Compassion Over Empathy

Mentors, Healthcare, and the role of Detachment

Illustration from the On Complexity article.

When she joined the research team for what would become the HCD Discovery Phase Concept Guide, former Director of Women’s Health at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center Dr. Kayt Havens taught me the term “compassionate detachment”. This term describes a state in which one is both able to enter the participant’s emotional realm, compassion, while at the same time maintaining enough distance to be a useful professional, detachment. The popular term for this cognitive choice is “empathy”, but that term is too limiting: I cannot empathize with a 23 year old, male, GED holder who’s seen two Afgan deployments because I’ve never experienced those situations. Previous to learning about compassionate detachment, I had vaguely called this “kindness”, which didn’t quite convey the concept I was trying to communicate. Instead, “compassionate detachment” seems to sit between the vagueness of kindness and the impossibility of empathy.

Diagram of service design for the Telehealth Toolkit. One of VA's core purposes is to create a ecosystem of care around veterans.

I’ve been asked a lot about the role of detachment. It doesn’t seem particularly kind on its surface, but consider this: a person in distress is not looking for the professional with whom they consult to feel their distress; they’re looking for answers and for their anxieties to be soothed. It is not kind to break down with someone because they are experiencing illness or abuse or any of the “shadows of life” referred to by the first director of Health and Human Services, Hubert H. Humphrey. That person does not need to you to feel what they’re feeling or pretend to do so. They need you to understand where they are, to its core and in all its pertinent details, and then use your professional skills and power to make positive change for their situation. This, to me, is the practice of compassionate detachment.

To be a successful designer in complex organization, one must be actively interested in exploring and practicing kindness through compassion. And also actively interested in exploring and practicing a rigorous and rational design practice that solves problems through being detached. In order to navigate the design process, with its complex teams, 1  the rigors of research, 2  the generative space of creativity, 3  and the management demands, 4  all while keeping the humans at the center of a project requires that the designer practice both compassion and detachment, simultaneously. It is not enough to feel, nor is it enough to rationally create: designers must do both in order to create impact for participants.

  1. Please see the On Teamwork article.
  2. Please see the On Design Thinking article.
  3. Please see the On Creativity article.
  4. Please see the On Management article.