Is Empathy the Superpower That Will Save the World?

At a time when it seems every imaginable topic has become polarising and the course of humanity unpredictable, now is the perfect time for Empathy to come into its own. 

Empathy, in the context of Design thinking is about deeply understanding the people you wish to serve in order to serve them better.  But in the context of the current state of the world in all its complexity, Empathy is the incredible skill that enables humans to understand and value other humans. It seems to me that Empathy is as important to the evolution and survival of humanity as air and water. Without it, we may well self combust. 

Empathy will get you to the root cause of anything and by understanding what got us here, to this precarious and, quite honestly, terrifying point in time, it will help us shift conversations towards a future that might be more enticing for all of us. 

Could Empathy - with a big E - be the single thing that saves humanity from itself?

Mainstream racism, bigotry, misogyny et cetera.

If the new definition of ‘political correctness’ in 2019 is: the right of every single person to have a voice and say what they think as long as no one gets hurt (physically, psychologically or emotionally); then it turns out that whether someone is entitled to be hurt or even offended is, according to some, also up for interpretation. 

I had one of the most challenging conversations of my life recently when someone I had literally just met, cornered me with his racist and homophobic views. When I said he was offending me along with a whole race of people, I was told we had no right to be offended.

I was caught totally off guard. My first thought was, “Don’t say what you really think.” My second thought was of a podcast I’d recently listened to where a negotiation expert talked about the possibility of using Empathy if you were to find yourself in a conversation with a neo-nazi. 

When confronted with a directly opposing (and offensive) view, the immediate impulse is to try to convince the other person of the error of their ways or to end the conversation altogether. But what if both parties were to listen, ask why, and try to understand what motivates the other’s particular beliefs and actions? Maybe that would give some context - and in this case - enable me to use a relatable language or example to illustrate an alternate perspective that the other might actually want to listen to.

I was exhausted, my mind in 3 other places so I didn’t get to play out that hypothetical as far as I would have liked. But that piece of advice from the podcast did help me to restrain my emotions as my heart beat a million miles an hour, and instead ask, ‘Why?’ 

Rather than arguing my corner and risking a heated debate that would have got us nowhere, I used Empathy to take back control of the situation and demonstrate tolerance in the face of a person who had none. 

Empathy helped me understand that my version of common sense isn’t necessarily the same as for others and that assuming your view is of the majority can lead to a dangerous case of apathy. And that brings us to the current political climate.

Political loopholes.

In a world of bewildering political disruption, we’ve recently lived through the rapid emergence of Brexit, Trump, and Morrison (‘Who?’ says the rest of the world). And now with the possibility of Boris joining the ranks, it’s more important than ever to listen and understand how we got here if we want to change the tide. 

Throughout this flurry of leadership changes and political upheaval, I’ve gone from the extremes of grief and anger at David Cameron’s desertion upon the announcement of the Brexit referendum result (whilst I was living in the UK), through to now simply turning off the TV. Numbing our reaction and filtering the news is a survival technique, protecting ourselves against the seemingly utter hopelessness of the situation.

Strangely, this mass rebellion against political correctness seems directly juxtaposed to all the simultaneous cultural trends that have emerged, driven by love and Empathy: the pursuit of purposeful work (and not just the millenials); a YouTube worth of environmentally sustainable inventions and hacks to help us protect the nature within our reach; the demand for flexible working and desire for shared parental leave policies; the raft of individuals taking advantage of technology to create their own jobs; and the resurgence of Human-centered Design (or Design Thinking) as a powerful methodology for strategies in work and life. And the list goes on.

To what extent are those trends, and a new breed of leaders (Jacinda Ardern, Justin Trudeau, the ground swell of new US senators led by - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley) emerging in direct response to that hopelessness that so many of us feel? Not to mention the importance of people like Kathryn Ryan and Amy Schumer who speak loud enough to tip the balance back away from the privileged patriarchy. They show us that it’s entirely possible to be ourselves and call out the behaviour we find dangerous or offensive. Using Empathy as the divergent and powerful tool to understand and celebrate the intricacies of the myriad segments of society and take positive action to preserve and protect our fellow humans.

Social disillusionment.

We now live in a culture where showcasing our lives to whoever will listen and watch has taught us to talk at others; share only what gives the desired impression; and carefully attend to only the responses that meet with our approval. It’s very rarely a two way dialogue. The ability to comment behind a mask has taught us that we can say exactly whatever we think without accountability. We’ve stopped viewing and treating others as real people because we’re all c-grade celebrities in a worldwide reality TV show. 

Social media has drastically increased our exposure to more people, perspectives and opinions around the world but it has reduced our ability to listen, converse, reason, and relate to each other. Social media has super-charged our desire to be loved and accepted not just by our immediate peer group but by the entire world. And although we have access to a broader point of reference, we still live in a bubble of our own design as we Google down the rabbit-hole of content that subconsciously aligns with our pre-existing views.

Where influencers are the new billboards, celebrities reinvent themselves, and everyone lives for likes, Empathy brings us back to grass roots. With Empathy we realise that insta-worthy images are only a fraction of the reality going on behind the camera; that there are underlying motivations for the desire for social status; and that a conversation over a cup of coffee is more memorable and gratifying than any single post.

Capitalism, corporations and conscience.

The recent and current Royal Commissions in Australia into misconduct in banking, financial services and superannuation; safety and quality in aged care; violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability - are all a product of the industrial revolution, where greed and status became acceptable priorities over community and sustainability. Companies now try to define culture on website blurbs rather than nurture it from within. Everything in our modern world is so systemised and bureaucratised for the sake of efficiency and order that companies forgot how to listen to individuals and act quickly to address real problems. 

So it’s no wonder that having gone from work-at-home bakers, blacksmiths and farmers, to production lines and cubicles, we’ve come full circle to craving a life of sea change, tree change, remote and flexible working, side hustles, passion projects and micro businesses. If there was Empathy designed into the banks, into the care and empowerment of the aged and the disabled, then wouldn’t we live in an entirely different place? Where the needs, wants and desires of the majority drove the agenda, not the pursuit of growth, profit and status by a select few.

Empathy. Not bad as far as a Superpower goes.

As human a skill as Empathy is tho ugh, it’s not one that comes naturally. Perhaps it’s something that we all have, that we’re all born with, but unless it’s exercised and stretched and nurtured, it lays neglected and dormant. So this is going to be hard work. And as the saying goes, it’s not worth doing if it’s not excruciatingly, painfully, out of your comfort zone.

As someone who works and lives with a design thinking mindset, I know that a world where more people empathised first and spoke later, would be better for all of us. The point of Empathy is not sympathy, pity, blame, or judgement. It’s about listening, asking, observing, imagining and relating. Most of all it’s about taking time to understand. So no matter what views you hold, Empathy could be your superpower to understanding the world around you, how you impact it now versus how you could impact it in future.

I haven’t even touched the surface of the multitude of imperative issues we’re all playing a role in - environment, equality, Indigenous recognition, hate crimes, outdated education and judicial systems, and….? 

So, I’d love to hear your lived experiences of Empathy in action or if you believe Empathy could save the day.

Amy WilkinsonComment