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    Avoid Burnout From User Empathy During Research [Field Notes]

    Empathy is overrated. Compassion is better for innovation. Here's why.

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      Picture of Vaughan Broderick

      Vaughan Broderick

      Hey friends πŸ‘‹,

      User research is fundamental to design thinking and innovation.

      Research is useful is to make sure you’re solving the right problem, before solving it right.

      When research is effective, you gain empathy, generate deep understanding and derive insights, which can be used as a springboard for ideation and problem-solving.

      However, researchers can experience deep emotions, become exhausted and burned-out.

      Exhaustion and burn-out has happened to me.

      This week, I’ll share some notes from my field research, offer an alternative to empathy and provide strategies, so you can take care of your well-being and be a more effective researcher.

      Let’s go!

      Research Field Notes

      Over the last 3 years, I’ve completed hundreds of interviews and spent thousands of hours empathising with users, hearing their stories, deriving insight and arriving at a deep understanding of a problem.

      Our teams have been able to truly make a huge difference in the lives of many people (aka innovation).

      And, I’m fortunate that my field research has taken me into diverse sectors across, commercial, not-for-profit, social services and health.

      But, one thing that isn’t part of any UX, CX, service design or customer voice job description is the potential downside of empathy.

      Empathy is “our feeling of awareness toward’s other people’s emotions and an attempt to understand how they feel”.

      It’s a natural part of being human.

      However, empathy can be harmful when it shifts from cognitive empathy (understand their pain) into emotional empathy with a desire to ‘feel their pain’.

      When I have been immersed in contexts, stories and workshops that are more emotive and sensitive, I have become deeply affected.

      To the point of impacting my own well-being.

      For example, I recently spent time researching people’s chronic pain journey’s and presented the work in an immersive style with stakeholders.

      Further stories were shared and when it came time to present, I found it difficult to avoid my own memories of the health system and I became visibly upset.

      My wife reminds me that becoming emotional means I’m human and I care. She’s a wise source of strength for me.

      While other projects have had similar subjects, I think because of the compressed timeframe, I was unable to bring my best for the workshop participants.

      Additionally, I have found that recovery can take days and the impact can last weeks.

      Perhaps, the emotional trade-off will always exist for this type of deep work?

      Empathy Vs Compassion

      Reaction Spectrum
      Source: Robert Shelton via Auldyn Matthews

      I was discussing this situation with my mentor and he mentioned that perhaps a better way to think about the work is aiming for compassion rather than empathy.

      So, I set about to understand what he was referring to. Here’s what I found:

      • Empathy training is provided by 20% of US companies for their leaders.​
      • Psychology Today states that empathy is ‘sharing another person’s emotions’.​
      • Empathy “makes us biased, tribal, and often cruel” – according to Professor Paul Bloom.
      • The spectrum of reactions to someone’s plight can include: pity (discomfort at the distress of others, often with paternalistic or condescending overtones), sympathy (concern for and wish to see someone better off).

      However, compassion is an “emotional response to empathy or sympathy and creates a desire to help“.

      This small, but significant distinction means that you can create ’emotional distance’.

      Moreso, ‘practicing compassion helps us become more resilient and improve our overall well-being’.

      And, in my opinion, compassion might be the right amount of the distance-connection tension that is needed for research in complex and sensitive subjects.

      β€œWisdom without compassion is ruthlessness and compassion without wisdom is folly.” – Fred Kofman.

      Practical Tips to Maintain Your Well-being

      On my research journey, I have found these practices useful:

      • Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps to observe inputs, accept them and prepare an appropriate response. Whenever, I miss my practice for more than 2-3 days, I notice a drop in resilience.
      • Exercise. Daily exercise is not only good for your body, but your mind too. The same applies when I miss 2-3 days of exercise.
      • Reframing. Changing the perspective of the experience helps to not distort the event.
      • Decompress. After each interview, making notes to ‘off-load’ can be useful to avoid ruminating.
      • Take breaks. Make sure to fit in some downtime between interviews for recovery.
      • Confide in others. Share the challenges with your work colleagues.
      • Give distance between interview, analysis and presentation. Time and distance can short circuit any compounding emotional effects.

      That’s all for today friends!

      I hope that you’ve found a new understanding on how to connect with users and some tips to maintain your well-being.

      Before you go, here’s a couple of newsletters that are helping me think differently and have some fun along the way:

      ​Ideas to Power Your Future. Adriana is a Marketing Strategist that never wanted to be an entrepreneur. She bootstrapped her business, speaks 6 languages and is a lover of red wine. Her insightful, weekly newsletter will future-proof your business.

      ​Happy Accidents. Dennis was laid off, disgruntled yet determined. He decided to become a solopreneur. Dennis provides light-hearted yet valuable case studies of businesses that became happy accidents.

      As always, feel free to reply to this email or reach out to me on LinkedIn as I’d love to hear your feedback.

      Thanks for reading and I’ll catch you next week.