Cultivating Empathy and Internal Awareness for Social Change

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“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?…Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”

— Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

In what David Brooks deemed an “empathy craze” of the past decade, several bestsellers exalted the values of empathy, followed by a series of widely circulated opinion pieces questioning the limits of empathy. Schools and social entrepreneurs preach the value of teaching empathy. The core of trendy human-centered design is empathetic listening and design. I too, caught on to the hype—seeking to better understand empathy as it relates to my own work in social enterprise and social design. Here is what I’ve begun to understand.

Empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change; it will enable us to become more collaborative and respond more thoughtfully to social issues. We can cultivate and teach empathy—with intentionality, or willed effort, not diminishing its power—and we can encourage empathy without requiring action or agreement. But before empathy can achieve it’s full impact in our lives and in positive social change, we must cultivate internal awareness to understand our own context in the world.

Through my exploration of empathy, I remain with more questions than answers, and know that my opinion will evolve and change over time. I offer my thoughts here because this subject is important to the public discourse on social change and personal development, and I hope that others wiser than me will offer their own ideas and feedback in response.

First, the definition of empathy will provide context. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines empathy as:

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.”

The same dictionary defines sympathy as “ inclination to think or feel alike: emotional or intellectual accord; and a feeling of loyalty: tendency to favor or support.” In an article about empathy in the National Review, the author offers further differentiation between empathy and sympathy:

“As Allison Barnes and Paul Thagard put it in ‘Empathy and Analogy,’ ‘sympathy is performed with altruistic ends, but empathy may or may not be motivated by good intentions. Indeed, one may empathize solely with narcissistic ends.’ The psychologist Lauren Wispé put it this way: ‘In empathy, the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its identity. . . The object of empathy is understanding. The object of sympathy is the other person’s well-being.’”

Empathy for Social Change

Empathy is not new to the toolkit of social change or education, and it continues to be a common trope of encouragement.

Ashoka, one of the globally pioneering institutions for social change, has the need for cultivating empathy as core to its mission. “In this new world, empathy is one of the most important skills,” they state on a subsection of their website dedicated to the topic. “Every individual needs the skill of empathy to succeed. Empathy is foundational to the ability to resolve conflict, to collaborate in teams, to align interests, to listen effectively and make decisions where there are no rules or precedents, to solve problems and drive change.”

In fact, the inclination to further incorporate empathy into society is so strong that, in the book What is Your Dangerous Idea?, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen offered the radical idea of a political system based on empathy—hiring politicians with the capacity to empathize, who are good listeners and collaborators, and not necessarily great orators or too principled.

The need for empathy in social change is two-pronged. Social change calls for systemic and collaborative action, which inherently requires empathy. And many problematic social interventions have come from sympathetic responses instead of empathetic responses. In order for social change initiatives to improve and have a greater positive impact, we need to cultivate both an awareness of the difference between sympathetic and empathetic responses, and develop every actor’s empathetic abilities.

We are faced as a world with complex, interconnected challenges. Poverty is connected to scarcity, which is connected to corruption, which is impacted by governance, which is influenced by historical colonialism. Working towards a solution for any one challenge will require multi-faceted approaches and an understanding of systems and historical context. And it means learning from and working collaboratively with all actors and institutions in various systems (with systems being defined as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”).

Adam Kahane, an established social change facilitator, explains two approaches to problem solving—systemic and collaborative—in his book Power and Love:

“A challenge is dynamically complex when cause and effect are interdependent and far apart in space and time; such challenges cannot successfully be addressed piece by piece, but only by seeing the system as a whole. A challenge is socially complex when the actors involved have different perspectives and interests; such challenges cannot successfully be addressed by experts or authorities, but only with the engagement of the actors themselves.”

Donella Meadows, the seminal systems thinker, explains in her book Thinking in Systems that understanding systems requires interdisciplinary and collaborative understanding, where experts “will have to go into learning mode. They will have to admit ignorance and be willing to be taught, by each other and by the system.”

The type of collaboration, conversation, and learning that Kahane and Meadows recommend requires empathy and humility. Experts need to not know and just learn. Individuals need to try and move past historical and personal opinions, to empathically listen and attempt to understand another’s opinion and experience.

