The word “empathy” is a translation of a German word “einfühlung.” Einfühlung was a word invented to explain how it is that people can come to experience a sense of unity (often referred to as “oneness”) with a piece of art work. It describes an experience where the boundary between the objectified “self” and “other” blurs without completely disappearing. A metaphor often used to describe the experience was an “entering into” an art object, be it a painting, a sculpture, a novel, or a performance. The metaphor is still used to this day when we speak of “stepping into” other people’s shoes.
In the design community, we often use the word empathy as if it’s a tool used for acquiring insights. We talk about interviewing, observing, role-playing, or otherwise finding a way to gather knowledge from users to produce better products. This framing is especially valuable in differentiating our human-centered approach from those that care less about user input or participation.