If the 20th Century was the age of introspection then the 21st Century might just be the age of outrospection, at least according to philosopher and writer Roman Krznaric in his book The Age of Outrospection. His ideas are delightfully illustrated in this wonderful RSA Animate clip: The Power of Introspection. Krznaric argues that we can grow our empathic potential or expand our empathic universe.
“Empathy isn’t just something that expands your moral universe. Empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, can create the human bonds that make life worth living. But, more than that, empathy is also about social change — radical social change.”
This idea that empathy not only expands our moral universe and makes us more creative thinkers is delightful. But the idea that empathy is also about radical social change that holds the possibility to create a revolution – a revolution of human relations – now that really interests me.
The idea of co-design and person centred service design rely on the ability of our workforce to develop empathy. This became even more clear to me earlier this week in a number of conversations about the difference it makes to service users when they experience authentic empathy from service providers. I know there is a contemporary argument about whether we need to develop empathy or compassion. I’m with Krznaric on this one. I think it’s empathy. Might we be able to radically increase the potential for better service re-design when we understand our clients/patients/stakeholders and investors better ? In this way empathy isn’t a fluffy concept, it’s a powerful means to a revolution of the health and social welfare system.
So how do we cultivate empathy ? Roman Krznaric writes about the 6 habits of highly empathic people. I’m setting myself a challenge over the next six months. I’m going to try and grow my empathic universe. You wanna join me ?
1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers.
Highly Empathic People (HEPs) are fascinated by other people. They’re the one’s that will talk to the stranger at the tram stop. They have managed to retain the natural curiosity we all had as children. When I meet these people I get the sense they carry with them a whole library of conversations from the past that give them a moral compass for life. They don’t interrogate you, they are ‘interested inquirers’ as oral historian Studs Terkel put it. Positive psychology exponents have discovered that the art of curiosity is a character strength that enhances life satisfaction.
“Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the heavily tattooed woman who delivers your mail or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.”
2. Challenge our prejudices and discover commonalities.
This week I discovered a rather beautiful photographic project. New York photographer Richard Rinaldi has embarked on a remarkable photo project called “Touching Strangers”. He wanders the streets of major cities looking for strangers willing to pair up for photographs that look as if the subjects are loving family members. The photographs are beautiful but more than that, the subjects experience a momentary transformation. A poetry teacher who was paired with a 95 year old woman said he ‘felt like I really cared about her’. Small moments of radical social change where people actually see each other
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “welfare mum”, even “greedy banker”— that prevent us from appreciating the individuality of others. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.
As I am writing I remember reading some 15 years ago about the members of the northern Natal tribes of South African. They greet one another daily by saying “Sawa bona”, which literally means: “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona” which means: “I am here”. This exchange is important, because it denotes that ‘until you ‘see’ me, I do not exist; and when you ‘see’ me, you bring me into existence. Members of these tribes go about their day with this personal validation from everyone they encounter – seen for who they are.
3. Try another person’s life.
So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
George Orwell did this, sometimes for weeks at a time he would live on the streets with the beggars and the vagabonds. Observing, living and learning about another person’s life. This “empathy adventure” cultivated his curiosity about strangers.
4. Listen hard and open up.
But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built from mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
Brené Brown, Researcher-Storyteller, has developed a body of research about vulnerability and in her now famous TED talk viewed by 8.5 million people -The Power of Vulnerability, she draws on her research that links empathy with vulnerability. She refers to it as ‘excruciating vulnerability’ and in order to connect we need to be willing to experience this level of vulnerability with one another. She refers to those who are willing to be courageous enough to be vulnerable as ”wholehearted people”.
5. Inspire mass action and social change.
Beyond education, the big challenge is figuring out how social networking technology can harness the power of empathy to create mass political action. Twitter may have gotten people onto the streets for Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, but can it convince us to care deeply about the suffering of distant strangers, whether they are drought-stricken farmers in Africa or future generations who will bear the brunt of our carbon-junkie lifestyles? This will only happen if social networks learn to spread not just information, but empathic connection.
I referred to this sort of empathic social action in my last blog Change, change , change.. where i talked about the NHS Change Day. I see Twitter building empathy all the time just visit Jill Phillips @whoseshoes
6. Develop an ambitious imagination.
We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives—understanding their thinking and motivations—if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy.
A little of this “instrumental empathy” (sometimes known as “impact anthropology” ) can go a long way.
Empathising with adversaries is also a route to social tolerance. That was Gandhi’s thinking during the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus leading up to Indian independence in 1947, when he declared, “I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew.”
You might like to contribute to Roman Krznaric’s collection of Empathy Stories. Go to the link and send him your story of empathy.
So here’s the thing… I’m going on an empathic adventure, if you’d like to come along follow me on Twitter @FreerMary (just click the Twitter link below) and let me know what you discover.