This empathetic learning and collaboration becomes critical in social action. We have a long history of taking sympathetic actions. We learn of a natural disaster or a victim, and rush to “help.” Perhaps we donate something the victims don’t need—we feel better about ourselves and our emotional responses while the victim is still without the right resources. Or we start a nonprofit dedicated to a cause we feel sympathetic towards, without seeing the whole system encompassing it and how that nonprofit may not be addressing the problem in a helpful way. A recent example of a sympathetic response occurred in 2013 after the school shooting in Newtown, CT, as this New Yorker piece explains:

“More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. We felt their pain; we wanted to help.”

Our sympathetic responses are natural, though perhaps not always suitable. As Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others:

“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response.”

Instead of these sympathetic responses to social problems, an empathetic response would be to inquire into local needs, and listen. Empathetic action would take design techniques such as empathy mapping, and imagine the situations of stakeholders—what they think, feel, and do and the systems they operate within—to determine where assistance might be most effective, if needed at all. It’s not seeing a news clip and responding automatically; empathetic responses require more thought before action, more inquiry and listening before decision-making. The response may not be immediate, but it’s likely to be more sustainable and appropriate to the needs of systemic change.

This use of empathy, as a tool, is why so many are gravitating toward the design process to solve business and social problems. But is that use of empathy—a willed, intentional empathy—still empathy?

Intentionally Cultivated Empathy

Popular research has found that empathy is influenced by the brain’s mirror neurons. We may feel empathetic towards an individual or issue when we least expect it, and it naturally comes to us—this rush of feeling, and humble understanding. Perhaps we’ve been in that person’s situation before, or we can otherwise naturally relate.

But is it also empathy when you are intentionally trying to be empathetic, to attempt understanding through listening, feeling, or action? I think so, and in believing so, I am strongly influenced by Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. Jamison notes research to back up the notion that willed empathy is the same as what we might call naturally occurring empathy. Research “found that imagining the pain of others activates the same three areas (prefrontal cortex, anterior insula, anterior cingulate) as experiencing pain itself.”

Empathy is not supposed to be literally feeling someone else’s pain. As Jamison explains: “When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft. But it wasn’t, quite. It was more like inpathy. I wasn’t expatriating myself into another life so much as importing its problems into my own.”

Rather, empathy requires more humility, to know what you don’t know, to listen and ask questions. While one can be naturally humble, to be empathetic in this sense requires more intention.

Jamison explains that we can create the conditions to feel empathy, writing that:

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say going through the motions—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of inside another person’s state of heart or mind. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work.”

There are numerous resources on how to cultivate and teach empathy. As one example, Roman Krznaric, author of the book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, offers six ways to teach empathy in one such article, including awareness of empathetic feelings, imagination, empathetic listening, and art and film. When Jamison tells us that we can create the conditions to feel empathetic, she is likely referring to these kinds of teachings—learning to be a better listener and to increase our imagination, and to be more attune to our own and other’s emotions and emotional reactions. When we cultivate this ability and awareness, we will be more likely to respond empathetically when a situation requires or could benefit from empathy.

Even with empathy, we may never truly understand another’s pain or experience, as Sontag explains:

“’We’—this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through—don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.”

Yet, I’m inclined to believe that the point of empathy is not to feel what another person feels in the literal sense. It’s the unassuming and earnest effort—subconscious or intentional—to inquire, listen, and learn; to disregard our own context and emotions, even for a moment, to ask questions and attempt to understand what another’s experience might be like. Even if we will never truly understand, we’re more open to the answers we hear and the things we observe.

Merriam Webster’s definition offers an additional “the capacity for this,” implying that our capacity to feel empathetic—to be aware, or sensitive to an external feeling or experience—is sufficient. Otherwise, empathy that requires an unintentional and literal transfer of feeling, thought, and experience—that “we get it”—is too high up on a pedestal, out of reach, and we lose out on the value that empathy offers.

Empathy Doesn’t Require Action or Agreement

Much of the popular criticism for empathy surrounds the notion of empathetic action and agreement. Some authors and researchers make a case against empathy for its lack of action—that despite being empathetic, we may not take action for the cause or issue. Or that if we’re empathetic, there may be an imperative to then agree with the person or issue.

But empathy does not require action or agreement. It’s not that empathy never leads to action; instead, empathy leads us to a better understanding of when action is and isn’t required. And acknowledging another’s point of view or cause of pain does not require agreement for empathy to occur.

