‘How was your weekend? Get much revision done?’
‘Not really I was too busy’
‘Why what were you doing?’
‘Moving furniture around, it took me ages too because my brother wouldn’t help me. God he is SO annoying?’
‘Why did you have to move the furniture?’
‘Because I got a phone call from my mum, saying she was coming to London.’
‘Oh, for a holiday?’
The slightly unsure but sparkling smile that accompanied those last two words were a break through between Yasmine and I. Up until now all conversations had been very stilted and getting more than two word answers were an achievement. In this moment I got a huge insight into Yasmine, her life, and how it was going to change dramatically.
Yasmine is one of the students who I work with at a school in South London. The biggest thing I have learnt so far is that these children do not trust easily. The staff turnover rate is high they do not get too attached. This means that most interactions between Yasmine and I have been very businesslike. We discuss school (but only schoolwork), we discuss exams (but only revision), and anything beyond this has previously been a no go. But then in this moment, I got a glimpse into her world. Previously so closed off, with barely any facial expressions Yasimine suddenly showed me how excited she was about the prospect of her mother coming. I took this as an invitation to delve further and find out a bit more about her and what makes her the way she is.
Yasmine moved to London with her brother from Ghana when she was about 9. She moved for the education as, in her family education is the key to success and a comfortable life. She has lived with her aunt since then and seen her mother maybe a couple of times. It is no surprise that she is excited to see her, but in that sparkling smile I also detected an element of foreboding, a growing pressure to perform. As we spoke more she revealed what would happen if she – in her words – ‘failed’ her exams (this was getting a C or below in any of her subjects). She would be sent back to Ghana to redo her education. When she revealed this I was lost for words, the huge pressure put upon her at the age of 16 is one that I can only try to understand, and yet in this moment I felt it. The smile was replaced with a look of pure panic, I quick check of her watch suggested that she had realised how much time she was spending talking rather than working, the moment was over. Yet in this moment I feel that we shared something. She revealed parts of herself not only through our relatively short conversation, but through her body language, through the look in her eyes. In that moment I got to stick my head over the wall she had created and look at her reality.
The importance of this experience cannot be underestimated. We constantly encounter people but rarely get to see what is beneath the surface. This moment I shared with Yasmine showed me how the changes in her life were affecting her. I now feel more able to understand her, to see the world from her point of view and create an environment in which she can be the most comfortable to succeed in life. Without this small window, I would not have been able to empathise and understand to the extent that I do now.
This in itself is an insight into why empathy is such an important tool in social innovation. In order to design the best services possible, we must know the people we are designing for. We must know them at a human level, and understand their motivations, barriers, ideas, wishes and circumstances. Everything comes down to human interaction, which must be at the centre of what we provide.
Have you experienced a moment of empathy or true insight? Comment below…
*Names have been changed