Video and transcript from Brian Sullivan’s talk at Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

This is part of the 2019 Control The Room speaker video series. Find out about Control the Room 2020 here.

Control the Room 2019 was Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit with the goal of bringing together facilitators of all kinds to build rapport, learn, and grow together.

The conference opened with a talk by Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.” After that, we moved onto 15 quick-and-powerful presentations by facilitators of all kinds.

Within that group of amazing speakers, we were lucky enough to have Brian Sullivan join us.

Brian is Director, Design Strategy at Sabre Corporation. In his talk, he reminded us that while facilitators have great tools to “Control the Room,” we must consider the “stuff” to bring into the room. One of these substances is empathy and often that has to be gathered “outside of the room.”

Brian Sullivan, Director, Design Strategy at Sabre Corporation
Brian Sullivan, Director, Design Strategy at Sabre Corporation

He shared his five go-to activities to cultivate this empathy.

  1. Change Your Perspective
  2. Limit Yourself
  3. Do It Yourself
  4. Similar Experience
  5. Day-in-the-Life

Watch the Video:

Read the Transcript

Brian Sullivan: How’s everyone doing? Good. Awesome. So I’m going to talk about empathy immersion. And when I think of empathy, I’m always reminded of this quote from Maya Angelou, right? “People will forget what you said. They’ll forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” And I think as facilitators that’s extremely important. And we forget to do that. Let me tell you a story.

There’s a little boy and he’s walking down the street and he sees a sign and on the sign it says puppies for sale. And he gets excited beyond belief. He runs up to the gate and he knocks on it. “Mister, mister, mister I want a puppy. I have $10 in my pocket. I want to have a puppy.” This guy walks up and he goes, “Son, I’m a dog breeder and you need to understand my puppies are expensive, very, very expensive.” And he goes, “Mister, I have $10 in my pocket. Can I hold the puppy?”

He goes, “Sure.” And so he whistles and says, “Molly, Molly, come here. Come here, come here.” And you’ve seen the scene, right? The dog comes around the corner and all the little yip yappers are chasing after the mama kind of biting at her tail, and guess what? There’s one dog a little slower, right? Little bit behind. This guy, right? The runt of the litter and the little boy says, “Mister, that’s the dog I want. That’s the dog for me. I know what that dog feels like.” And the guy goes, “I’m a dog breeder. Nobody wants the runt. No one wants it. Do you know why, son? They’re a little slower. They’re a little sicker. You don’t want it. You have to take care of that dog.”

And the little boy goes, “Mister, you don’t understand.” And this is what happens. He pulls up his pants leg and he says, “I have an artificial leg. I know what that runt feels like.” And the man says, “Son, you can have that dog.” Right? And here’s what it is. It’s a simple story. We were just talking about stories, right? It’s about a boy, a man, and a dog. It’s not what people say. It’s not what people do, but it’s how they make you feel.

And that’s what I mean by empathy immersion. Now, I only have 20 minutes and I spent four minutes on this story because I wanted you to feel it. Okay? And I was challenged by Douglas because I have 60 slides to get through and we’re going to do it. So here we go. So what is empathy? And it’s important to know that because we’re talking empathy immersion.

It always reminds me of this quote from Scott Cook. He is the CEO of Intuit, right? And he says, “You can’t walk in another person’s shoes until you take your own shoes off.” Right? Amen. That is the whole purpose of empathy. And that old man did not understand what it was to be that little boy until the pants leg was rolled up. He didn’t get it.

When you look at the very definition of empathy, it literally is stepping into another person’s shoes, but I think way too often we wear our own shoes, right? And we’re trying to cram our own perspective into another person’s perspective and that’s wrong.

Now, I also think that we mistake empathy for sympathy and I’ve got this in black and white. Get out your phones to take a picture of this slide. This is extremely important and any one of these bullets would resonate to any person in the audience. And I think that Doug is going to go ahead and get a copy of this to everyone. But the ones that resonate to me really are the last two bullets with empathy. It’s searching for a deeper meaning and it’s acknowledging your feelings. And when we think about it from a learning experience, it’s not our brains that are learning tools with empathy. It is our other feelings. It is our other emotions.

Those become our learning tools, not our brains. With sympathy though, it’s surface-level meaning it’s playing in the shallow end and it’s suppressing our feelings. I can’t feel that way. I can’t feel that way. I can logically try to understand that emotional experience. Ladies and gentlemen, if you try to apply logic to an emotional person, good luck. Not going to happen, right? But I think people mistake empathy and sympathy.

