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Practicing Hard Empathy

18 June 2024

Janie revisited Imaginable: How to see the future coming and feel ready for anything—even things that seem impossible today by Jane McGonigal and was captivated by the concept of hard empathy.

Tags: creativity, janie read, problem-solving

Last year, I blogged about reading Jane McGonigal’s Imaginable, and the idea of stretching my imagination to envision my life ten years into the future. I picked this book back up again recently to see if there were additional nuggets that I missed during my first pass. I am so glad I did, because the concept of “hard empathy” fascinated me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. 

McGonigal explained that there are two types of empathy, “easy empathy,” which is when you’ve been through a similar experience, so you can easily understand what the person is going through, and “hard empathy,” which requires much more effort and creativity. Hard empathy comes into play when you’re dealing with circumstances or a scenario where you have no personal experience, but you still want to try to understand. This might be a situation where you disagree with the other person, but you also want to see their point of view and try to understand the life experiences that led to it.

There’s something fascinating and a little counter-intuitive about how McGonigal suggested building capacity for hard empathy. Before her instruction, I assumed that I should practice imagining what someone else is experiencing – to put myself in their shoes. However, McGonigal advised that we gain greater understanding and connection when we stay who we are and where we are, and mentally change only one or two facts of our own lives. While the experience we imagine likely won’t accurately reflect someone else’s experience, this thought exercise activates more feelings and fosters a greater sense of connection. McGonigal proposed that learning how to practice hard empathy in this way is “essential to broadening our perspective, deepening our humanity, healing social rifts, and preparing us to be in service of others.” I also have found that it’s a great way to try to understand different points of view.

imagining myself with bodybuilder muscles

In addition, I’m also seeing how hard empathy strengthens my problem-solving skills and helps me better anticipate potential scenarios before they happen. Since I learned about the concept, I’ve used hard empathy to improve my email communication with participants in leadership programs I support. I draft my email, and then imagine I open my inbox and find it there. I picture the scene, make note of my reactions and feelings, narrate my thoughts, and consider what I would do. In just a few minutes, this thought exercise helped me make my instructions more clear; it also helped with my brevity.

I can also imagine how this would be very helpful for planning an event or program in a new location, or with new and different parameters. I haven’t used the concept as much in my personal life yet, but I can already envision that it will help me better understand and empathize with family members and friends. I’m particularly interested in using this tool over the next few months as we get closer to the next Presidential election, and I find myself around people with very different views than my own.

McGonigal emphasized that practicing hard empathy and pushing yourself to use your imagination whenever possible is also a fantastic way to overcome learned helplessness. It allows you to “discover all the levers (whatever they might be) that allow you to exert your will and make a positive difference in your own life and the lives of others.” This sounds pretty great to me, and it aligns nicely with some of the changes I’m already working on to help me achieve my personal and professional goals this year. I’m committed to practicing this new technique whenever I can to keep building my imagination muscle. If you try it and would like to discuss, please reach out to me!  


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