Empathy on a Many-to-One Basis: Navigating Empathy When You Cannot Agree with Everyone

People trust problems to an empathic listener. Your listening skills are helping to solve their problem and make a little corner of the world easier. If you are solving a single person’s problem, leveraging empathy follows a straightforward formula that is understood tacitly by both sides of the equation.

The equation changes when you are using your empathic skills with stakeholders and internal users, adding a “many-to-one” aspect to the ratio. Understanding this can help us decide how to navigate a change.

Balancing insight from many people to find a path forward—which is exactly what we are doing as UX designers—means that we will run into instances where someone, somewhere, is going to have very clear ideas about how to solve a problem. When combining their input with that of others, we often end up creating solutions that differ from what was requested by that one very certain, opinionated, and perceptive person. If not managed carefully, this gap in shared understanding can lead to a loss of trust.

As a caveat, I have focused on Western culture as my easiest and most readily available sandbox. I have been navigating it within multiple subcultures that usually do not intermingle (trailer park to investment management, small town to big city, farm to fine arts). My understanding holds true among these subcultures, but I am a native English speaker in a technology-rich democracy that still has a generally hierarchical structure.

As with any project, understanding where we started and what our goal is, and modifying approaches and communications along the way to help bridge the change is the smoothest path for cultural adherence. This is especially relevant when there is a functional model, and there is no question that empathy works in the UX process.

The Current State of Empathy

In our professional lives, every UX professional has found themselves walking through a political minefield at least once. I believe many of these exchanges boil down to a misunderstanding of the role of empathy, which can further be elucidated by understanding the culture surrounding empathy.

Do a Google search for “story of empathy” and the first in the list is a set of character-building stories. Synthesize the underlying concepts, and the takeaways are that these stories are intended to accentuate compassion, and that compassion is the only thing needed to change the mind of a person who has character. According to these stories, empathy just needs the fertile soil of a good soul.

These are highly simplified and reductionist takes on empathy, yet they are relevant because they sync with the cultural stories we tell. By comparing and contrasting these with personal experience to find emerging patterns, we can create a clearer idea of what happens in the accepted empathy process. In turn, it creates a cultural pact:

  • Changing hearts and minds by openly communicating points of view;
  • Synthesis of viewpoints to forge agreement;
  • Acceptance to show understanding and recognition;
  • Clarity is achieved and a solution is outlined;
  • Truth is defined as a single modality.

Empathic Ratios

The most common empathic ratio is one-to-one, which is what is parsed in the previous section. It involves each side listening, asking questions, gaining clarity, and agreeing on a path forward. A single source of truth evolves through two-way communication.

The next most common empathic ratio is the one-to-many. One person’s emotions are swaying all the people listening, and the listeners are not expected to ask for consensus. The communication is one-way, with one person as the single source of truth.

Many-to-one is the least common empathic ratio. Many people are a source of truth and one person is listening. The communication is one-way for each speaker, with the listener as the repository and synthesizer of all the ideas, some of which will be diametrically opposed to each other.

Diagrams of one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-one empathic ratios with arrows showing the movement of empathy/information

Figure 1. Empathic ratios. (Credit: Angela Madsen)

The Many-to-One Empathic Ratio Is Inherently Difficult for Some to Understand

In daily life, empathy usually happens between two individuals, or a group is empathizing with a single person. These common empathy ratios focus on finding a single source of truth that allows for a relatively straightforward process for forging agreement and solutions.

For most people, the many-to-one empathic relationship is the exception state; they do not see it often enough to recognize it. As UX professionals, we work within a many-to-one empathic relationship every day; if we think about it at all, it is as a part of our process. Chances are that both sides are making vastly different assumptions about how the process is functioning.

This can create problems when people review a solution that is based on multiple sources of truth. An internal audience may interpret the differences between their communication and the solution as the UX designer’s lack of listening, thus breaking the empathic pact and the overall credibility of the presented solution.

Navigating the Transition States

UX professionals cannot change the many-to-one ratio we work in, so how can we navigate it in our relationships with stakeholders and internal users?

We have two options: navigate frequent transitions between one-to-one and one-to-many or build a positive paradigm for the many-to-one empathic ratio.

