Empathy – what about it?

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” Shylock, a Jewish Moneylender, Merchant of Venice

In certain circles, empathy is trendy at the moment. For example, Matthew Taylor (RSA Chief Executive) seems fairly certain that only through greater empathy will we achieve the sense of universalism necessary to address collective challenges such as climate change. Autism expert Simon Baron Cohen, who spoke at the RSA in June 2011, suggests that empathy is one of the most valuable of human resources. In the last couple of years,  I’ve come across numerous organisations in the UK dedicated to training people – particularly young people – in the art of empathy. Empathy is being promoted as a critical tool for delivering enlightened social change. Yet, today I was reminded that empathy is one of those words we might use easily, but not really understand. What is empathy? Why is an increasingly diverse array of people wanting to step up our commitment to the practice of it?  

I’m currently working on an article about the relationship between individual personal transformation and systemic/structural change. In this article, I am giving a lot of attention to empathy and empathic dialogue. Today I sent a draft to a colleague for feedback and was surprised when I looked at his tracked comments related to empathy: first he wrote ‘is this the right word – I can’t empathise with a woman who has been raped – I can sympathise though??’ and then he added ‘Doesn’t empathy demand shared experience?”

Here is the response I gave to those questions: 

Empathy – a long misunderstood word. In the last couple of years, I’ve come to realise that empathy doesn’t actually refer to understanding what someone is feeling because you’ve experienced exactly what they have experienced – which is what I always thought it meant. It actually refers to acknowledging that you understand what someone is feeling, e.g. understanding that a woman who has been raped feels violated, vulnerable, angry, scared etc.

When we say ‘I empathise’ we are actually not doing that at all – it is an empty statement without something to back it up – without being able to demonstrate that we actually recognise what a person is feeling – not necessarily because we’ve been in the same situation, but because we are human and would likely feel the same in a similar situation.

My explanation to my colleague is supported by Simon Baron Cohen’s two definitions for empathy: 

  • (Intellectual) Cognitive: the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings.
  • (Emotional reaction) Affective: The drive to respond appropriately to another person’s thoughts and feelings.

I am passionate about expanding our capacity to practice empathy because through empathy people begin to see, hear and connect with each other.  Lack of empathy is a key cause of many people feeling invisible, disconnected and isolated – the vast majority of us will have had our moments (and some much more so than others) of: ‘Nobody is listening to me’ or ‘Nobody understands me.’

Why is an increasingly diverse array of people wanting to step up our commitment to the practice of empathy? I’ll venture to guess it is because more and more of us increasingly want to help ourselves and others become visible, feel understood and connected. We are also increasingly sensing that too much disconnect has created a world full of fear, loss, pain and sadness – a world which is is a poor reflection of who we can be as human beings. 

When it comes to driving social change, I see empathic dialogue – conversations focused on people actively listening to and trying to understand one another – as essential to the foundation for laying common ground and building connections. We are only able to understand each other because we connect through the values, human needs and emotions we have in common. Through empathy we not only see another person, but we also see them in us and us and them. In this way the ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ binary – so common on politics and civic engagement – begins to break down. In this way, we open ourselves up to shift from the intellectual to the emotional and from the emotional into action.

It seems that more and more social changemakers are recognising – though we might not put it in quite this way –  that the heart has as a hugely important role to play in the pursuit of our ‘Good Society.’  As long-time community organiser Marshall Ganz reminds us, policies don’t engage people, values and emotions do. This is why we must consciously engage with values and emotions in our pursuit of social change. Yet, we often make little room in our dialogues for people to reflect in order to gain clarity, to take the time to present what is truly alive within them. And we hardly have any time to show that we are actively listening to each other. Our meetings and exchanges are often done in a hurry, filled with sound-bites, and allow for people to say what they want to say but without giving others time to demonstrate they have heard and genuinely understood what is being said. And so it is that from one meeting to the next we repeat our selves – tell the same stories, say the same slogans, have the same reactions – and carry the same anger/rage/sadness/fear and along with it a sense that no one is listening to or understanding us.

Empathy matters because it connects us and opens us up to each other as sentient human beings. Empathy matters because it sows the seeds for unity and common purpose. Empathy matters because it stirs us to want to support and assist – rather than destroy and harm – one another. Yes, empathy matters. I’d like to build on  Simon Baron Cohen’s conclusion:  empathy is one of our most vital human resources – provided it acts as a springboard for concrete action rooted in a desire to grow more compassionate, caring, consciously connected, and responsible communities.

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One Response to Empathy – what about it?

  1. Brendan says:

    ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you.’ So said Matthew (I think?) and although I am not a christian or in any other way religious that seems a pretty good life motto to me. And without empathy — that is, thinking about or imagining or trying to feel another’s situation — how would it be possible? So, yes, empathy is indeed fundamental.

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