February 2018
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February 2018
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Newsletter Article

Add More Empathy to Your Content and Design

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, empathy is “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Google puts is more simply: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Why empathy?

I am a trainer. I do my best to help facilitate learning. I am a content designer and developer. You are, too. In all we do, we interact with at least one other person. People “consume” what we “produce.” While that fact should be “Captain Obvious,” it isn’t always, is it? And the further away our role is from end users or learners our role, the easier it is to forget this fact.

The intended outcomes for everything we do are to bring out the best through changes in behavior—in people. I don’t see any way to do that without intentionally employing empathy and threading it throughout every aspect of the learning content.

Empathy. I’ve been pondering this word, a lot. I think this is often what’s missing from the content that our learners often complain about. Do an online search for “bad e-learning,” and you’ll be rewarded with pages of examples, valid or not. Often, what makes e-learning bad also makes our classroom learning bad. (If we’re honest with ourselves, that is.)

So how do we add more empathy? Here are three ideas that we can start using right away and work on a little more each day.

Choose to employ empathy every time. It is an intentional practice to use from now on. How? Demonstrate that you’re empathetic with the learners whenever the learning content

• is dry, robust, complex, difficult to grasp, overkill, repetitive—you get the idea. Like that annual compliance and regulatory blather so many organizations require.


• is within locked e-learning courses, meaning the learners are not allowed to click around and learn in the order they choose. Instead the course is filled with quizzes that must be answered correctly, in order to progress and complete.

• takes too long to complete. Let’s chunk this stuff up. There is a well-used quote in the training world, something to the effect of, “The brain can only absorb information in direct proportion to the amount of time the butt can remain seated.”

Do a needs analysis. Dig into what is really needed and by whom. Engage with as many people as possible. Especially those people most directly affected. Please don’t just build something because someone said so, even if that person is a leader. Resist the urge to “just do it.” (You can read more of my thoughts on needs analysis here.)

Put people back into the learning content. Today. Do it now. I know, I can almost hear you transmitting that your content is system training and very complex. Yes, even this content deserves an empathetic approach, and that begins with putting the people back in. After all, people are the consumers of the training content you’ve built, right? People are the ones having to do their work differently in some way, too.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

• Acknowledge that change is difficult.

• Have people in the images. Yes, even screen captures.


• Use friendly voices in any narration.

• For training not completed synchronously in the classroom, build the content with both images of screens and a person providing guidance along the way. Whatever your specialization—machines, equipment, pumps, valves, operating room, hospital room, inside of a semi-trailer—everything also involves people.

A focus on empathy requires behavior change from us in the training field. Change is hard, but we can do this. If we each choose to view the work we do from the learners’ perspective, the outcomes will be different, as well—for both them and us.

What do you think? Do you try to add empathy to your work? Leave your thoughts in the Comment section below.

This article was sourced by ATD Links Field Editor Halelly Azulay.

© 2018 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author

   Dawn J Mahoney, CPLP, is a talent development professional who is passionate about building solid learning strategies and developing people through better training, better instructional design, and better conversation. In addition to training design, development, and facilitation, Dawn loves to coach leaders on more effective meetings, providing consistent feedback, recognition, praise, and strengthening their teams. Contact her, on LinkedIn at, or via Twitter at @dawnjmahoney.

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I focus on learners and encourage them to share their experiences and stories—instead of relying on my own. This is easy in face-to-face classes or online classes where you can have engaging conversations. In e-learning, you can prompt learners to reflect on their experiences and note them in a text box or prompt them to respond to a multiple choice question (How do you feel about that? A. Nervous, B. Confident, C. ...) and provide feedback based on their answer.
Thank you! This is a great idea! Use the quiz features for more than just a quiz. I like it!
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This is great, Dawn. Inspiring and practical at the same time--the way we should be as trainers. Thanks for raising this important idea.
Thank you so much, Jacque!!
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YES! yes, yes, and yes! :) Just because it's not necessarily easy, doesn't mean we can't do it! :) Thanks for sharing your perspective!
Right? Not always easy, but I feel like we've lost this behind the Next button. Thanks for reading and commenting!
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