"Authenticity is one of the most important elements of my teaching toolkit I think." - Jeremy Utley
Being genuine in front of a crowd doesn't come easily to everyone. There are legitimate fears associated with being fully open with a group of people. There's the risk of making an embarrassing mistake. Then there's the fear of being recorded and having what you say placed on a permanent record of some kind. Ever-present smartphones and social media make staying off the record almost impossible in groups.
So, it's understandable that when given the opportunity to speak in front of a group of people, rather than speak from the heart, we read from a script.
A recent experience showed me, however, that when it comes to teaching empathy -- to say nothing of teaching overall -- it pays to be genuine.
I recently watched two d.school colleagues, Kathryn Segovia and Jeremy Utley, model empathy interviewing for a group of high-school students -- not the graduate students or executives they regularly work with. I assumed the interview would be somewhat canned just to make sure they hit all of the necessary points and to guarantee the students were able to clearly understand the significance of the language and methods being used.
My assumption was wrong.
Standing in front of the class, Kathryn assumed the role of the interviewer and began asking Jeremy questions, modeling good empathy interviewing technique: pausing in moments of silence, listening and taking notes. The questions included:
- Who is someone in your life that you admire?
- Recall a time you had a difficult interaction with someone.
- Tell me about a time you encouraged someone.
- When is the last time you felt discouraged?
- Tell me about the last time you felt proud?
Jeremy, rather than offer fake answers or read from a script, took each question head-on, giving, in some cases, very personal answers. The students were asked to make inferences based on his answers and respond to the following questions:
- The personality trait that this person is most proud of is...
- This person is energized by...
- This person enjoys helping others feel...
- This person is discouraged when others...
- When my partner interacts with others, I think h/she finds it difficult to...
The students nailed the answers, revealing aspects of Jeremy's true character. In some cases their responses were so accurate they surprised the teaching team -- people who had come to know Jeremy well. The learning experience was that much richer for his honesty, and that much more vivid and relevant.
I shouldn't have been surprised by the choice Jeremy and the team made. I experienced a similar moment when I first learned empathy interviewing during d.bootcamp last year. A member of the staff was interviewed by a member of the d.bootcamp teaching team. The staff member's responses -- all authentic and heartfelt -- nearly brought me to tears. It was more powerful than any scripted lecture or canned interview. I will never forget that feeling -- a feeling that I seek to replicate in my own empathy work going forward.
Talk about a lesson learned.
Have you had a similar experience either teaching or as a student? 'Have questions about empathy and design thinking? Please post them in the comments or ping me on twitter at @emikolawole. If I can't answer them, I'll do my best to find someone who can.