Why Empathy is Essential for Your Event Design


Empathy and experience design are so integrated, that they literally require one other for their own distinct definitions. Take a look:

What is experience design?

At Scaling Intimacy we define experience design as “the empathetic and strategic process of creating transformational experiences built on meaningful connections and collaborative learning.” 

Empathy is the starting point of our definition, and that thread carries into our practice and process of experience design, too.

From the moment we begin to design an event, we strive to empathize with our participants for whom the experiences are intentionally designed. We ask ourselves questions such as:

  • What are the desired outcomes and intended transformations for this group?
  • Where are moments in the design that might feel rushed, dense, exciting, boring, or inspirational in the participant journey? 
  • What adjustments might be needed ahead of time to account for any dips in energy or places that move too fast or too slow?

Empathy is from the heart; and strategy is from the head. It’s important to have a balance of both in order to best imagine what the experience will be like for the target audience.

What is empathy? 

Brené Brown states that empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience. In other words, it doesn’t require that we have experienced the exact same situation as our audience; it’s the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect fully with those of our participants. 

Empathy is feeling with people, while sympathy is feeling for people. You can get a crash course in the difference between empathy and sympathy in this short and sweet animated video: Sympathy vs. Empathy.

Brené Brown refers to Teresa Wiseman’s 4 Attributes of Empathy to help us get more granular with specific empathy behaviors:

💛 Perspective taking

💛 Staying out of judgment

💛 Recognizing emotions in others 

💛 Communicating emotions back to others

Where do they meet in practice?

These 4 attributes of empathy are excellent guideposts to refer back to as experience designers to put our learners at the center and enhance connection overall.

👀 Perspective taking

“In order to empathize with someone’s experience, you must be willing to believe them as they see it, and not how you imagine their experience to be.” – Brené Brown

The more surveys and information you can receive up front from your audience, the easier it is to understand their perspective and design for their needs. Empathy mapping is a helpful tool as a means to tap into the perspective of the target group. 

By completing the empathy canvas, we can more effectively customize the design around the needs of this unique group of participants. 

Example questions on the canvas include: 

  • What does the audience DO?
  • What do they need to DO?
  • What do they regularly SEE in their environment?
  • What do they typically SAY?
  • What do they HEAR from others?
  • What do they THINK about often?
  • What do they FEEL in terms of fears and frustrations, as well as hopes and desires?

Even if you don’t know who will be joining you in the room or you don’t have enough information to complete the empathy canvas, you can still empathize with your participants by putting their experience at the center of your design. You might try to map out the learner’s journey from start to finish of a session, empathizing with energy levels, emotions, attention-span and more!

😶 Staying out of judgment 

“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” – Brene Brown

In the world of facilitation, there is no right or wrong. The beauty of experiential learning is that everyone can have the exact same experience but take away a completely different learning outcome. The more we stay out of judgment, ask open-ended questions, and create an environment of psychological safety, the more we can invite a full range of perspectives. By empowering such different life experiences to emerge in the space, we ultimately enhance learning for everyone involved. 

As facilitators, it’s important that we not only role-model this behavior, but support our participants to stay out of judgment with each other. One specific tool to enhance such practices is sharing agreements and guidelines. An example of a guideline that we have used in the past is “Share Your Truth,” which implies that each person may have a different version of the truth and they are all valid and can co-exist without contradiction. 

🧐 Recognizing emotions 

“Empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection.” – Brene Brown

Just as we can embrace the full range of perspectives in the room, it’s important to do the same with emotions. 

We know that it can be difficult to read a room of participants, especially in the virtual space, and yet it is something our brains are wired to do naturally. We are constantly taking in non-verbal cues and facial expressions to make meaning and draw conclusions about how the audience is feeling and we can be even more intentional to draw out this information through regular check-ins in chat, plenary, or break out rooms.

3 ways you can have participants share to assess the emotions in the room:

  • Drop an emoji in the chat (literal or figurative) representing how they felt during an exercise
  • Draw an abstract image of how they feel right now in the moment
  • Use a pre-made image like the blob tree (pictured here) to annotate or identify which blob feels the most like them in this moment and why.

Whatever range of emotions emerge from these activities, remember to hold space for them all so everyone feels they can show up authentically as they are. 

🗣️ Communicating emotions 

“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” – Brené Brown

At Scaling Intimacy, we empower facilitators to adopt a coaching mindset, and to paraphrase the contributions that learners share. There is tremendous power in actively listening and reflecting back to your audience what you heard them say to ensure you fully understood their emotions and perspectives. 

People feel seen and heard when you take time to really understand what they are experiencing and communicate it back for clarification. By paraphrasing or even using the exact same words they used, we can further create an environment that rewards vulnerability.

If this concept is new or foreign to you, we suggest you use the following sentence stems to paraphrase what participants say and ensure they feel heard and seen:

👉 “What I’m hearing is…”

👉 “It sounds like you…”

👉 “It seems that your main insight is…”

👉 “Is that accurate?”

With all of the tools and ideas shared above, which one might you put into practice to infuse your experience design with more empathy?

If you want to grow your own empathy muscles and experience empathy with us then don’t miss out on our upcoming Virtual Connection Lab!

In this interactive session Joanna will teach you two exercises that use creativity, storytelling, and witnessing to infuse empathy into any meeting, workshop or event. If you’re interested in learning how to engage introverts and add a few new zoom tricks to your toolbox, this is the VCL for you!

✨ Join our upcoming Virtual Connection Lab on May 19 at 11am PST | 2pm EST with Joanna Miller, Senior Facilitator and discover the power of Empathy. ✨

Use coupon code “EMPATHYBLOG” to register for FREE. Sign up here or click below.👇



Romy Alexandra is a learning experience designer and experiential learning trainer on a mission to humanize learning spaces.