Empathy Interviewing: How to do It and Why it Matters

Empathy Interviewing: How to do It and Why it Matters

Empathy Interviewing: How to do It and Why it Matters 1000 795 Guest

This is a guest post by one of our coaches, Sara Dupont.

em·pa·thy | noun | The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Henry Ford, creator of the Model T and the assembly line famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

What people say they want is often unreliable.

Here’s a great example. A fast food restaurant wanted to increase their milkshake sales. They sent out a survey to their customers to ask what they could improve. The responses came in and seemed logical: different flavors and a lower price. They made the changes. But guess what? Sales were stagnant. They went through considerable effort and cost to give the customers what they said they wanted but nothing changed.

Feeling frustrated and over budget, they sought the help of a consultant. Let’s call her Empathizer. Empathizer went to the restaurant and for several days observed customers’ behavior. She then interviewed the customers that bought milkshakes. She learned that 40% of milkshake buyers were purchasing them in the morning to enjoy while making the long, boring commute to work. For them, the milkshake served the purpose of entertainment, rather than dessert. (Here’s a link to the full version of the milkshake story.) With this insight, the restaurant made the milkshakes thicker so that they would take longer to drink, and chunkier, so that the commuters were sporadically surprised by a nugget of creamy goodness.

What we learn from the milkshake story is that if we only listen to what customers say they want, we can be misled. However, when we empathize, we get into how they think, behave, and make decisions. We let them lead us.

Best Practices

So now it’s your turn to empathize. Though there is no standard way to do this well, there are some best practices to implement to get you on your way.

1. Don’t Ask Leading Questions.

If it is my night to make dinner, I’ll ask my husband “How did you like your food?” Can you see the assumption I made? In my mind, he obviously liked the meal because I made it! While harmless in my dinner scenario, leading questions can bias the information you collect from empathy interviews. We’re all different. We like different things, we experience situations differently and interpret the world differently. The empathy interview is designed to get to the bottom of those differences, not override them. Instead of saying “How did you like your dinner?” I could say “How was dinner?” or “Tell me about dinner.” Often times in an empathy interview, once you get someone talking you don’t have to ask questions at all. Simply nodding, “um..humm”-ing and coaxing them along with “tell me more” can go a long way to draw information out of your interviewee without injecting your own bias into the conversation.

2. Ask Follow Up Questions.

I just told you not to ask leading questions. Now I’m saying do ask follow up questions.

AH! Which is it? Do ask questions or don’t?

Well, both.

The difference between a leading question and a follow up question is that a leading question inadvertently biases your interviewee’s response with your perspective, whereas a follow up provokes them to go deeper in their own direction. Since our aim when empathizing is to go beyond what someone says to how they really feel, follow-up questions can help you peel back the layers of an interviewee’s response.

To keep it simple, a really good follow up question is “Why?” In fact, “Why” is such a beloved question, that a whole process improvement methodology in business operations has been built around it: The 5 Whys. This methodology uses the question “why”, asked continuously, to get to the root cause of a problem. It can also help you get to the root of your interviewee’s values and decision making. Let’s imagine for a second how it might go with The Empathizer and the milkshake drinker.

Empathizer: “Excuse me, can I ask you a few questions about your milkshake?”
Drinker: “Sure.”
Empathizer: “Thank you. To start, how is it?”
Drinker: “Delicious.”
Empathizer: “That’s nice. Why is it delicious?”
Drinker: “Because it is cold and I like the vanilla flavor.”
Empathizer: “Cool. Why do you like the cold and vanilla flavor?”
Drinker: “Humm…well, I don’t know, that’s just what I like.”
Empathizer: “Ok, I see. That is a nice combination. So why not buy a cold, vanilla flavored soda instead?”
Drinker: “Huh, let’s see, that’s a weird question. I wouldn’t buy that soda. I like the milkshake for driving.”
Empathizer: “Oh, really. Why?”
Drinker: “Well, the milkshake takes longer to drink than a soda.”
Empathizer. “That’s true, it would. So why do you want it to take longer to drink?”
Drinker: “Oh, I have a long drive to work and I get bored, so the milkshake is something to do.”

BOOM! 5 Whys to the source of the decision making! Also notice that the milkshake drinker is a little thrown off by the persistent use of “why”. You may run into this too, but don’t be deterred. Very rarely in life are we actually asked to explain ourselves. You may make people feel a bit uncomfortable initially with your follow up questions, but if you ask kindly and with curiosity, you’ll break through the way that The Empathizer did.

While “Why?” works really nicely, it isn’t the only way to follow up on a question. Here’s some further good advice: Tactics for Asking Good Follow Up Questions

3. Seek Clarity on Generic Answers.

When you seek clarity on someone’s answer, it is really just a specific form of follow up question. We all use words like “cool”, “nice”, “fun” and “good” in ways that make them ambiguous, and unhelpful when your goal is to empathize with someone. What is cool to me may not be cool to you. Simply asking “what do you mean by fun (or cool or nice or good)?” can shed a great deal more clarity on what it is that your interviewee values. Let’s do a quick example with The Empathizer and milkshake drinker.

Empathizer: “Excuse me, can I ask you a few questions about your milkshake?”
Drinker: “Sure.”
Empathizer: “Thank you. To start, how is it?”
Drinker: “It’s good.”
Empathizer: “I’m glad to hear it. What do you mean by good?
Drinker: “It is cold and thick.”
Empathizer: “Oh cool, that does sound good.”


