Design Thinking is a social problem solution method that resembles the neurological process of creativity with alternating phases of divergent thinking and task-focused thinking.
To understand the complexity of a problem, we need to diverge and look for the full set of input trajectories that help us to form a comprehensive, socially shared representation of the problem.
But of course, it is a complex system that consists of at least two nested, interdependent problems. The first problem is the one we need to understand before we think of how to solve it, the second relates to social system dynamics.
Ideally, the Empathize Phase unfolds in a psychologically safe space where all social agents share a belief, that it is safe to take socio-emotional risks and speak up, reveal their observations, thoughts and offer their evaluation in a bid to create a full information set.
Conversely, when people meet in a psychologically unsafe environment, they tend to exhibit a behavioral bias which we can call self-protection bias.
In an unsafe space, people behave passively or actively unconstructive which negatively impacts group dynamics by causing social frictions that in turn inhibit productive intellectual frictions to occur.
Rather than offering their view and diverse perspectives, they hold back and get defensive. This also creates information asymmetries as people hold back vital information conducive to understanding the problem and forming a social representation of it in a fear-based response. A misrepresentation of the problem inevitably leads to the danger that a precise solution will be found for the wrong problem and therefore, the Design Thinking process has failed!
Furthermore, perceived information asymmetries are also the main reason for unproductive conflicts in social systems leading to adverse emotions.
Individual emotions are contagious, and they spread fast through the entire social system. Especially, negative emotions are highly infectious and stick around for a while. Apart from individual and social levels of emotional inertia, social system trajectories are path-dependent. What happened back then influences perceptions and interpretations in the present and has implications for expectations about the future, which feeds back to the current experience and subjective reality.
This is problematic for all other stages of the Design Thinking process such as ‘Ideation’, where everyone is asked to think creatively and share their ideas through sharable abstractions.
Creative thinking is based on the ability to switch between task-focused thinking which predominantly occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain and the right hemisphere-focused default mode network [DMN], which is active when the task-focused network is suspended. The DMN is active in daydreaming and responsible for moments of serendipity, a much-needed trait in Ideation.
When we are stressed out because we are moving in a space of socio-emotional stress, our self-protection needs become salient, and emotional processing centers in the sub-cortical regions shut down our task-focused cognitions and inhibit the DMN to be productive in the sense of creating ideas for the problem subject to the Design Thinking process.
Thus, the Empathy Phase goes way beyond understanding the problem that needs solving.
To create a psychologically safe space, people need to feel actively listened to without having the feeling of being judged or disrespected for who they are or what they say.
The most important start for the Design Thinking process is to do exactly that – empathize cognitively by joining the other peoples’ mental model of the world which creates their subjective reality of the problem and to empathize emotionally, trying to understand how they feel about the problem and develop compassion for all stakeholders.
This gets you the best of information in terms of quantity and quality and sets the social system up for a successful Design Thinking process.
Conversely, a Design Thinking process that starts in a psychologically unsafe space will be inefficient, ineffective, and entirely futile.