What Road Rage Can Teach Us About Empathy and Perspective - Spring2 Innovation

What Road Rage Can Teach Us About Empathy and Perspective

October 17, 2022

In my experience, there is nothing more underestimated than a shift in perspective and surprisingly, the best way to see this might be through road rage.

We’ve all felt that unjustified fury towards complete strangers when their seemingly inconsiderate or aggressive actions provoke us on the road. But why is it so easy for all of us to slip into blind road rage? Most would respond that it’s the other person’s fault for driving like a thoughtless lunatic, but we usually have no idea what situation the other driver might be facing.

A colleague of mine recently shared a game which helps diffuse some of that road rage that plays on exactly this fact. The rules are simple: when a stranger does something that irritates you while you’re driving (or in any public setting), try to come up with the most absurdly entertaining scenario that might cause someone to act that way. For example, maybe they accidentally cut you off because they were distracted by their sweet-talking pet parrot in the passenger seat. Or perhaps they are actually an internationally renowned spy and they cut you off in the middle of a skillfully camouflaged car chase with enemy forces… in the middle of rush hour traffic. You can be as imaginative and creative as you want! And if you happen to have someone else in the car with you, even better – you both can compete to top the other person’s dramatic telling. Often, the imagined situations become so hilariously preposterous that laughter fills the space where your anger would have simmered. 

The best part of the game (besides its wrath-avoidance tactics) is that it gets you out of your own head and shifts your focus to the perspective of the other driver/person out and about. One of the reasons road rage can hit you with such intense force is that you have no other knowledge of the offender except their offence and its impact on you. It becomes really easy to start making your own assumptions about who they are and why they did it. Focusing solely on your own inconvenience or emotional response naturally leads to anger as you see them as inconsiderate and their actions as uncalled for.

Of course, sometimes that simply is the case, but often it is not and there is always more to the other person’s side of the story. In this way, a few lessons can be drawn from this game and what it reveals about the power of your mindset.

Empathy is not connecting to an experience. Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience. – Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead

Looking at the same situation from a different perspective changes everything. In fact, you don’t even have to know the exact specifics for certain – simply realising that there is another person also going through tough problems, uncontrollable situations, and difficult feelings on the other side of your own experience can be enough to completely transform your approach for the better. You can then let go of your initial assumptions and resulting response to turn your energy to more productive tasks.

In practice, empathy should always be employed in any project to ensure you aren’t blindly acting on what you think is true. Recognize that you might not be completely informed yet, question your assumptions and preconceptions, and connect with others to see how their perspective is different from what you see.

When you focus on the people your project is geared towards and the emotions underpinning their experience, you design with empathy. Listening to end-users to base your project in an understanding of their emotions, needs and expectations de-risks your product, process or service from the start. As the project progresses, continually checking in with them throughout the design process future-proofs your work and ensures that you are actually solving the right problem.

We are humans with emotions, and humans make decisions based on emotions. Ignoring user, client, and partner emotions increases unforeseen risk. If we keep users in mind, they will keep us in mind. – Nilufer Erdebil, CEO & Founder of Spring2 Innovation

To discover more about human-centric design fueled by empathy tools, read about our design thinking training for business and the public sector or our introductory course on the methodology.