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Practical Empathy

Book Notes

I bought this book almost immediately after it was published. As someone who has been told time and time again that I lack tact, I dove into this book with abandon and joyous expectation that this book would help me be more aware of the people around me, their motivations, their stories, their expectations, their fears and hopes. My desire was to learn to be empathetic. For the first six chapters of this book, however, I was fairly disappointed in this book. Pretty much the only thing I got out of said first six chapters was the correction that one is not empathetic, but rather one has empathy. Empathy is something that is developed, and, oh, boy, I was thinking this was not the book to teach me how to develop it. This was not the book for me.

To start, the first three (of nine total) chapters are introduction to developing empathy. I was so confused by the lack of anything useful in the first three chapters that I figured I missed something, something so fundamental that it would be obvious on a second pass.

So, I read the first three chapters again.


It's three chapters of why I want to buy this book. I already bought the book. I am already reading the book. Tell me how to start this journey, push me down this path to empathy already. I don't need more convincing, just go already. The first three chapters could have been condensed into one introductory chapter.

Okay, so along chapter four, I have more than just the proper definition of empathy. Good. Let's go.

Right into formal listening sessions.

Uh... What?

And then it dawns on me, finally, that this book is not a practical guide for the general layman to develop empathy. This is a very specific guidebook for people who do market research in its earliest states. This book is for people who are trying to understand the motivations of people buying stuff relevant to said reader's company's products, goals, and mission. This book is for people who are trying to get their company to understand people's motivations so that the company can make money off of them (-ish, that's a cynical approach, but perhaps not too far off for American companies).

In other words, this book is not the book I was expecting or wanted it to be.

Having recently read Prodigal's Interviewing Users, a great guidebook on how to do exactly that: interview people who use your product or product idea, I found this book long-winded, scattered, and unfocused. It felt like standing in a time-out on the ultimate field and everyone wants to get a word in on how the team can improve. With so many suggestions and things to try, you can't remember any of them, you just have item after item after suggestion coming your way, it's overwhelming.

Things improved in Chapter 7: Apply Empathy with People at Work. FINALLY practical empathy tips, actionable suggestions that are worthwhile. I almost wish this chapter were the whole book.

Thing is, though, you HAVE to take this book in small chunks. Read a section, maybe a page, and mull it over, play with it, moosh it around in your head, practice it, digesting, and THEN move on to the next idea. Otherwise, it's too much.

As with all my book reviews, take my perspective and reading motivations as factors in this review. This was not the book I was expecting, and not the book I wanted. I am not the target audience for this book. As such, I cannot recommend reading this book for someone who wants to learn how to develop empathy. I can recommend this book for people who have read Interviewing Users, do face-to-face user interviewing research, and want to learn how to shut up and listen to people talking to you. I am not in that latter group.

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