getting active about empathy

newsletter #20  |  17-Jan-2017

It’s one thing to say it, quite another to do it. You might agree that broader, deeper understanding of people will strengthen your product strategy and solutions. You might be open to the idea that diverse teams create more sustainable organizations. But getting your own organization to make this shift seems impossible. Because of budget priorities. Because the organization has to get out ahead of the competition faster-than-fast because the market is changing. Because time is money. Because the shareholders need to see profit.

And so you see little change, or several attempts to shift that ultimately melt back into the way things always were. And maybe you go in search of a different job at a different organization … instead of “looking out for each other … to believe that you can make a difference … I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change–but in yours.” (from President Obama’s Farewell address) It’s not up to other people at the organization to shift; it’s up to you to get active.

“Active” means getting in touch with people–not to tell them your opinion, but to listen to theirs. To “concede that your opponent might be making a fair point.” (same) The goal is to strengthen ties with people you might not want to, for the purpose of connecting. So that eventually you can get to “innovation and practical problem-solving.” (same) But not before you do the hard work of understanding different ways of thinking and embracing the idea of supporting these differences with various solutions, including the wider ecology that we intend to support (not manipulating people into one commercial solution).

We are not the first ones to reach for broader respect and support for all people. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King lead the fight toward racial justice and a better society through his inspiring speeches. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (from Martin Luther King’s A Time to Break Silence speech)

Today, much is still the same. Today we do have some amazing tools: Global discussion of ideas. Many sources to learn from. The ability to create proof-of-concepts quickly as items to explore, critique, improve, and branch from. But the tools have not yet been used to achieve this. Those with power haven’t selected to invest in it. If we all get active, these tools have the potential of making the shift happen, so that fifty years from now human societies will be demonstrably more inclusive, supportive, and collaboratively creative.

Many of you are active within your organizations. I beg you to write up a short description of the approach you are using (from Matthew Voshell’s valuable experiences with trying to support innovation inside his organization) to accomplish these goals. I’m happy to do a pre-read or review. Publish it wherever you like. In fact, the editor of BoxesandArrows reached out to me asking for new authors. Tell your story so we can learn what each other is seeing.

Thought Provoking

The concept of understanding multiple points of view also applies the multiple interpretations of empathy. Lately a “war on empathy” has begun where critics claim empathy is only being used to manipulate, that it’s dangerous to make decisions based on sympathy for specific painful stories, that empathy in commercial situations actively punishes those without economic means, and that empathy is prone to bias and harmful moral judgment. These problems with empathy are real and important, but critics are asking us to abandon empathy entirely to avoid the pitfalls. It’s helpful to be aware that this is under discussion. Empathy is complex, and it takes work and practice to achieve helpful results. If someone at your organization uses these points to suggest skipping empathy entirely, point out the necessity of embracing various techniques of gathering empathy AND using other critical skills to avoid the pitfalls. It is not either-or. Here are some of the discussions in case you need references.

“If you want to be a good person there is a better way to do it. … feeling their suffering … this narrow type of empathy is a very bad moral guide. It makes us into worse people, makes the world worse.” Against Empathy Paul Bloom (in discussion with Robert Wright)

“… these days, it [empathy] often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it–to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.” Is ‘Empathy’ Really What the Nation Needs? Amanda Hess

“… human needs should be considered before business and technological needs. If a design does not meet a defined human need, then its business viability and technical feasibility don’t matter. This human-business-technology model ignores other components of design, such as sustainability, ethics, and egalitarianism. … empathy has quickly become a catch-all concept for good design and ethical action. Having empathy is not a key to design success, it just means you are not a sociopath. Real design skill is about realizing that empathy is a small part of a much larger system of influences, causes, and effects on the situation at hand.” Empathy as Faux Ethics Thomas Wendt

“The answer is not to scrub empathy but …to generalize & direct it through use of reason.” Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality Denise Dellarosa Cummins (via Christina Wodtke)

“When you spend time thinking about reasonable arguments for supporting someone else’s position, it is much harder to dismiss them.” Try This Exercise In Radical Empathy to Minimize Conflict Elizabeth Segran

“Developing empathy requires self-awareness, self-management, patience, endurance, and lots and lots of practice but you can learn it with time and dedication.” If You Can’t Empathize with Your Employees You’d Better Learn To Annie McKee

Dismissing someone’s point of view because there is a small percentage of less-powerful people who hold that view is still dismissing a human. (… assuming you’re not dismissing the small percentage of powerful people who hold a certain point of view.) “For me empathy is not simply about feeling or relating to another’s emotions, but requires understanding how those emotions were evoked and why they feel that way. While I agree it is unwise to allow empathy with one person or group of people to solely drive decision making, I don’t think you can make fully informed decisions without visiting that space and gathering the data points there. Perhaps the trick is not staying stuck in that empathetic moment.” Lucienne Kennedy (client, insurance company)

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