In his New Yorker article making the case against empathy, Paul Bloom argues that “empathy is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide.”

In a 2011 op-ed for the New York Times, David Brooks makes an argument for the limits of empathy. “The problem,” Brooks writes, “comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”

Research suggests that empathy does not always lead to altruism and that in fact, it could inhibit action, perhaps due to an overwhelming emotional response to ignore or run away from suffering. Brooks cites the research of Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the City University of New York, explaining:

“Moreover, Prinz argues, empathy often leads people astray. It influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly victims. It leads to nepotism. It subverts justice; juries give lighter sentences to defendants that show sadness. It leads us to react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions, like global hunger or preventable diseases.

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.”

Empathy can be narcissistic or greedy at times. And it can morph into sympathy and sympathetic action, or morally questionable action or inaction. The problem is not with empathy itself, but when we look at empathy as the answer to action. We can be empathetic and realize through our empathetic inquiry that our help or input isn’t needed for that person, community, or issue, or that the action required is different than expected. Empathy can lead us to acknowledge a different point of view, and still fully disagree with it, but come to a better point of understanding.

As an example, one practice in social change is to look for solutions in a community based on finding positive social deviants—individuals who find and use a spontaneous solution to solve a local problem. In working with positive social deviants in Vietnam, one couple working with Save the Children learned that they didn’t need to take action on any preconceived notions or preplanned ideas, all they had to do was empathetically observe and listen. As this Fast Company article explains:

“When Sternin and his wife arrived in Hanoi, they started with a clean slate, a beginner’s mind. They were ready to listen, not to talk. They knew little about Vietnam, but they were certain that the only way to come up with a plan to fight malnutrition was to discover it within the Vietnamese village culture itself.”

By working with local solutions, they didn’t need to take much action other than facilitating further community education on what already works. In another case, empathetic inquiry might lead someone to realize that the problem they were trying to solve does not need solving at all, and instead, a different problem is the root cause.

As a second example, we might assume that empathy in politics would lead to agreement or “switching sides.” As Bloom argues:

“Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with. Liberals argue for gun control, for example, by focussing on the victims of gun violence; conservatives point to the unarmed victims of crime, defenseless against the savagery of others…So don’t suppose that if your ideological opponents could only ramp up their empathy they would think just like you.”

In the case of politics, empathy won’t magically lead liberals and conservatives to agreement. Through seeing the other point of view, however, they may be more inclined to make even small concessions towards compromise. We can empathize with another’s point of view and continue to disagree, and that doesn’t make empathy any less valuable. The value of empathy is not in changing our opinion, but seeing another perspective to inform our own; not only to strengthen our own arguments and counterarguments, but also, more ideally, to reach mutually beneficial compromise.

Jamison makes the case that people in pain, even if others disagree with the point or cause of the pain, are still in pain. Whether we agree with or understand that pain or not, does not mean that the other person isn’t experiencing it. That understanding is empathy. As Jamison says in an interview: “I think that trying to understand someone’s state of being or feeling doesn’t necessitate condoning or agreeing with their point of view. Getting inside someone’s mind doesn’t mean thinking what they think; it only means realizing what they’re thinking.”

Empathy will help us take empathetic action when it makes sense, and understand when action or agreement isn’t required. Understanding the difference between empathetic and sympathetic action will also help us in our decision-making. And when we can acknowledge someone else’s point of view and understand where and how that view originated in their life context, we can better see how the system is formed and operates. With this understanding, we can make better decisions for systemic change. But placing an undue burden on empathy as a source of action is neither accurate nor encouraged. We don’t need empathy to be our moral guide; we need it to guide us towards respect and understanding.

However, this movement towards greater understanding by cultivating and using empathy as a tool for positive social change cannot occur without an individual first seeing their own context in the world at large.

Internal Awareness First

We cannot just be grateful that we have emotions. We have to be aware, and even critical, of where those feelings, our own and others’, come from. Imagine trying to have an empathetic conversation with someone in pain, or a political discussion, or working in a new country and community, without first understanding who you are and how you relate to the world around you. As Kahane writes in Power and Love, “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”

In a previous essay, I discussed the book Presence: Human Purpose and The Field of the Future, which explains that an integral step in the process of changing a system is recognizing our roles in the system:

“The authors of Presence argue that being present and aware–by coming to a point of epiphany of each of our roles, and our own and collective histories–is integral to the process of change. Empathy also plays an essential role–it leads to understanding the root causes of problems by ‘feeling them from within’ through empathy and ‘seeing with the heart.’”