Now there’s really 20 different types of empathy, but there are three that I believe are interconnected and they’re very important for us to understand. There’s emotional empathy. You make that connection at your heart level. Then you have to process it cognitively where the heart goes to the head. Something has just happened. I am fundamentally changed as a person. The little boy rolled up the legs. I get it. We’re not talking about money. We’re talking about feelings, right?

The heart goes into the head and then guess what? You feel so much compassion that you are compelled to do something, that is emotional, empathy, cognitive empathy, compassionate, empathy. Those are the three things. Let me go into a little bit more detail on each one of them and some of the tools that we use.

When it comes to emotional empathy, that’s really about kind of connecting at a visceral level with feelings with another person. We use emotional immersion. I’m going to give you five tools later on that you can use. We’re going to go through a quick experiment and guess what? We still have 13 minutes. That’s awesome.

A day in the life of ethnography. Those are different ways that you can connect. You walk in another person’s shoes, cognitive empathy. What are the tools that we use for that? Well, we’ve talked about empathy maps. We’ve talked about personas. Diary studies are another way to connect, right? But that’s cognitive empathy, so we’re trying to understand what we’ve learned. Compassionate empathy. It’s rapping. That’s okay. We’ll, we’ll deal with that. That’s where you’re compelled to act, right? You want to make a change.

We tend to use journey maps, service blueprints, prototyping, and testing, right? Some of this kind of follows the double diamond that we were talking about. They’re interconnected though. It looks like this. You have that emotional empathy, you have to process it, then you act on it, right? You see how they’re all interconnected?

Now there’s 17 other different types of empathy, but these are the ones that I see that are connected. Now, here’s the importance of empathy immersion. This is an exercise that I did with a design team at Sabre. They were actually struggling and you can see that they have these glasses on for different types of visual impairments.

This is a design team that actually has to do the visual standards at Sabre and they were not Section 508 compliant. Well, to create an award-winning accessibility program, I needed the designers to feel what it would be like to have a visual impairment. So I took them all to lunch and I had these glasses. That was there get into lunch free card, right? You’ll notice that I also had some of them in wheelchairs.

I also had some of them wrapped, right? So their hands were wrapped. So what it’s like to have a visual impairment, what it’s like to have a mobile impairment, right? And we’ll go through one of those in a moment. This was a really good healing exercise. Teddy Roosevelt once said this. “People don’t care what you know until they know you care.” That’s why I think emotional empathy is so important.

Now, we just talked a few minutes ago about there’s so many design thinking frameworks. They’re 95% the same. I don’t care what their shape is, they’re 95% the same and most of them begin with design empathy. Because you get to feel what the other person feels.

Now, a lot of people like this book and they teach masterclasses. I know Doug teaches a class here and I think some people like this because it time boxes, the activities, it’s pretty easy to just run through it. Here’s the framework. Does anyone see anything missing? Oh my God. Where’s the empathy? Correct and research.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do that before the workshop and indeed you should, and that’s really my point here. There’s nothing wrong with this framework. All we need to do is make sure that we do our homework ahead of the workshop because I believe that empathy leads to innovation.

Now, if we believe that this is true, emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, then compassionate empathy. If we don’t do our homework, let me show you what’s happening. We’re literally cutting our hearts out of the game, right? We’re not using these tools, we’re sprinting to a solution. We’re literally doing that. If we don’t use our hearts as a learning tool, we can’t then process it.

So then what we’re doing is we’re taking the heart out of the head and we’re just doing some type of a logical experiment. So we’re not using all of our learning tools, and if we’re not using all of our learning tools, we’re not having compassion, we’re just doing something. And so the challenge that I would give all of you is to make it meaningful. Start with emotional empathy. This is not enough. In fact, if you don’t go out and do your research, this is really a sympathy map.

This is not enough. Going through a journey map, you’re just going through an exercise and I’m here to tell you, emotional empathy drives innovation. Here’s a story about a person that is an Auschwitz survivor, right? Do you think that you could read a report on Auschwitz and literally feel what this person felt? No.

Guess what though? Meryl Streep did a movie called Sophie’s Choice, won in Academy award. What she did was she used the method, the acting method. She actually stayed in Auschwitz, ate the same type of food, did not have much water, lost 25 pounds, and I’m going to ruin the movie for you. The choice for Sophia is your child dies or your daughter dies. Choose. Go. So what did Meryl Streep do? She had two longtime pets that she had. One of them she had to choose. So she’s literally trying to simulate that experience.