In the first option, we are asking for transition between known states, with the ramification of people constantly refiguring our relationship on a case-by-case basis. By its nature, it will fail. This option also has a high probability for individuals to give up and decide that we are not trustworthy.

In the second option, we are transitioning to a new, relatively unknown cultural paradigm, one that does not have a recognizable successful narrative to leverage. As UX designers, understanding evolves from a multivariate pool of information, and that aspect is not negotiable. The brilliance of UX design is in synthesis and creative problem solving. Adding more voices to be synthesized is beneficial, but not if those voices are focused on the designer’s credibility or honor. By using transparency and testing as support, we help to keep the attention on the artifacts as a vehicle to communicate and negotiate actionable truth.

Diagrams of what an internal audience experiences during the common UX process, how it changes when they see both the input and the output, and the new paradigm where they are only the input, with the output to artifacts.

Figure 2. Transitioning relationship states. (Credit: Angela Madsen)

From the point of view of the people we are working with, if we ask them to transition between the empathic ratios they are familiar with, we are actively listening one day and disconnected the next. This can make them feel that we have not listened to them, thus breaking the cultural pact of empathy. Whether it is a teammate who thought he had a great idea that was not included and is now frustrated or a stakeholder who feels her directions were misunderstood (or ignored altogether), these frustrations can make UX professionals feel like every meeting is a new political minefield.

Helping the people we work with transition to the unfamiliar many-to-one empathic ratio will reduce these potential misunderstandings. Asking people to learn this new paradigm is far less prone to long-term failure than a never-ending re-evaluation of the empathy state.

Adding Resilience to Transition States

If we are going to help others up the learning curve for navigating the many-to-one empathic ratio, there is another speedbump. The process between one-to-one and one-to-many is very similar, swapping the first and second step—this happens without people even noticing.

When we leverage a many-to-one empathic ratio, there are two large changes to the more common empathic ratios. The easy change is that we are reordering the process—the modalities that immediately precede truth are where we start. The more difficult change is that we are confounding the end state of the cultural pact. We are still searching for an actionable truth, but it is no longer a single source.

Sankey-like diagram of the changes to process order and how-to translation.

Figure 3: Reordering the process of how empathy happens (Credit: Angela Madsen)

On review of how the process modalities are affected by reorganization, there really is not anything new compared with the accepted UX processes around user research. The difference is in acknowledging that it is happening so we can make it transparent and educate along the entire process by adjusting our messaging. Suggestions are below, which of course should be modified to better align with personal approaches and demeanor. Also, education about the varieties of empathy processes may be useful.

Table 1. Many-to-One Process Suggested Messaging Adjustments

Empathy process modality Current practice Way to improve messaging for empathy transition
Acceptance Best practice interview statements, such as, “This is not a test of you; I just want to get insight into how this works for you.” Remind your internal audience that their feedback will be aggregated with that of others.
Clarity Prototypes and wireframes (small scale), iterative development (larger scale) Remind internal audiences of testing; no decision is sacrosanct.
Synthesis UX findings presentation Remind the hierarchy that the findings presentation is the basis for solution decisions.

Remind internal audiences that you are synthesizing data from multiple points of view.

Change hearts and minds User interviews and testing Show transparency in your research, data, information, and findings.
Truth UX field expertise Remind everyone that we are accepting a multiplicity of truth, and be prepared to review sources and thought processes.

Conclusion

UX designers are charged with daily navigation of a many-to-one empathic ratio that runs counter to the accepted standard of how empathy works. My suggestions parse down to remembering to look at our empathy process from the standpoint of our internal audience, respecting that it is unfamiliar territory for them, and has an end state that is contrary to their unquestioned expectations.

By educating our internal audience, we can help promote a positive many-to-one cultural paradigm. As with all education, some people will get it more quickly than others, and some people will give up. The effort is still in the best interest of everyone involved.

Shared understanding of the many-to-one empathic ratio will help to bolster UX process, reduce credibility concerns, and possibly even cut down on politically charged meetings. Constant reminders that they are one of many voices, transparency along the entire process, and keeping the focus on the artifacts instead of the UX designer are available and successful tools.

Madsen, A. (2018). Empathy on a Many-to-One Basis: Navigating Empathy When You Cannot Agree with Everyone. User Experience Magazine, 18(5).
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