The notion that before change can happen, every actor in the system must see their own role in changing the system is popular in progressive social change and movement-building literature. It is fundamental in social activist and educator Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s even in the management self-help book Crucial Conversations, in which the author argues:

“So the first step to achieving the results we really want is to fix the problem of believing that others are the source of all that ails us. It’s our dogmatic conviction that ‘if we could just fix those losers, all would go better’ that keeps us from taking action that could lead to dialogue and progress. Which is why it’s no surprise that those who are best at dialogue tend to turn this logic around. They believe the best way to work on “us” is to start with ‘me.’”

We all have evolving roles and privileges in the systems we are a part of, and a history that defines our roles and privileges over time. Some of our roles are self-imposed, some are naturally occurring, and some are perceived. If we are to each cultivate and practice empathy in our life and work, we need to have a 360-degree view of our perceived and actual roles and privileges, and why we feel the way we do about various issues or actions.

Peggy McIntosh, who wrote an influential and timeless essay on white privilege in the 1980s, explains that understanding privilege:

“has to do with working on your inner history to understand that you were in systems, and that they are in you. It has to do with looking around yourself the way sociologists do and seeing the big patterns in the rest of society, while keeping a balance and really respecting your experience. Seeing the oppression of others is, of course, very important work. But so is seeing how the systems oppress oneself.”

Sontag similarly writes that instead of sympathetic responses, we must look internally:

“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

When we see how our own context connects to who we are, as difficult as that might be, we can see that context in others.

Before we can truly empathize with others, we need to work on our internal capacity to see our context in the world; to know where we come from, how we impact the systems we are a part of and the people around us, and how the systems we live in work and evolve over time. When we cultivate that capacity for internal awareness, we can better empathize by knowing how our own roles, perceptions, and systems impact our empathetic thoughts and actions. Without that internal awareness, we may well project subconscious perceptions, bias, and opinions onto others or issues we are trying to empathize with. And we certainly won’t begin to fathom anyone else’s systems and roles if we can’t acknowledge our own.

When we see who we are first, the world we are a part of, and how everything connects, we can then better know what we don’t know, and acknowledge when we are projecting bias. Then we can attempt to better understand the systems and thoughts of others, and collaborate for change. Internal awareness is crucial, both for our personal development, and for our capacity to use empathy as a tool for positive social change.

We Need Empathy

In their new book The Triple Focus, scholars Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge write about the need in education for awareness, empathy, and systems thinking:

“Goleman makes the case for teaching children two types of focus: self-awareness and empathy. He also shares research on how students who better understand themselves and others experience improved academic performance, personal development, and relationships. Senge describes the third type of focus — understanding our relationship with the larger world. He explores the way systems interact and create webs of interdependence, whether it’s in a family, an organization, or on a global scale.”

Empathy can lead us to be better listeners and learners, and better social changemakers. As Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel describes in this commencement speech, acknowledging the suffering of others, and respect for one another because of our differences, is what brings us together.

“There are so many prisoners in the world. We cannot free all of them, maybe not even one. But one thing the prisoner always suffers from is feeling abandoned, feeling given up, that he or she doesn’t count anymore—to anyone! … Those who are sick, who are prisoners of their disease, be they victims of Alzheimers—the worst of all diseases because it attacks identity—or patients with AIDS or cancer, or victims of poverty, despair, racism; they should know that they are not alone. If I cannot, and you cannot, cure and help all of them, or not even one of them, at least we can be present to them in their special situation, their condition of suffering.

Tolerance is a word that has a condescending tone. “I tolerate you.” The opposite of intolerance is respect. We must respect one another, not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences.”

Wiesel’s words are a strong reminder for those of us working in social change that our work has value, and that empathy will help us be present to those who suffer. Empathy can help us develop as individuals and achieve respect, togetherness, positive social and systematic change, and more. We just have to let it.

Acknowledgements: Sincere gratitude is offered to many friends who endured long conversations and e-mail chains, and offered their endless wisdom, feedback, and support on this topic, in particular, Gabriel Schechter. Credit is also due to the authors mentioned here for opening my mind and influencing my work. Of course, the opinions and errors here are mine alone.

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