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The Framework Behind Empathy Mapping


Vaughn Sayers
November 20, 2019
Case Studies, Research, Social Impact Fundamentals

We each have an inherent desire to maximize social impact. This desire can manifest as a simple attempt to brighten someone’s day (A friendly “hello, how are you?”) or a professional career aimed at advancing the public good. However, how do we define “social impact” or “the public good”? These are subjective phrases rooted in perspectives or beliefs stemming from personal experiences. True impact is inclusive, therefore, we must acknowledge the limits of advancing the good merely from our own beliefs. To accelerate this explorative process there are tools in place to help you discover, accept, and learn from the perspectives of others. Let us take a look at the framework behind these resources and work together to create an inclusive version of the public good!

Through the use of the CSIS Independent Learning tool Empathy Map and the CSIS resource post Belief is Complicated, we will explore the importance of unpacking belief or perspective. This exploration can serve as a launching point to create an environment open to ingenuity and empathic thought. Best said in a Topic monologue by Krista Tippett, Founder, and CEO of the On Being Project, “these lives we lead… [are] always messier and stranger and less predictable than we want it to be.” Let us use this moment to embrace, accept, and enable the diversity of experience.

An Empathy Map  places your beneficiaries or other key stakeholders at the center by developing an understanding of their perspective. This tool allows an individual to identify the gaps that social impact leaders are tasked to fill, however, why employ it? This post is an opportunity to explore the underlying utility of an empathy map; Its ability to create a connection that leads to inclusive impact. 

Impact begins with connection and authentic connection is created through acknowledging and valuing the perspective of those you serve. What does it mean to “Acknowledge”? How can you truly “Value”? These questions not only are at the forefront of innovation, but can deepen relationships between stakeholders, loved ones, and the hundreds of individuals we encounter daily. 

What does it mean to Acknowledge?

Acknowledgment is the differentiation of your own perspective with that of others or, in the context of empathy mapping, your stakeholders. This differentiation allows one to step outside their frame of reference to recognize the diversity of perspective existent amongst all stakeholders. 

Day-to-Day Example: When engaging in a discussion, you may experience disagreement amongst individuals. The initial gut reaction may be to ignore, rebuttal, or reframe the discussion to silence the dissenter. Acknowledgment allows you to recognize the present reality, namely, the cohabitation of diverse perspectives. 

Social Impact Example: An organization, tasked with empowering a community, has outlined the objectives of a new program they will launch. These objectives are based on data acquired by consultants they hired from outside the immediate community. Acknowledgment is organizational recognition that, even though backed by data, the community perspective may receive this program differently than intended. 

Perspectives or beliefs are like bags filled with contextual information that need to be unpacked. To fully recognize what’s in your bag and what is in the bags of others we must accept possible contradictions and complexities between the two. As expressed in Krista Tippett’s monologue: Belief is Complicated, this will allow individuals to “meet on a human level…creat[ing] a bigger space for what might be possible for us over time.” The process of empathy mapping is an opportunity to create a space ripe for innovation and connection. 

Acknowledgment relays the message: ‘I see you amongst the crowd.’

How can you truly Value?

To value is to use acknowledgement to create a connection. The process of empathy mapping promotes the idea that “every single person is an expert in their own experience, allowing us to better understand that experience from their perspective, so we can better work with and support them” (CSIS Empathy Map Resource). By acknowledging that a person has a unique bag filled with contextual information making up belief, we can empower a stakeholder to unpack their perspective. 

Day-to-Day Example: When engaging in a discussion, you may experience disagreement amongst individuals. The initial gut reaction may be to ignore, rebuttal, or reframe the discussion to silence the dissenter. Acknowledgment allows you to recognize the present reality, namely, the cohabitation of diverse perspectives. To value, an individual suspends their gut reaction and seeks to understand the perceived dissenter by listening. 

Social Impact Example: An organization, tasked with empowering a community, has outlined the objectives of a new program they will launch. These objectives are based on data acquired by consultants they hired from outside the immediate community. Acknowledgment is organizational recognition that, even though backed by data, the community perspective may receive this program differently than intended. To value, an organization will seek the perspective of the community (stakeholders) and only launch the program when its objectives are aligned with this perspective. 

Perspectives are filled with, “a lot of emotions, and with the life, we’ve lived, and whatever neuroses we have” (Krista Tippett’s Monologue: Belief is Complicated). Until people feel heard, their perspective is lost in a crowd of world-views. 

To Value is to relay the message: ‘I see you amongst the crowd and you and your perspective matter.’

Next time before you encounter a friend, stakeholder, or stranger take a moment to acknowledge the life perspectives that have entered your proximity. Once you have this knowledge act on it through in-action, stop and listen. You begin listening when others feel heard. Enable others to show you the contents of their bag if they so choose. You may lighten their load through the inclusive impact you create.

If you want to begin this process, check out our independent learning resource Empathy Map , to see this process in action check out our Case Study Sukoon Active and to listen to Krista Tippett’s monologue on Topic and learn about her podcast On Being check out our other resource Belief is Complicated.