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Empathic Interview

Posted by Jutta Goldammer from Visionautik Akademie


Group size

2 – 500

Subgroup size


Is participant experience relevant?

It's okay if participants haven't seen the inside of a classroom in years.

Physical trust needed

Mental trust needed


Material Description

-A pen and a sketchbook for each participant. Alternatively you can use a few sheets of paper and a hard surface to write on (e.g. a clipboard or a book).
-A digital camera or mobile phone camera for each pair is ideal but not required.
-A printout of the interview recommendations.
-For the harvesting: a pinboard or large wall to collect the insights, flipchart markers, and post-its in different colours (recommended size 12,5x7,5cm)

Create materials quick and dirty

5 min

Create materials with love and care

5 min



60 minutes – month

Experience level of the facilitator

taken part OR some facilitation experience

Number of facilitators



Level of activation


Hidden curriculum

-The users/beneficiaries play a key role in the innovation process. It would be a big mistake to leave out the knowledge they carry within.
-Opening one's own heart and keeping judgement low is a prerequisite for good communication and for good results.

Woo-Woo Level – How touchy-feely is this method?

From 1.Rationalist-Materialist “No feelings here, folks.” to 5.Esoteric-Shamanic Bleeding Heart:

Innovation Phases:

2 Creating an Innovation-Friendly Culture
3 Fostering New Perspectives & Ways of Thinking
4 Idea Generation
5 Grounding the Idea
6 Prototyping
7 Implementation & Diffusion
9 Evaluation

Method Category:

Appreciative / Community building
Awareness raising
Collective Intelligence
Integration of input into daily life
Problem Solving
Social skills
Understanding complexity


In order to really understand a situation including the thoughts, needs, problems and hopes of the people you are innovating for, one of the easiest and most direct ways is to talk to them. Empathic interviews are a gentle and effective way to do that.





“'Kindly let me help you or you will drown,' said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree." --Alan Watts

In this short example you see that a good intention for helping is often not enough. Real solutions require clarity about what exactly is the core of the problem, how the problem is interwoven with other stakeholders and what the real needs or already lived best practice are. So a big part of innovating is about understanding the situation and asking the right questions to find good solutions that bring real benefit.
Empathic interviews help find out about that in an easy way, supporting connection and trust towards the people you design for and with. Empathic interviews are not meant to be used for statistics or scientific studies, therefore they don't need to be precise or representative. They are led with curiosity and the wish to get to know your interviewee, to understand their lives and very subjective perspectives.

Empathic interviews are
-a great start for a social innovation challenge;
-a wonderful source of inspiration for new ideas;
-a way to build up trust and connections; and
-open up your social innovation project for participation of the beneficiaries, which is highly empowering for them.


It seems common good to me, it is being used a lot in Design Thinking, but I cannot trace it back to the first person having worked with it.



Exercises that help to get into a deep connection with someone else (e.g. "eye gazing portraits") are a good preparation, but not necessary -- you can also start right away.
It is helpful, though, to set a clear intention about the higher purpose of your research. You can do that by
-dedicating the exercise to a purpose you name or
-making everyone form one sentence to what their personal intention is during the workshop or
-giving deeper into personal intention as described in the method "intention setting"

https://www.hostingtransformation.eu/methode/eye-gazing-portraits/, https://www.hostingtransformation.eu/methode/intention-setting/

PREPARATION (excluding materials)

-Make sure to be clear about the purpose for the interview. Why do you want your group to contact others and find out about them? It is perfectly fine to use empathic interviews just for a first impression of a topic. Nevertheless the clearer the purpose is to everyone the easier you can use and integrate the collected material later on. (Just make sure that you don't unnecessarily narrow your perception by your preassumptions).

-Have either a few guiding questions prepared and written down on a flipchart or commonly collect helpful questions with the group after their briefing. Make sure your group sees the question just as an inspiration and encourage your group to be with their interviewees in the very moment and not give too much attention to the prepared questions. But sometimes prepared questions help to get started or have a general feel for the field in which they move.

-Depending on the target group you are planning to interview, it might be necessary to prearrange meetings. We had good experiences by just spontaneously asking people on the street or in the park -- people our participants met randomly. This allows more ease and spontaneity in the conversation than a prepared and prearranged session. But of course that only works with some target groups/topics.

1 Brief the group

Tell the group they will go out for interviews in pairs and give them a few tips to lead an empathic interview (attached you'll find those tips as a handout for download):

-OPEN YOUR HEART before you start: Meet the people with an attitude of empathy, real interest in their lives, and a love for them even if you do not know them yet.

-Go together IN PAIRS, one keeps the eye contact and leads the interview, one takes written notes. Not more people than two (in order not to overwhelm the interviewee). After the interview, give the protocol person the chance to ask a question or two - often they have good ideas by observing the whole interview from a little distance. Swap roles several times, so each one can get to know the role of the interviewer and the note-taker.

-Find the SAME LEVEL as the interviewee: If they are sitting, sit down; if they are standing, stand. This helps to establish a good relationship.

-Give a little FRAMING as to why you do the interview (e.g. I do this research for this and that institute and their aim is improving people’s lives in this and such field), then ask if the give you permission to ask a few questions around the topic you are exploring.

-Ask OPEN QUESTIONS. Encourage storytelling. Most people love to tell their stories.

-Try to jot down QUOTES as much as you can IN YOUR INTERVIEWEE'S OWN WORDS. This helps to keep your own interpretation as a listener to a minimum.

-Keep in mind that the interviews are meant to get to know the situation as well as you can. They are meant for inspiration and awareness, their aim is NOT GAINING SCIENTIFICALLY VALID DATA. So feel free to just get into a conversation and follow your curiosity and the flow of the conversation.

-If they allow you to, TAKE A PHOTO. This helps you later to cluster and remember the results.

-THANK the interviewee and (if possible and wanted) offer them to join in giving the presentation or to see the results.

Give your participants space to ask questions and talk about possible fears or resistance. Encourage them to just try it out and tell them that it is perfectly fine and normal if they meet people who don't want to talk to them. Sometimes it helps to first ask a few questions amongst their own group to gain confidence. If you have very shy people in your group who feel overwhelmed by this task you can offer them as an alternative to sense the field, observe with their open senses what the see, hear and feel. This can also help gain valuable insights.

Let them find pairs to go together and arrange a time when you'll meet back with the whole group.

2 Swarm out and lead interviews

Your group swarms out to lead the interviews. It is nice to give enough time to lead at least two or three interviews per pair. Meanwhile you can as a facilitator to prepare the space to bring together the insights in the group. You'll need a big pinboard with your focus question/topic as a headline, one example person's post-it quotes and heaps of post-its in different colours. For more detail, see "Harvest".


Ask your participants to choose one colour of post-it for each person they interviewed. On one post-it they should write the name of the person they interviewed (if they don't know the name they invent one). Let them write three or four short basic insights or quotes from that person on post-its of the same colour. One quote per post-it. Encourage them to make it concrete but no longer than "This park is like a home to me, I sit here every afternoon to knit and talk with the neighbours, even in winter." or "I always buy coffee in to-go cups as they give me the freedom to leave the café any time". Remind your participants to use one post-it for each quote.
Print out the photos.
Then gather the group and let them share their insights by sticking their post-its on the pinboard. One row, one person with their quotes and the photo. Then the next row (preferably shared by another team to best keep the energy going by shifting between sharing and listening).



Trainers for this method can be hired here:

Visionautik Akademie, Plenum, Sendzimir Foundation, Art Monastery www.visionautik.de

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