Experiences shape our perceptions. I remember learning about the omnipresent nature of order and chaos during undergraduate school. At the time, I questioned what value this was bringing to my life. However, a day has not passed where I haven’t observed this pattern of order and chaos at play around me. Similarly, over the past 4 months, I have observed the same omnipresence of empathy and power around me.
I am currently a design graduate student at California College of the Arts. You might be able to relate to the load of reading and writing that graduate school entails. The assigned readings have ranged from defining interaction design, to the value of good storytelling, to practices such as active listening and learning to be mindful of our needs and feelings. Classes have also varied, from prototyping behavior change, to redesigning airline experiences and even design research. After the first couple of weeks though, I observed themes of empathy and power across the different classes. Although empathy has been an overarching theme in human centered design, I was enlightened and surprised by the underlying theme of power.
In ‘The Power Paradox,’ Dacher Keltner explains that life is made up of patterns, particularly focusing on patterns of social living and patterns of mutual influence. Keltner aims to demystify Niccolo Machiavelli’s definition of power as force, fraud, ruthlessness and strategic violence, instead, by providing evidence that power is about making a difference in the world, as power is “the medium through which we relate to each other.” He suggests that building strong, mutually empowered ties through empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude and telling stories helps to maintain this healthy power. He also describes power as a state of mind — ultimately leading to a feeling of purpose. Interestingly, he says that the universal experience of power is the sacred living force propelling us to make a difference.
When this power is used for positive actions, it makes people happier, healthier and more productive as Keltner observes — “Take delight in the delights of others, as they make a difference in the world.” Another interesting concept is that this power is gained, earned, or given by groups of people that believe in the individual to advance the greater good. The person in power would then display certain qualities of empathy, gratitude, compassion and unity. Our emotional expressions make-up the social interactions around us, and this thought is strengthened by the concept of Ubuntu, “the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours.”
I have observed power at play at my workplace in cross-functional teams, in graduate school working with people from diverse backgrounds, and even in stories gathered during design research. For example, for one assignment, we used generative design research methods to empathize and learn more about the Kink Community in San Francisco. We had the opportunity to interact with wonderful people who generously shared the story of their relationships with Kink. While all of them emphasized the importance of consent, awareness, and safety, several people spoke about the power dynamics during play. Our research revealed deep insight about the role of power plays in defining their identities. It was interesting to note that dominant and submissive relationships are built on power dynamics, the odd balance of the dominant having the power to control play, and the submissive simultaneously having the power to stop play at any time.
In ‘The Power Paradox,’ Dacher Keltner brings to notice however, the abuse of power and the unethical actions associated with that abuse, in contrast to the benevolent exercise of power for the greater good. He warns us about the seductive nature of power, which ironically can lead to the loss of power. Keltner emphasizes the importance of including the psychology of powerlessness in our conversations about social issues, which the author believes is the greatest threat facing society today. I have experienced this misuse of power, especially in team work devoid of empathy and open communication. This misuse results in conflict, loss of trust, and misunderstanding, causing a rift in the relationship. Several stories that we gathered from our interactions with the Kink community related to how people interact with them not only because of their Kink lifestyle, but also the effects of trans-misogyny. I believe that power is at play even if we are unaware of it, in all our interactions with others. We need to become more aware of this power and develop a mindful practice of empathy and open communication to improve these interactions.
We are social beings, and understanding social dynamics, leadership, and the role that power plays is crucial for teamwork and systemic change. Empathy and effective communication can also contribute to resolving conflict for idea generation and taking action together. Empathy is a powerful tool which needs to be developed as a mental habit. This practice makes us better observers as well as better listeners. When we listen, we need to listen with more than our ears, we need to also observe needs such as trust, compassion, stability and hope. Additionally, having a selfless attitude and practicing gratitude, giving, and unity will make us better leaders, with the power to make a difference. This represents a cultural shift and systemic change that’s significant enough to have a big impact on how we interact with one another everyday, leading to our overall well being . Simultaneously, as designers, we must not forget the importance of listening to ourselves and being self aware enough to understand and communicate our own emotions. Gauging these emotions related to how we think about our love, work, play and health enables us to become happier, healthier, and more productive. It is also important to note that empathy is not about judgement, nor is it the same a sympathy or reassurance. Empathy is about experiencing the visceral journeys of others, or creating analogous experiences to derive insights about their perspectives. Relating to others is the first step towards realizing our interconnectedness. This brings our attention back to the concept of Ubuntu and the larger systems in place. David Steindl, the co-founder of Center for Spiritual Studies says “If you’re grateful, you’re enjoying the differences between people and you’re respectful to everybody and that changes this power pyramid under which we live.” Which affirms my understanding that a power-with strategy, where everyone’s needs are vital and interdependent, will help us harness the power of diversity.
“The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.”
Power and empathy, A designer’s advantage.
As individuals with the responsibility of designing systems and interactions for the future, we need to develop our designer’s advantage in order to deliver the best possible solutions. Balanced individuals are not only self-aware of their identity, but also conscious of their environment and the people around them. Methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry, Theory U, Human Centered Design and Non-Violent Communication can shape designers’ identities to help us focus on fulfilling our purpose of making a positive difference and impacting others’ lives. Better communication as a whole entails being able to express needs, emotions, to actively listen, be open to providing and receiving critique and more importantly, to empathize. These skills would help us build stronger relationships while working collaboratively with culturally diverse stakeholders.
As interactions designers, we need to be building better and healthier ways to interact with one another — to help us all realize the power of human connection.