Imagine your way to better empathy

As content strategists and information architects we consistently talk about the importance of empathy, specifically empathy for users. When I asked the question “Do you need empathy to do your job well?”, 95 per cent of the audience at UX Australia last week raised their hand.

"Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task" - Tim Brown - Change by Design

But when I asked for audience members to call out a definition of empathy, things got a little less clear. There was a reluctance or inability to lock the term down with a clear definition. What exactly does empathy mean? And I get it, empathy is one of those slippery terms with many synonyms that can muddy the water because they feel so intertwined. Synonyms like sympathy, pity, compassion, or even agreement. 


I really like Indi Young's definition of empathy. She writes

“Not about the kind of empathy where you feel the same emotions as another person. It’s about understanding how another person thinks—what’s going on inside her head and heart. And most importantly, it’s about acknowledging her reasoning and emotions as valid, even if they differ from your own understanding”

This definition really works for me, because it gives us permission (without forcing the point) to take the emotion out of the equation.

I think that this kind of empathy is akin to imagination. The intellectual practice of wondering what the world is like for someone else.


The Macquarie Dictionary defines imagination as “forming mental images or concepts of things not actually present to the senses.” Things that you may never have experienced, things that you are not experiencing now.

Our capacity to understand what it might be like to another person - to walk a mile in their shoes - to think about what it must be like for them and to get out of our own heads is only limited by our own imagination.


I think enhancing your imagination is a strong way to build your empathy. And, drum roll please, reading, reading novels to be exact, is like the gym of the imagination - a fab way to build your imagination muscles.

The more you read - the more your imagination grows and hence the better your capacity for empathy.



Challenge yourself to read about people and places that are out of your normal experiences or by authors who are different to you. Country, language, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic background, religion, ethnicity, lifestyle, and values - find books where these are all different to yours.

I encourage you to take on a challenge - read a book in August - I don’t care if it is short, long, literature, trashy, romance, scifi, mystery, but make it fiction and make it wild :)

And very importantly, read for fun - this can’t be about work :)

To get you started I want to share five of my fave novels with you. Five novels that significantly changed my way of thinking because of the way they opened my eyes to different, worlds, experiences and people.


Books allow or better still persuade you to be ...

  • open to new ideas

  • more open minded

  • more interested

So get cracking!  Read a novel this month and let me know how it enhanced your imagination and hence your empathy :)