September  13,  2018

My teenager loves superheroes. Her favorite is Captain America. (In fact, she is convinced she is related to him because we share the same last name.) Recently she asked me, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” We spent the next 30 minutes debating the merits of various superpowers.

The next day, I went into work with superpowers on my mind. I found myself wondering, “What is the most valuable instructional design (ID) superpower?” I considered the many ID skills needed – creativity, investigative, problem solving, technical, and people skills, to name just a few. Then it hit me. The most valuable ID superpower is one of the most underrated skills – empathy.

Renowned author and psychologist Daniel Goleman lists empathy as a key element to emotional intelligence.  In a nutshell, empathy is the ability to walk in another person’s shoes and understand their point of view. It requires emotional intelligence because it involves detecting subtle cues and sensing unspoken feelings and emotions.

Empathy is an instructional design superpower because it enables us to paint a multi-dimensional picture of our learners. We are often limited to just a few learner demographics – job title, location, language, prerequisite courses, and average years of service. But learners are human beings who can’t be reduced to a few facts. We need empathy to fill in the blanks, know our learners, and meet their needs.

This insight doesn’t happen overnight. Terence Brake, author and L&D expert, describes this as a “process of discovery rather than an instant blinding flash of insight. It demands time, attentiveness, and perspective to fully comprehend and act.”

To better understand our learners, we must immerse ourselves in their worlds:

  • What do they do, see, hear, and experience?
  • What are their day-to-day interactions?
  • What are their influences, distractions, pain points, limitations, and areas for improvement?
  • What are their goals, values, and expectations?
  • What are their skills and competencies?

Ask questions and then really pay attention to the answers. Listen to the words being said but also the emotion behind the words to understand how they are feeling about the change. Are they anxious? Excited? Apathetic? Proud?

Empathy provides instruction designers with x-ray vision into the lives of our learners and helps us understand what motivates and inspires them. Using this information, we can design solutions to fit their wants and needs.  Empathy is my favorite superpower. What’s yours?