Empathy and Creative Innovation

A few weeks ago, I received an brief e-mail from Seung Chan Lim, otherwise known as Slim. He had come across my DiaPraxis website (and possibly, my paper on Empathy and Collaborative Meaning-Making) and wanted to know about upcoming workshops. As I started to write him back, I noticed his email address was connected to a website, RealizingEmpathy.com And thus I came to learn more about his amazing work, which is directly relevant to the work that we do with group facilitation.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 2.51.03 PMSeung Chan initially started out in computers, then did a long stint working in human-centered design. This growing movement, originally out of Stanford University Design School, explicitly places empathy at the heart of the design process. Seung Chan eventually decided to go back to art school, where he gained an appreciation for the role of empathy in art-making, craft, and performance. in his first book, Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Making he is “researching the role and value of empathy in everything from creativity, design, innovation, learning, education, to general relationships and human dignity.”

While empathy is being widely acknowledged in the human-centered design world, it has been much less emphasized in the group facilitation world, with a very few exceptions. Within Dynamic Facilitation and Dynamic Inquiry, it’s a central component of what we do — Jean Rough even came up with the name “we-flection” for the fully-engaged process of offering back to the person who is speaking, our best guess at what they are attempting to communicate… in a respectful, tentative and fully “correctable” manner.

Here is Seung Chan’s list of the benefits of empathy, from one of the many first-rate videos on his website. Empathy helps us to:

• resolve conflict

• acquire insight

• experience creativity

• learn new choices with regard to impression and expression

• produce innovation

• develop knowledge

• form a deeper level of trust

He further defines “innovation” as making something new, meaningful, and valuable enough for the context in which it is being introduced, such that those who are influenced experience both surprise and gratitude.” Sound familiar?!!

Of course, when we use a process like Dynamic Facilitation / Dynamic Inquiry, that innovation is truly a co-creation on the part of the group.

I can’t write about empathy without mentioning the work of my friend Edwin Rutsch, who curated the “Empathy in Human-Centered Design” Scoop-it page I linked to earlier. Edwin is the founder of cultureofempathy.com, an amazing treasure-trove of resources on empathy. Among other things, Edwin has been interviewing leading experts on empathy from a wide variety of different fields, and posting the interviews online.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 2.58.44 PMEdwin’s been a major source of encouragement for me to make more explicit the use of Empathy in Dynamic Facilitation / Dynamic Inquiry. The thing is, even within the Focusing practice that deeply informs my listening work with groups, we haven’t really used the term “empathy”so much… we tend to call it “experiential listening” instead. Now Edwin has interviewed Ann Weiser Cornell, a leading Focusing teacher about the use of empathy in Focusing. And, he is encouraging all of us in the Focusing world, to become more explicit about the five decades of accumulated experience that our practice has, with regard to the subtle nuances of “empathic listening”!

Last-but-not-least, Edwin and I are about to begin some small-group experiments, called “Beyond Dynamic Facilitation”, where we’ll be exploring the application of DF principles in an on-line environment, to create new forms of online facilitation. I’ll keep you posted! Either on this blog, and/or, through our Diapraxis e-mail newsletter.

well, that’s it for now… please feel free to leave any comments below!

with much love,


2 thoughts on “Empathy and Creative Innovation

  1. I love this, the first blog I have looked at. You write so clearly and give credit and links to your teachers. I went to “focusing practice” and a video of an example and enjoyed the intimacy created by the practice. It reminds me of the bodymind practice of Penelope Andrade, whom I studied with for a couple of years. I want to watch and learn more. Also to explore more of your posts. Thank you for making yours and other people’s work so available.

  2. Thanks so much, Wendy! Glad you enjoyed the Focusing video… and the rest of the blog! I’d love to hear more about your work with Penelope Andrade… I am not familiar with her yet.

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