About compassion, empathy, and curiosity. Which one is better at prompting action?

One reader of my LinkedIn article Be a better manager, improve customer experience, and become a stronger diversity and inclusion ally: Ditch empathy. Embrace curiosity, prompted me to reflect further on the comparison between empathy, curiosity, and compassion and their ability to inspire action.

Question from reader

As someone who focuses entirely on the experience of customers with disabilities, this does resonate. Matt May recently did a talk on doing away with empathy as part of the design.  I recently started reading “Against Empathy” which has a subtitle about “embracing radical compassion.” The problem I am having trouble wrapping my head around in moving away from empathy is I feel that empathy (and possibly radical compassion) comes with a built-in call to action that curiosity does not.  When you truly understand and share the feelings of another, you have the motivation to execute on helping to solve the problem.  The process of being curious can be declared successful after the learning is completed, without taking any action.   Any thoughts on how I can mentally close this loop would be awesome.

Patricia’s answer

I’m glad the article resonated with you and many thanks for sharing additional resources on this topic and prompt me to further reflection on this topic.

Below additional perspectives that may help:

1.- I don’t believe that either empathy or curiosity triggers action. When I’ve seen a major call to action to change the status quo, it’s been prompted by legal compliance, financial penalties or gains, and/or disconnect with core values (e.g. company mission). From a personal point of view, I think that emotions like anger do come with a call to action. Also, disconnect between personal values and action, e.g. when our actions or omissions are at odds with our values (e.g. justice).

Example: A recent HBR article reports on a GSK executive that challenged the status quo when he learned that his company was “a complainant in a lawsuit over access to drug therapies for HIV/AIDS patients […], charging Nelson Mandela and South African government for violating price protections and intellectual property rights in their efforts to access lower-priced antiretroviral drugs.” Why did he do it? In meetings with board members, this champion “stressed the company’s moral responsibility to alleviate human suffering and tied it to the long-term success of the company. He stated that GSK can’t make medicines that save lives and then not allow people access to them. He noted the public relations disaster associated with the lawsuit”

2.- Empathy is our way to make sense of others’ emotions. For me, empathy has the function to explain others’ emotions to us and emit a judgment. It’s a self-reassuring mechanism where my brain searches for matches to other people’s experiences and, once I find a match – no matter how good the match actually is – I make a judgment: would I react the same as the other person or not? Then, I can shelve the experience.

3.- We are very bad at empathizing, even with ourselves. The notion of empathy gap postulates that we often fail to be empathetic towards ourselves (or others) because we are in different mental states, i.e. our rational selves don’t take into account our emotional selves when we make decisions and the reciprocal situation. For example, when our new year resolution is “I’ll go to the gym at 6am every day”, we fail to empathize with our own self who is cozy and warm in bed at 5.30am.

4.- Compassion as the magic bullet. I find the idea very appealing; however, I see compassion as a strong but fleeting emotion which priority is easily pulled up and down. I can feel deep compassion when somebody tells me how many people die from malaria every year, but then I may read an article about the Australian fires and my compassion will move to the families losing their homes.

 If not triggering action, where does curiosity play a role?

I believe curiosity positive effect is seen once you have decided to act, e.g. once you have decided you want to make the workplace more inclusive. Do you rely on what do you think other people want/need (empathy) or ask those people what they want/need (curiosity)? There is a very interesting study showing the mismatch between what HR believes makes millennial women leave companies and what those women think.

Curiosity also opens the door to bring in people that may not necessarily has an emotional connection to others, but rather they want to solve a problem, a mismatch (pun intended – this is the title of a fantastic book by Kat Holmes on disability & design for beginners). A good example is in Julia Galef TEDx talk , where she discusses the exoneration of French-Jewish officer Dreyfus led by an anti-Semite colonel.

Finally, curiosity requires a lower level of effort compared to empathy:

(a) Curiosity is easy to encourage and implement – I’ve come across support and field consultants telling me that a customer has raised an issue but they are unsure about the level of priority, i.e. how disruptive it’s for the user. Leading with empathy means to go with our best guess about the impact for the customer and hope for the best. Instead, leading with curiosity is about coming up with a set of relevant questions for the user.

(b) We were experts at curiosity when we were kids – 4-years-old children ask an average of 73 questions per day [source].

(c) Curiosity engages our brain (rather than your emotions) – currently, I’m listening to About us, a collection of very short essays (about 6-10 min each) written by people with disabilities. I came across one from a woman with cerebral palsy sharing her struggles to get support from the US health system to continue her pregnancy. Before listening to her, if somebody would have asked me to empathize with her situation, as a person that doesn’t have cerebral palsy or children, my response would have been that in her situation I’d have welcomed the possibility to avoid the health risk, responsibility and sustained effort that having a child involves. Instead, listening to her with curiosity has given me a much more nuanced view on the topic.

In summary, I believe that the value of curiosity is not on prompting to action, but about how that action is performed. As for how to trigger action: law enforcement, financial penalties (the Medium article ADA lawsuit costs are WAY more than just the settlement is a great example in the context of disability), and salience of the mismatch between core values and actions/omissions.

Finally, I fully support that empathy can hinder good design. I built the Ethics and Inclusive Framework because I know that unethical and exclusionary design happens to good designers and developers all the time– I work in tech!