Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Empathy as accessing 3 kinds of ignorance

As a Design Thinking facilitator one of the key challenges I face is following: How do we create an experiential understanding of the concept of empathy? Participants do go through observations, interviews etc. However, how does one know if one is actually empathizing with the other? In this article, I am proposing a way of looking at empathy that might help in answering this question. The key is to understand empathizing as a process of accessing our own ignorance. What does “accessing ignorance” mean? And, what are the types of ignorance we need to access? Let’s explore in this article.

Accessing ignorance: After an hour of field research, a group of participants returned to the training room. The team had visited a nearby bus stop and were eager to share their findings. A team member explained how people are in a hurry to reach home and can hardly wait for the bus to come to a full stop before jumping into it. I asked him how many people he interviewed. He said he didn’t have to interview anybody because he is a bus commuter himself and knows their pain. This anecdote illustrates what it means to not access ignorance. Every situation can be approached with one of two attitudes – that of knowing or that of ignorance. The gentleman in the bus stop team, approached the empathy exercise from the attitude of “knowing”. Empathy demands that we approach a situation from the position of ignorance.

There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion. Let’s look at them briefly.

1.      Content ignorance: If one needs to understand more about bus commuters, one needs to ask questions like: Where do people travel to? How long do they have to wait for the bus? How long is the typical journey? How frequently do they use a bus? When do they typically travel? Etc. Answers to these questions begin to create a better picture about the bus commuters’ situation. This is what I refer to as “content ignorance”. If this conversation builds some trust and openness, it may help us access the next level of ignorance: intent ignorance.

2.      Intent ignorance: This ignorance is related to the anxieties and aspirations of people. Why do they travel by bus? Is it because they don’t like driving or is it because they can’t afford a car yet? Is it the long commute time that makes them anxious? Or is it the time taken away from family? Do people ever enjoy a commute? If so, under what circumstances? In short, intent ignorance tries to understand the emotional triggers and the intents that drive people to take up or not take up certain actions. Unless there is a level of trust and openness, a person may not reveal his anxieties and aspirations. For example, an auto drive may not tell you that his school going son is still ashamed of the fact that his father drives an auto.

3.      Illusion ignorance:  This is the toughest of the three kinds of ignorance to access. When the bus stop study team member mentioned that he didn’t have to interview anyone, he actually believed that he knows everything about bus commuters. This is called an illusion of understanding. Our deep seated beliefs are treated as truths and we are unable to question them. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs are not easy to access as they are buried deeply in our unconscious. Hence, it helps to ask oneself from time to time, “Could this be wrong?”

In short, if you are interested in learning to empathize, you should learn to approach a situation from the position of ignorance rather than that of knowledge. There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion.


I first read the term “accessing ignorance” in Edgar Schien’s book “Humble inquiry”.

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