Can we feel someone remotely?

Stuck at home, we participated in Katja Tschimmel’s Design Thinking Masterclass through Zoom. And it made us think: Is it possible to gain genuine empathy remotely? Or is it the stuff of mind reading heros in Hollywood movies?

Xavier, the mind reading X-Man.
Photo from IMDB, Murray Close – © TM and 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Empathy is a core concept of design thinking. Indeed, it is fundamental in the phases of inspiration, observation, discovery, and understanding, depending on which process variation of design thinking is used (Tschimmel 2020). 

In “Change by design”, Tim Brown (2019) describes empathy as putting yourself in another persons shoes, seeing through the eyes of another, and as such gain a subjective understanding of their experience. Quite succinctly, this sums up the psychological process of empathy. But how can we make that happen with virtual interaction only, given that it’s possible at all?

According to Kouprie and Sleeswijk Visser there are two types of empathy: Affective and cognitive. Affective is an immediate emotional response, and cognitive is understanding the emotional state of another person. They state that “Motivation is crucial for an effective process”, but don’t mention Goleman’s third type of empathy explicitly: Compassionate empathy which he describes as “knowing, feeling and being motivated to help, if needed”. (Goleman,1995; Kouprie & Sleeswijk Visser 2009).

In order for compassionate empathy to occur, there are three neurocognitive processes that need to happen (Lieberman, 2015): 

  1. Mind reading – imagining someone else’s experience,
  2. Affect matching – imitating someone else’s experience and feeling what the other person is feeling and
  3. Empathetic motivation – being motivated do something about it, providing the two frist are in place.

Of course, these processes happen entirely in our brains and bodies. But they do require input, which should at least in some instances be possible to generate through remote communication or observation. Yet, full immersion in the non-digital experience of a person whom we’re trying to empathise with, seems to us quite impossible.

Gaining empathy is a tricky thing

Empathy doesn’t happen quickly and easily. It requires time, effort, and genuine interest (Kouprie & Sleeswijk Visser 2009). Lucy Kimbell (2009) calls for sound ethnographic research methods to be able to properly understand and serve people’s needs. So in order to be empathetic, there has to be a real connection with the person, which can be built through for example collaboration and co-creation.

In his book, Tim Brown (2019) is not convinced by what the internet has to offer in regards to empathy in design. But the book is over 10 years old (we listened to the revised edition from 2019). Today, we are much more used to working with online tools to create connections between participants and to co-create online. The problem in online setting can often be the time frame: we are still not used to long online sessions which makes it difficult to establish a real connection.

Feeling connected during the masterclass

Our mentalizing and mirroring abilities are heavily influenced and are more active with visual stimuli (Lieberman, 2015).

So seeing each other’s intimate home environments, with family members “bombing our screens”, can perhaps enhancethe experience of collaborating and co-creating remotely. At least, this was the feeling we were left with: Even though the two days spent looking at a screen with headphones on were very tiring, there was an underlying feeling of genuine connection.

Written by Ana, Neea and Erlend


  • Brown, Tim (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June, 84–95.
  • Brown, Tim (2019). Revised edition Change by design: how design thinking can transform organizations and inspire innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 
  • Goleman, Daniel (1996), Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London. UK
  • Kimbell, L. (2009), Rethinking Design Thinking., Liverpool, European Academy of Management.
  • Lieberman, M. D. (2014). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Broadway Books. New York, US
  • Tschimmel, K. (2020). Design Thinking Masterclass held at SID Laurea.

4 thoughts on “Can we feel someone remotely?

  1. Great topic! And something that I struggle with every week. 😀 I truly feel that in order to be empathetic, one needs to have a real connection with the other. The time frame issue that you pointed out has in my opinion two dimensions. First, as you wrote we are not used to long sessions online and second, companies rarely give time for co-creation. Online sessions become even more complicated in global organizations with several different time zones. It is hard to have everyone from the same team at the same meeting. As said, when people don’t know each other, it is hard to gain empathy and consequently co-create. Also, it is hard for companies to find understanding for the time it takes to co-create when there is no guarantee or even hope that the end result will pay off the money used.

  2. Thank you, Ana, Neea and Erlend for this blog post! It is very well written and I wanted to write a piece on the same topic myself, and I’m happy to see the topic popping up in the feed!

    I am very enthusiastic about technology and how it can elevate our lives but at the same time, it really sucks when technology lets you down and doesn’t work, especially in the times like ours (this is written in September 2020, hello readers from the future or the past). I tend to agree that showing the home and family members accidentally definitely boosts empathy among the participants. I also would add that now when most of us have experienced the remote way of things, it is easier for all of us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

  3. Thank you for the blog post! In my experience too it’s for sure more difficult to emphatize via digital means than face to face. We all know how a text message can be misunderstood as the recipient lacks the visual and auditory cues usually conveyed by facial expressions and tone of voice.

    What I would like to explore further is how you can enhance the empathy when communicating via technology. Few ideas that come to my mind are:

    1) Using video rather than just audio (why: facial expressions, surroundings)
    2) Sharing something about yourself, e.g. a personal anecdote (why: the more the others know about you, the more they will be able to emphatize with you)
    3) Explaining your background (why: others will understand why you might say something you say. they understand what’s your expertise and what you may not know that well)

    I’d be interested to hear if you have any other ideas!

  4. This is very interesting and very current problem. During pandemic many companies have needed to move their user participation and workshops from face to face setting to online environments. And from experience I can say that it is not easy. Just few weeks ago I was facilitating a workshop that was done in online environment as all participants were participating remotely. Normally we used to do this in a same room, and it was easy to see how participants were reacting to assignments and how they were progressing. This time I was all alone in the room and only connection to others was done via voice and I was only able to see their mouse cursors on the screen. After giving assignment for the group I had to wait long periods of time, and I was not able to tell if anyone was doing anything and if all was understood. I just sat there and hoped that everyone would participate, and we would get something out of this workshop. I was fortunate to work with professionals and they did brilliant job even in this odd setting for our half day workshop. But that was the end result. During workshop it was impossible to feel how things were going or understand how they were working towards set goals of the workshop. It was really hard to feel the connection to the group which is usually present in those workshops that were done earlier in same room setting.

    On the other hand, one-on-one interviews and user studies have been great remotely. Feedback received from those have been positive and people have embraced this opportunity to stay home and participate from there. Even though we didn’t have always two-way video connection but still we were able to receive great feedback and really understand their thinking and issues they had on topics that we were studying in those interviews. I think this is something that we will use in the future as well even though we could start once again inviting users to our offices.

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