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Three Simple Empathy Techniques for Qualitative Research

Empathy is experiential insight and it’s having a moment. Business leaders, political leaders and entrepreneurs all say we need more empathy – the ability to step into someone else shoes to feel and experience the world from their perspective. We call it shoe-shifting.  But how can qualitative researchers harness empathy to generate insight?  Here are three simple empathy techniques drawn from psychology and behavioural science.

1. Empathic Listening

Empathic listening is an in-depth interview (IDI) and therapy technique in that involves playing back what you’ve heard to check you understand it’s emotional meaning

You feel…(name the emotion expressed by interviewee) because… (name the thoughts, experiences, and behaviours they mention)

Because of how empathy works on an automatic level (via automatic facial mimicry – that communicates feelings non-verbally to the interviewer – aka body language), empathic listening works best in quiet and intimate face-to-face situations. When you look into someone’s eyes you are close enough to allow empathy to happen.

2. Empathic Laddering

Laddering is a commonly used IDI technique in qualitative research (and by children) consists of laddering ‘up’ from the answer to an initial ‘why’ question (e.g. why did you buy that?) by repeatedly asking subsequent why – until you get to an underlying value or motivation.

Interviewer: “Why x?”
Subject: “Because z”
Interviewer: “Why z?”
Subject: “Because b”
Interviewer: “Why b?”

Empathic laddering is simply laddering with a feeling focus.

How did you feel about that?
Why do you feel that is?
Why do you feel that?…

The idea is that empathic laddering can ladder up (or down) to ‘deeper’ emotional drivers so you can better understand their emotional world.

3. Empathy Mapping

Empathy Mapping is a technique used in design research in order to better understand the emotional world of someone else. As its name suggests, the goal is to map the emotional world of an interviewee – for example by focusing on what they most love/hate and what they hope/fear about a product, service, experience or situation. This creates a simple empathy framework for understanding based on key approach-avoidance emotional dimensions.  There are more complex empathy maps that also look at the cognitive dimension of empathy (perspective taking) but a simple empathy map focused on emotions can provide rich insight and understanding.


Agile Empathy

Of course, none of these quick techniques can fully replace the gold-standard method in empathy research – field research when you experience first-hand what it’s like to be the person you wish to understand.  It is this first-person perspective research – a market research version of method acting – that is the most revealing and comes from personal immersion. Empathy is me-search, not research. However, when immersive field research is too time-consuming and impractical, then the above ‘agile empathy’ techniques can help you feel what others are feeling and experience the world from their perspective.

How to Report Empathy Insights

There’s no hard and fast rule for how to report empathy insights, but when debriefing clients, empathy insights can take this simple form to allow them to be communicated simply and succinctly.

People feel…(name the emotion expressed by interviewees) because… (name the thoughts, experiences, and behaviours they mention).

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