Skip links

Want win-win solutions? Try empathy

Empathy has often been painted as a fluffy buzzword that been bandied around from sales and marketing to ergonomics. But is it really just some sort of pop psychology reference to kindness and “listening to others”? What do organizations stand to gain when they sit down to understand a particularly thorny problem from the sometimes conflicting perspectives of various stakeholders? By letting empathy guide organizational problem-solving, businesses recognize that those directly affected are in the best position to identify a win-win solution.

In the following excerpt taken from the chapter “Perceptions of Creativity in Asia,” Center for Asia Leadership Teaching Fellow Jaye Buchbinder shares about her insights and observations at the Trilateral Leadership Summit in 2015 which gathered students from Korea, Japan, and China, countries that have intertwined histories rife with geopolitical conflict and economic clashes. The full chapter, written by Buchbinder, who was a Design Leadership Consultant at the Stanford Design School, can be found in Rethinking Asia 2: Entrepreneurship and Economic Development.

In all the workshops we held, the most beneficial part of the design-thinking process was the building of empathy—getting to know your user and your problem on the deepest possible level. In the workshops we held in Malaysia and Guangzhou, we began with trips to the nearest mall, where the students interviewed passers-by on a variety of topics, from their use of umbrellas to locating stores. By the end of each workshop, we had moved to political, economic, and social issues that were increasingly relevant in their lives. In our final workshop, in Japan at the Trilateral Leadership Summit, this last segment of the process took on an unprecedented importance.

We arrived in Japan with a great deal of anticipation. We had just finished two fast-paced workshops in Guangzhou and flown overnight to Sendai. At dinner that first evening, at a traditional Japanese restaurant, we spoke with the Summit organizers about the issues we were trying to tackle. Relations between Japan, Korea, and China are embittered for several reasons, including an inability to construct a consistent historical narrative across textbooks in these countries, major geographical arguments over islands, and a variety of economic and political disagreements. We would be teaching students from all three countries at the Summit, and Mr. Attiq and I would be hosting three-hour workshops on each of the four days, leading these students through the process of understanding these issues and concluding with a presentation on problem-solving.

The first day started off with minor grumbling, as we explained that the students would be interviewing their peers for an hour on the issues at hand. They began to talk to each other and soon discovered, as they later revealed in the debrief, that they had differing perspectives on the topics they covered, even within the same nationalities.

Over the next four days, they spent countless hours in and out of the workshop developing their understanding of each other and crafting solutions to the problems they were discussing. When the final day came and they presented their solutions, they had developed not only pride for their ideas but also an intense, cross-cultural understanding, thanks to the international groups. Their solutions were thoughtful and creative, and they included cultural values from all three countries, as well as individual strengths from the group members. Mr. Attiq and I were extraordinarily impressed, and the students told us that they too were impressed by how much they had learned. They explained that while they had enjoyed brainstorming and the improvisational games, they had also learned a lot from these activities. The process demonstrated the importance of leaving one’s own comfort zone and of approaching issues with an open, unbiased perspective.

The students formed lasting bonds with people whom they had been taught to regard with suspicion. They made friendships with political enemies and formed teams across borders that are not easily crossed. After the workshop, one of my students asked me if leaders in the United States conducted empathy interviews. I responded that I was not sure but that I knew design thinking did not typically inform the policies of many worldwide political leaders. He explained that he wanted to become a diplomat and use design thinking to understand the problems of the world. He said that empathy had aided him in getting over his fear of the students from other countries and that he thought it would be beneficial for leaders to understand their neighbors, in order to craft mutually aiding policies.

I left Japan glowing at this reaffirmation of the benefits of empathy. I knew that I was leaving groups of well-informed and inspired students who would promote creativity and design thinking in their own lives.

At the heart of Design Thinking is empathy. What drives the other parts of the process – from prototyping to iteration – is a desire to give a seriously impactful solution to a seriously problematic pain point. And the beauty of Design Thinking and empathy is that it can be applied to increasingly sophisticated areas from products and services to culture, policies, interactions, and experiences.  

By Jaye Buchbinder