. You do this over and over again. If you sit down and you listen…When you’re doing with leader, the micro-manager is one thing because you’re in a declarative environment with him, leaders, the kind of people where you’re like, “Oh, I’m not to go allowed to go see him. He’s too busy.”

If you manage to get 15, 20 minutes with that person, just listen, “What’s on your mind? What are you concerned about right now?” Then do it again a couple of weeks later. “What are you concerned about now? What has changed?” Then do it a couple of weeks later and say, “Hey, you were concerned about X and Y. This has changed now in what you’re telling.” Just be that person that the other person, that leader, will suddenly realize, “Oh, my God. You hear me. You hear me. I’m going to tell you more.”

It’s a cycle. You have to establish that first part when you’re just… it starts to develop and mature into something where you start having more of a collaborative understanding. It’s not that in five months, you’re able to tell him what you wanted to tell him. It’s that in the end, you’re understanding where he’s coming from and you change him as you do.

Jonathan: To me, that sounds like trust.

Indi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan: You are actually increasing the amount of trust that goes there. If the leader is saying something and people aren’t really responding back with a reflection of what has been said, then they’re going to feel frustrated or perhaps, they’re going to have some trust problems around, “These people aren’t listening to me. I am not getting that message across.” That went up being more defensive, and then it just escalates.

Indi: Trust is a huge component of it. To establish trust, you have to let yourself go and really understand that other person. There’s a second component to it, too, which has a really nice analogy back in the Chinese emperor days. Maybe in the European emperor days, I don’t know.

You became a member of the Chinese emperor’s court because you had a certain skill, but that emperor doesn’t know you. There are other people at play trying to get the emperor’s attention and have power at court to make decisions. They’re all right underneath and close to the emperor.

One of the things that they say is that if you can demonstrate to the emperor what your skill is, then the emperor understand how to use you. To put yourself in the position of “Hey, I am a tool. I’m not a person who’s entrusted in being the emperor, but I’m a tool and I’m interested in being used by the emperor.” If I can demonstrate the way to use me, then the emperor will reach out.

I think that’s a really interesting analogy because if you can demonstrate how well you listen to your leaders, then they’re going to reach out to have you listen.

Jonathan: Your tool is “I can listen.”

Indi: Yes. I can listen. I can understand. I can make deeper understanding. I can dig upstream and find out why this is happening. It’s like the philosopher that’s necessary in the business world asking those questions why. We’ve got all of these rings and rings of people and data about what, what has happened and when it happened and how it happened. We have very little data about why it happened, what’s going on in somebody’s mind about it.

The more you can demonstrate that you got that tool, you have that skill to find out why, what’s going on in this person’s mind, why they made these decisions that led up to this reaching out to your offering, then the better you will be able to help somebody internally.

Jonathan: It sounds like you had these listening techniques, you’re using them previously for the mental model diagrams. Then as you try to focus more on that empathy piece and less on mental model diagrams, you realize that they were actually more probably applicable to not just your customers but also your colleagues and also your leaders.

Indi: Exactly. That was a big surprise for me.

Jonathan: Could you share with us what that basic technique is?

Indi: Sure. When you typically listen in a conversation, you’ve got topics coming at you and those topics are coming into your brain and bringing up memories, and you may be excited to tell the other person some of those ideas or memories that come up for you.

You’re may be wanting to demonstrate to the person how smart you are, or you’re may be wanting to try to make that person laugh because they seem down. You may want to try to establish some commonality, maybe you don’t know who this person at all. Maybe you know.

We’ve all been to a wedding where you get seated at a table with a bunch of strangers. You have to sit there for an hour, too, right? [laughs]

Jonathan: Yeah.

Indi: This is the idea is in colloquial conversation, you have all these other stuff going on in your brain and you’re looking for an opening in the conversation once you have picked up a couple of these topics to actually strut your stuff, put it out there, make the other person laugh so maybe he’ll feel better or something.

When you’re doing this kind of listening, you have to empty your brain. Instead, you want to be a big piece of cotton, absorbing everything that that person says. You need to learn how to switch that thinking off and to just do the absorbing. Then the absorbing has its own set of things that you have to learn how to do.

The switching off is the very first thing that we need to learn how to do. Switching off is something I think most people can learn. There are some narcissists among us who may have more trouble learning how to switch themselves off when they’re listening.

If you practice it, like you practice a musical instrument, you get better. You need to practice this. There’s no getting better at it unless you practice. I try to encourage people to try this in all sorts of scenarios. You go to buy a cup of coffee or you sit down at a lunch counter or something next to a stranger and you’re checking out from the store with your cart at the cash register. You’re surrounded by people.

You can certainly look at something in their cart and say, “It looks like you’ve got the making for chocolate chip cookies,” and then let that person respond. See if you can find out why do you want to make chocolate chip cookies right now. See if you can practice, just in the space of two minutes, letting go of what you have in your own mind — like the story of when you made chocolate chip cookies — and finding out why that person is doing the chocolate chip cookies now.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get at being able to turn it off.

Jonathan: Some people might find this quite difficult to learn. You say just go up in the store and mention someone’s buying something to make cookies. Some people would say, “I would never do that, going up to someone I don’t know and speaking to them.” How do you support people to learn that skill?

Indi: Ask yourself this question, “Am I naturally curious about people?” As designers, a lot of us are naturally curious about people, but I think a lot of us are naturally introverts. I was super, super, super shy growing up. I would never talk to anybody in a line. This curiosity about how other people think is what drives me, what gets me past that barrier of, “Crap, a stranger. I don’t need to talk to them,” and just keep to myself.

