Written by Augusta Olaore PhD Augusta VIA LISA
Last month I went to the doctor’s office because I was having difficulty breathing. In the era of COVID-19, that was a red flag. I had no fever and no coughing, so what could be going on? The doctor took the stethoscope that was around his neck, put it to his ears, placed the other end on my upper back, and said, “Take a deep breath in and out.”
He did it several times, listening to my lungs, trying to figure out why I could not breathe properly.
The stethoscope was my doctor’s tool for listening to my breath at a deep level, and not just at the nostrils or mouth. Accuracy in listening and hearing was a critical first step to diagnose my breathing problem.
A NEED TO LISTEN DEEPLY
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd gasped under the knee of Derrick Chauvin, curbside at the intersection 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.
“I can’t breathe.”
This statement has reverberated around the world as an emergency call — the symbolic knee of racism in law enforcement on the neck of African Americans. This drives the Black Lives Matter (BLM) agenda.
The ability to accurately listen to why an individual or group cannot breathe requires knowledge, tools and skill sets. The stethoscope in the ears of my doctor is like empathy in the heart of a designer. Racism, like any social problem, is complicated, but empathy is a simple skill that helps tease out the issues one question at a time. It draws on the humanness of the social innovator to act in compassion.
In her book Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice, Brené Brown states that empathy is a tool for compassion. The empathy skill set includes refraining from judgment, considering others’ perspectives, and identifying and articulating emotions in others.
Empathy allows us to listen to how a person or group inhales and exhales life. Only then can we accurately identify why they can’t breathe. Further investigation may show that there is nothing wrong with the physiology or anatomy of the individual, group, community or race, but various forms of systemic pollution may be compromising their ability to breathe.
For me in the doctor’s office, it was just pollen.
UNDERSTANDING AND PRACTICING EMPATHY
Empathy informs human understanding at deeper levels like the stethoscope informs medical understanding of breathing. Empathy is listening to another’s perspective of the world, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, and then being able to communicate that understanding. That is why human centered design begins with empathy.
A doctor need not be asthmatic to adequately treat an asthmatic patient, but, with proper tools like a stethoscope and knowledge base, they can accurately identify the cause of the challenge and collaborate (co-create) with the patient to determine the best solutions that will be impactful for the patient. Empathy puts us in the other people’s shoes to understand why and how they walk.
“Black Lives Matter. No justice, no peace. I may not understand but I stand with you.” This was a sign held up by White hands during a BLM protest march I attended.
In design thinking, we use empathy to scope the terrain of the end user. Imagine an empathyscope that helps a caring bystander become an involved solution partner even though they cannot experientially relate to the problem. This empathyscope amplifies your ears to listen deeply and non-judgmentally to the people, group or organization experiencing the problem.
Being non-judgmental is an empathy barrier to cross. Going back to the stethoscope analogy, a doctor is nonjudgmental with the patient by not jumping to conclusions about the lifestyle, cause of illness, or other information about the patient. They listen to the lungs and ask questions. They may be generally informed about the illness, but they do not make assumptions about the patient in front of them. In social work, we call it an “informed-not-knowing” posture. Empathy is exploratory. The only assumption is that we do not know; therefore, we ask. Research becomes the channel through which the empathyscope tool kit is utilized.
EMPATHYSCOPE: BEYOND SUPPORT AND IDENTIFICATION
One of the most powerful tools in design thinking is the persona empathy map. It provides a framework to practice empathy by asking high level questions such as…
- What do they see?
- What are they saying?
- What have they heard?
- What are they thinking?
- What do they feel?
By asking these questions, a caring bystander can move from identifying with the problem to getting involved with the problem and then to co-creating the solution. Fostering camaraderie with persons of other ethnicities who are supporting the BLM movement and showing support by standing in solidarity with Blacks in anti-racism protests is a good beginning. It will be a greater and lasting impact if each person goes beyond curbside observation —using the empathyscope — by asking questions that will reveal the lived experiences of racism in Black communities.
I sometimes hear people say, “I feel uncomfortable talking to a Black person about racism because they might feel offended.” Yes, this might be valid if there is the anticipation of retraumatization by an insensitive posture. A Black person may be guarded and uncomfortable if a White person is perceived as oblivious to their own whiteness, white supremacy and privileges. This dilemma is addressed by the Speaking Down Barriers community organization in Upstate South Carolina. Their “Healing Us” and “Learning Us” small group intervention has been effective in making the larger interracial community conversations go smoother.
We should be careful not to exclude or excuse Black people from the conversation. Returning to our doctor and stethoscope analogy, it would be like saying the doctor does not want the patient to feel bad about the presenting illness so they choose to talk to other people but not the patient. Paying attention and giving them voice is therapeutic and an intervention by itself. It provides an accurate picture of the lived life within a systemic injustice. It unearths things that may be overlooked by secondary research. My experience is that people are open to talk if they feel safe and know that you are not condescending or judgmental. Phrase questions with “Please help me understand…” and clarify with “Am I hearing you say…”
BREATHE — INHALE, EXHALE
I have felt perplexed from time to time by a world that is gasping for breath, whether due to the coronavirus or racism. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenges with which we are faced. I have, however, found some peace of mind by following the empathyscope concept in design thinking. It helps me understand what people inhale in their lives — what they have to take in, cope with, live with, put up with. Why they exhale the frustration, anger and pain that we see.
With this understanding, we can move towards the co-creation of ideas and possible solutions to help resolve aspects of social injustice. With empathetic listening or empathyscoping, maybe — just maybe — we can help somebody breathe.
Author Augusta Olare, PhD, is a DTG design facilitator who is a leader in social services education, practice, and innovation. She studied and worked in the UK, Nigeria, and USA in sectors such as higher education, health, finance, and non-governmental agencies. Her strength is in designing and facilitating human-centered multicultural and inclusive trainings.