I mutter under my breath as I bow my head in solitude to a room full of sweaty humans. I pause for a moment, hearing the same phrase echoing throughout the room.

As a yoga instructor, I’ve taught hundreds of classes over the past three years. No class is ever the same, except for one element. At the end of each class, I cue everyone to come together with their hands at heart center, and we end class in a collective, “Namaste.”

Namaste may seem like a stereotypical yoga salutation, but it carries a great meaning within three syllables. Quite literally, Namaste means the deepest part of me honors and sees the deepest part of you. It is recognizing the deeper understanding between two humans and honoring the idea that we’re all human. It’s not only honoring someone’s presence, it’s honoring everything they’ve been through, experienced, and who they are.

It is honoring the place in you that is the same as it is in me.

The phrase dates back as early as 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE and proves that since the dawn of time, humans have been striving for a deeper understanding of each other. Yet how often do we hear the word Namaste in your 9-to-5? Unless you work in a yoga studio, I bet it isn’t often. But you don’t need to teach yoga to bring Namaste into your workplace. Luckily there’s another way in which we can strive for a greater understanding of each other: empathy.

The prefix “em” means within, whereas the prefix “sym” means with. Sympathy, a much older word coined by Aristotle, means to understand with someone. This level of understanding comes from the head—you grasp where they’re coming from, the points they’re making. Empathy encompasses a greater level of understanding. It requires reaching below the surface level of knowledge and truly feeling what it’s like in another’s shoes. It is recognizing the deepest part of another.

I’ve found that empathy is the secret sauce to having greater working relationships, not only with your coworkers but your customers as well. What’s even more magical is that when you take the time to slow down and unlock this greater level of understanding, you ultimately end up working faster, better, and have some fun along the way.

Empathy for your customers

At Dropbox, we (myself included!) love data. Together with our cross-functional partners, we use data to measure success and identify areas of opportunity. But with data, our problem solving process is only half-complete. Data can tell us where there's a problem, but empathy helps us understand the why.

There are many ways to get to empathy. If you don’t have access to a research team or are short on time, an exercise I like to use is something I call empathy mapping. I find that this exercise is most impactful when done in cross-functional teams, on a whiteboard, or in a large collaborative space. The more minds, (and empathy!) at work, the better.

It’s pretty simple, and it starts the same way each time: emotions (I like to draw them as faces) are on the Y axis, and time is always on the X axis. We look at problems holistically and identify the first event that triggered the experience. As you walk through each event in the experience, ask yourself: how is someone feeling in this moment? What are their expectations, and how is it aligning with reality?

Empathy Map

Illustration by Emma Highley

Above is an empathy map I worked on for the experience that occurs when a customer tries to add something to their Dropbox account, but they don’t have enough space for it. We can quickly identify the last moment someone was happy and how they might be feeling at each moment in the user experience. Going through this experience with a cross-functional team also creates awareness at a team level of where the issue exists, as well as additional empathy for our customers.

When we identify how someone is feeling at an exact moment, we’re able to identify precise moments of agony and joy, and pull things back to happier times to keep our users flowing. Data can alert us to where a problem may be occurring, but it’s empathy that alerts us to the moments that matter the most.

Empathy for your coworkers

Teams who are truly successful not only have empathy for their customers, but also for one another. Our Design Research team at Dropbox has found that highly efficient teams create their own collaborative culture. When teams align on values and collaborative norms, they begin to work seamlessly and more efficiently—and when this environment is created, we’re all empowered to do our best work.

To create a safe, efficient space for our team we first must have empathy. At Dropbox, there’s a couple ways we do this. When forming a new team, I find it most impactful to create a team contract. A team contract helps you align on how you want to work together, communicate, make decisions, and ultimately work better together. It can be used for a team of two or a team of ten— size doesn’t matter.

One of the ways we create team contracts at Dropbox is through our Team Values Toolkit, developed by our team. One of the most fundamental parts of the toolkit and the foundation of any team contracts is voicing your values. Voicing our values allows us to set boundaries in a safe setting while opening a platform for collaboration. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable and create a safe space, it creates a space for others to do the same.

With these shared values in mind, teams can begin to create a team contract. The goal is to ultimately create an artifact of how you want to work together, communicate, make decisions, share information, and most importantly, support each other. When others win, you win.

Empathy for yourself

As we begin to understand our customers better, and as our teams begin to work faster, it may seem like we have everything in place. However, we’re missing just one ingredient: you.

Having empathy for others only begins when you start to have empathy for yourself. I want you to imagine the last time you failed. The last time you did something that felt like a punch to the gut or maybe left a sour taste in your mouth. It’s okay, we’ve all been there.

Ray Dalio once said, “For every mistake that you learn from you will save thousands of similar mistakes in the future, so if you treat mistakes as learning opportunities that yield rapid improvements you should be excited by them.” And I think he may be on to something.

Call me crazy, but I’ve learned to become excited about failure rather than terrified of it. Sometimes it kind of freaks people out a bit. But nothing excites me more when something I toiled over completely falls flat. Because that means I can now learn how to do something better.

Within the Growth team at Dropbox, we see a lot of failures. I may be the only one doing my happy dance in my seat, but we get really excited about them. We’re constantly iterating, experimenting, and celebrating both our failures and successes. Like Ray Dalio, we treat them as learning opportunities: we use it for our personal growth and growth for Dropbox, pushing us to be and do better.

As we begin to dig into a deeper level of understanding with our customers and coworkers, it’s essential that we first have empathy for ourselves. Because how can you honor the deepest part of another without first acknowledging the deepest part within you?

Wherever you are today, and wherever you’re reading this, I ask that you take a moment to notice your heartbeat, and the steady inhale and exhale of your breath. Recognize that here, in this moment, you’re human. A living, breathing, empathetic human. And sometimes we breathe too fast, think too fast, act too fast. We forget the power that lies in slowing down and having some empathy for customers, our coworkers, and ourselves. This power lies within you.

How will you harness the power of empathy?


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