Design thinking is on the rise. This human-centered approach to solving problems, designing products, and innovating is all about empathizing with users. Design thinking leads with a deeper understanding of how people think and feel when they use your product. Then, you'll be better equipped to improve their experience.

The methodology extends beyond traditional design applications. You can take a design thinking approach to improving your professional and personal relationships, too. Empathy allows you to read people and situations better. Being able to read people's emotions is a valuable skill. Perceiving what those around you are thinking and feeling is key to solving communication challenges and improving your social skills.

Your brain on make-believe stories

If reading a room isn't your greatest skill, there's good news. Cognitive research reveals what you can do to improve your ability to understand others. Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reviewed studies that analyzed the difference between people who read fiction and those who read non-fiction. In countless studies, he found  that those who read fiction had significantly more empathy than those who preferred non-fiction.

Oatley's conclusion was that fiction leads to improved empathy because it gives you the experience of imagining yourself in someone else's shoes -- even if they're the shoes of imaginary characters. "Among the implications are that fictional characters enable one to imagine what it might be like to be other people's situations," Oatley writes in his findings.

Getting emotionally involved

Another effect of reading fiction is becoming involved, immersed, or carried away imaginatively in a story. Oatley defines this concept as transportation. "The more readers were transported into a fictional story, the greater were found to be both their empathy," Oatley found. "Emotion in fiction is important because, as in life, it can signal what is significant in the relation between events and our concerns." Getting wrapped up in a page-turning novel can produce positive effects in real life.

Lastly, Oatley explains that fiction's character-based stories help to encourage a shared sense of humanity. If you've ever felt like you can relate to a character, you're actually developing a relationship with that character. While the relationship is one-sided (of course, the fictional character isn't reciprocating), it helps you to understand the life experience of others. Oatley sums it up beautifully like this: We need not lead just one life: by means of fiction, we can lead many lives.