4. Be an Active Listener.

Active listening sounds like an easy thing to do. My ears are open, I’m listening. But there is more to it than that. Think back to the first day of school or camp. I’m guessing there was a time for introductions. “Share your name, where you’re from and an interesting fact.”…that sort of thing. Chances are, your brain got so busy thinking about your fun fact, that you half-listened to all of the introductions before you. After your turn passed, you wondered, did I sound cool, funny, chill? And again, you half-listened to all of the introductions that came after you. The result: the point of the exercise was lost. You didn’t learn a single name. You didn’t listen actively.

Active listening is actually listening.

Listening is so much more complicated than it looks on the surface that communication experts have actually identified three levels of listening that we achieve. What I described above is a case of level I listening. In level I listening, you are listening more to the thoughts in your own head than you are to the person in conversation with you. It is surprisingly hard to break out of level I listening in an empathy interview. You can get caught up thinking about what question you should ask next, or worrying “Is this person comfortable? Am I taking too long?” and the result of these arrant thoughts floating through your mind is that you are highly distracted. Level II listening means that you are focused, you’ve tamed these arrant thoughts and they are not intruding on the conversation. Level II listening is what I would consider actually listening. It is a good place to be. However, you can (you should, and you will) go one step further. Like level II listening, level III listening is a completely focused state free of arrant thoughts, but in level III listening you invite senses in addition to your hearing to the party. When you are in level III listening you are tuned into your interviewee’s body language, their tone and way of speaking, as well as their physical energy. We can actually think of The Empathizer as being in a state of level III listening when she was observing the behavior of customers in the restaurant. She wasn’t asking questions yet, but she was using all of her senses to pick up important information.

5. Follow Up on Energy and Emotion, not just Answers.

As social beings we learn to filter what we say, but we are slower to filter our physical response. Since empathizing is about more than just hearing, seeing and relating, we must go where the feelings are. This is why achieving level III listening is so important, it takes us there. What we learn through someone’s physical response to a question can reveal as much, if not more, about how they feel than their verbal response to it. Given this, it is important not just to follow up on the answers that your interviewee gives, but their body language and voice as well. You can say things like “Wow, you really smiled when you answered that question.” or “You seemed hesitant/skeptical/uncertain about giving that answer.” No further prompting is necessary, just wait to see how they respond to what you’ve pointed out.

6. Restate or Reframe.

There are always going to be times in an empathy interview when you aren’t sure if you understand someone’s response correctly. It could be that you didn’t hear them well, their response surprised you, or that it was actually a very confusing answer. This actually happens everywhere, all the time! It can be easy to want to gloss over it, to let it go, to give it the old nod-and-smile when in your head you are totally lost (don’t pretend like you haven’t done this before.) An easy way to get clarity is to reflect back to someone what you heard by restating it or reframing. You can use phrases like “What I hear you saying is….” or “Let me confirm what I heard you say…” It would go something like this:

Empathizer: “Excuse me, can I ask you a few questions about your milkshake?”
Drinker: “Sure.”
Empathizer: “Thank you. To start, how is it?”
Drinker: “It’s good.”
Empathizer: “What do you mean by good?”
Drinker: “I mean… I like it. I get this milkshake a lot. This place is close to my house, and they are open early, and the service is good.”
Empathizer: “Oh, this is interesting, what I hear you saying is that the experience is good because of the convenience of the location and the quality of the service, not because of the flavor of the milkshake.”
Drinker: “Yeah, exactly. I do like the flavor, but I’d go to another place if it were closer to my house, or open even earlier.”

7. Document what you learn.

Since all of this question asking, following up, listening and restating is about teasing out information from a customer, we also have to figure out how to document and remember it as we get it. This is a tricky part of empathy interviewing because you don’t want to hinder your ability to get information by the method you employ to remember it. You face a clear trade off: the more you write the more accurately you capture the conversation and the better able you will be to remember it. BUT, the more you write, the less you can focus on being present with your interviewee, listening actively and putting them at ease.

As with all parts of the empathy interview, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. You have to figure out what works best for you, which may not even be the same from interview to interview. Here are five recommendations that we’ve gathered from our coaches for you to try.

  1. If you’re in person take shorthand notes on paper. These should be a combination of significant facts that you learn, as well as insights that you infer from what you observe and feel.
  2. If you’re meeting over the phone or online, you can type on your computer. Typing is faster so you’ll be able to jot down more as you go. Of course, you won’t be able to perceive your interviewee’s body language and energy as well so this isn’t ideal, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.
  3. Be sure to let your interviewee know that you are going to take notes. Being clear about how you will facilitate the conversation will ensure that they feel comfortable, and are therefore most likely to be open with you. You can hear typing and writing over phone and computer microphones, so this recommendation holds true if the meeting is in person or remote.
  4. As soon as possible after your interview, review your notes, and add details and reflections that you weren’t able to capture during the interview itself. As you do this, it is important to split the information you gathered between facts and insights you made from observation.
  5. Lastly, send a thank you note. This can be a text message, email or handwritten note. You can decide which avenue is most appropriate for your interviewee, but always, always share your gratitude with them after they have helped you.

Closing Thoughts

No two empathy interviews are going to be the same. There is no formula to master or script to memorize in order to become an empathizing superhero. The best that you can do is to approach the conversation with genuine curiosity, listen carefully, keep an open mind and ask for clarity when you don’t understand. Truthfully though, these are superhero skills. Developing these won’t just help you on your innovation journey, they will serve you well in classrooms, family rooms, board rooms, and any other rooms life takes you to.

Empathy interviewing is a skill we work on with all of our students. We highly recommend practicing with a coach, teacher, or trusted friend before you head into the world to conduct them. We’d be happy to talk to you more about how empathy interviewing can help you find and launch a great Spike. Sign up for a free private consultation here.

Learn more about the author, Sara Dupont here.