Jonathan: You’re connecting your need to understand or your interest in understanding with the fact that it may be awkward or uncomfortable to just be there and do something a bit unnatural?

Indi: Yeah, exactly. I would say 98 percent of the time it works fine, and people are fine talking about why they want to make chocolate chip cookies. In fact, it’s kind of a fun thing. Not everybody asks that kind of a question, and it’s fun to talk about your reasons why. It ends up helping you, over time, feel more confident in your curiosity about people.

You get these reflections back from people that hardly anybody asks me these questions so I’m really excited to talk to you about it.

Jonathan: I think that idea of feeling more confident seems to me to be quite key. Identifying that I would like to understand more about other people’s perspectives and it being OK that I don’t feel confident sort of thing, but I can work on that using techniques. Once you’ve emptied your mind and stuff’s coming at you, what’s the thing that you do next?

Indi: The thing that you do next is you try to get past some of the levels of conversation that we are taught are polite or that we are taught are expected. For one thing, it’s very expected that people talk about their preferences. I prefer this kind of music or I really like this particular artist or I liked this movie because of the kind of cinematography that I prefer.

When you hear preferences and you hear opinions and the explanations and statements of fact you are not actually finding out why. You are only getting surface level stuff. You want to dig deeper than that. The next level is to recognize that you’re hearing, say, a preference, for example, and then being able to say, “Why? Why do you like this guy? Why is this kind of cinematography the thing that really attracts your eye?”

Then you’ll get the back story. You’ll get more the this thing happened to me and it gave me such an emotional reaction that I remembered it the next time it happened to me again, and I loved the emotion so I started looking for this kind of cinematography. There’s a reason behind it. Maybe that particular thing was an emotional reaction, maybe another one is an ethics thing or some sort of guiding principle that helps them make decisions.

That’s what you want to get at. You want to get at the underlying thing, the underlying reasoning that people are going through. Maybe it’s a newly formed opinion about something that’s just come up that everybody’s going to vote on or something and they’re still exploring it. It’s behind the scenes exploration that we’re interested in. It’s not the vote, it’s “I heard this from this other person and I don’t really like that person so I’m not going to trust what they say.”

Jonathan: Right. You’re talking about going deeper beyond the preferences and beyond the…

Indi: Opinions.

Jonathan: …opinions to say I want to understand why. It seems to me that that is going to produce a closer connection between you.

Indi: Yeah. That’s exactly it. I was at the pool the other day with somebody, and she was telling me about a vacation that she was going to take to Belize. In normal conversation you’re like, “Wow, Belize, that sounds wonderful. I hope you have fun.” I said, “You’re going to Belize because?” She said, “Our friends invited us. They were going there so they invited us along.”

“And you agreed why?” [laughs] Then I got the whole story. Wow, she just talked and talked and talked about these friends and the relationship that they’ve had and the good times that they’ve had together. How these friends have had some really great vacations because they go to some out of the way spots and find people in these out of the way spots that they establish a relationship with and become friends with over time.

Maybe even come back to a vacation spot where they went before, but it’s all because of the people that they met there and the relationships they established. This was the reason why she was going to Belize. It’s not because the sand is white and the water is warm. [laughs]

Jonathan: Right. It sounds like, even in that little anecdote, you’re choosing to have a deeper conversation. You could have gone with the normal, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” with is fine and “polite,” but doesn’t really give you anything as a human being. No one’s killing each other but you’re not getting it and you’re not connecting.

You’re saying I’m going to choose today to put more energy into this and to connect with somebody because I hope that I’m going to get something deeper, more nourishing, you were saying more fun — at least more interest — as a result.

Indi: Exactly. This works with people you work with, it works with your customers, it works with the gal at the pool. The next time and the next time and the next time that I saw her we just keep deepening our relationship. I think it goes a little against…I don’t know if it’s Western culture or what, but it seems, at least in America, that it’s all about me, me, me, me, and I have to establish how great I am and how smart I am and how many fancy cars I own or whatever.

Jonathan: That’s an insecurity thing. That’s a projection of I don’t know if I’m worth it so I have to pretend like I do.

Indi: I don’t know if that’s true of everybody. I think a lot of people just accept that as that’s the way it is.

Jonathan: That’s how we have to speak. There’s no other way.

Indi: Yeah, exactly. This is a stepping back or turning aside of our ego and saying I am nothing. I am just interested in you. That is what attracts people’s attention, and people open up. They build trust with you over time because it’s you, you, you, and I’m not really contributing my ego to this conversation. I’m just interested in your side of things and the way that you think and your reasons why.

It’s very different than our typical way of relating to people. I think that makes stronger relationships, especially for someone that you’re going to work with over and over.

Jonathan: Indi, we’ve come to the end of our time, and I wish we had longer to go into this because I think there’s so much here on the skill side and on the experience side and how to apply it and stuff. However, I think that it’s been a fantastic conversation and quite inspiring for people to think about what we do in our work — whether it’s talking to customers or talking to colleagues — is quite related to what we do in our lives.

Bringing that contribution of listening and being open to other people could change our home life as much as it could change our work life.

Indi: Yes. So true.

Jonathan: Thank you very much for your time today. It’s been a great chat.

Indi: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s been wonderful. I hope everybody enjoyed it.