The point is, you get deeper insights with emotional empathy. It also motivates people. Here are two people that went through an emotional empathy exercise. Our assumptions, and we’ve heard it from a lot of speakers today, are very limiting. If you do an emotional empathy exercise and we have six minutes and 32 seconds left, we’re going to get to it. I promise you, Doug. It’s a great team-building exercise. We’ll do that in a moment.

Now, let me tell you why it’s important to do this because we need to design for extremes, not just the mainstream. This is Jill Avery. She’s from the Harvard Business School. She says, “Extreme users alert you to the pain points and new opportunities people have.” Amen, sister Jill. Empathy leads to innovation. When you observe people where they live, work and play, you are inspired and you build empathy.

Most of the time, we focus just on our typical users. We lose the insights from the edges. What about our novices? What about our disabled users? What about our avid fans? So here’s something that I was taught at IDEO, a case study of the Xilinx kitchen tools. They looked at a 5-star chef’s short order cook and a person taking their first cooking lesson, a child and they developed these things.

Now a lot of people here thinking, “Okay, well this is an interesting case study.” Let’s go into a little bit of detail. The pizza cutter that you see there on the top right is really for a child, right? They can’t really, they have to get their elbow in to cut the pizza. Guess what? A person with arthritis has to do that too. They don’t have the arm strength to do that like a 5-star chef has to do. Those muscles are developed. The can opener, flipped a switch. It’s good for a left-handed or right-handed person.

There’s a spring on the scissors specifically because a person with arthritis doesn’t have the strength to handle it, neither does the child. These tools are one of the most popular kitchen tools that are around. Make the extreme mainstream is the point that I want to make.

Now I want to give you the five tools. I got four minutes and we’re going to go through an exercise still. Now, you cannot have a slideshow deck without a slide from Oprah. Leadership is about empathy. Leadership is about empathy. The ability to connect with people at a visceral level.

Here is step one, your first tool for empathy immersion. You can change your perspective. What I want everybody to do right now is get on your knees. Get on your knees, right? Pray to Brian, pray to Brian. Just kidding. All right, so you’re now on your knees. Imagine you’re having to build a restaurant for children, right? Now, I want you to try to reach. Now when you reach, you don’t have the arms of an adult. You have the arms of a child. I want you to almost have T-Rex arms, right?

So I want you to reach for that water bottle that’s just a little bit out of your stretch. Reach for it, reach for it, reach for it. Okay, go ahead and stand up. Go ahead and stand up. You’re getting the point. So what they did at IDEO is they changed their perspective, right? And they looked at just the length of arms of children, their growth so that they understood what it would be like to have a retail experience.

Here’s your second tool that you can use. You can actually limit yourself. Now, here’s your second exercise. I want you to mobilize yourself and I want you to try to drink or take off the lid of the water bottle using only three fingers. You choose the three. So this would be what it’s like to be a disabled person taking it off. You might have to put it under your arm. This is how people live every day, right?

Remember the picture I had of the people with the glasses from the Federation for the Blind? That was macular degeneration, blurry vision. All of these things are ways that we can get to understand our users a little bit more.

Another way that you can do it is do it yourself. Here’s an example of the ER experience. A designer from IDEO just checked himself into the hospital. Here’s what it was like for that particular person. They checked themself into the hospital and they wait. Then they get admitted and then they wait. Then they get their measurements taken. No one likes that and they wait. They go to the room and then they wait.

The doctor finally arrives and says, “Hang on, I have another patient. Just a second.” So he has to wait. The nurse comes in and takes the vitals and then the guy waits. Finally, they see the doctor for five minutes and then they wait. The wait experience was so long. You can do this by just doing it yourself, but do it in the field.

Your fourth way is to create a similar experience. Real quick, show of the audience. If we wanted to do wound care, what do you think would be a similar experience? I need three real quick responses. Go.

Awesome, you’re stumped. Waxing. Oh, that’s painful. Right? Another way to do this is to do a day in the life of experience, that’s your fifth approach. Similar experience in the day in the life. Empathy immersion lets you experience what other users feel and you are changed as a result of it. It doesn’t take a long time, but empathy immersion leads to innovation, and that’s all I have for today, Doug.