I largely rewrote the synesse entry in my Designerly virtues article. “Designerly virtues” is one of the most important things I’ve written this year, and it will be the kernel of Second Natural.
One other note: I think Design Instrumentalism is an updated form of existentialism — a pragmatic existentialism that uses design methods.
The new synesse entry: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights open new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”
The earlier version was: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be feeling-led, where synesis is reason-led, seeking insight into how a person’s thinking shapes perception, interpretation, conception and valuation, which provides insight into feeling. Second, the goal is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is for each person to approach the other to produce a mutual understanding that allows each to effectively relate to the other. The most important distinction is achievability of the goal. The ideal of empathy sets an impossible goal for itself. No person can feel what another feels. But synesis is very possible: we can always reach mutual understandings if both people truly want it and willing to work to achieve it. Synesis is the precisely the form of creative understanding most important in design work — not only for our users but within our design teams. We have to create new thought-spaces to get to the goal of synesis, so we become able to understand one another’s understandings and “get aligned”. These same new thought spaces also enable novel creative solution, which is why design research stimulates radical innovation. — But synesis is an intensely challenging activity that involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, and in fact all the designerly virtues, in complex coordination. And when we practice this constellation of virtues together, so we get better at it and it functions as a single motion, this is the virtue of synesse, the capacity for synesis. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile conclusion “you can never really understand me.”