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  • Writer's pictureDiana Palmerín Velasco

How Far Can Empathy Take You?

Empathy has become one of those buzzwords that many people use, but few take a critical stance on. At its most basic level, empathy evokes the idea of “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes” or having the ability to understand and share the feelings and emotions of someone else. In recent years, empathy has been recognized as an essential component of effective leadership. Empathy is now not only considered an individual trait; there’s an empathy index that quantifies the success of corporations in creating empathetic cultures. How valid and reliable this index is remains subject to debate.

As a cross-cultural dialogue facilitator and an EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) practitioner, I have witnessed the possibilities for understanding and action once authentic and hard-felt empathy has been set in motion. Is empathy easily found? Not in my experience. Can empathy be taught through a two hours leadership course? I doubt it. Is empathy enough to address systemic inequality and exclusion? Definitely not!

Research has found that humans tend to empathize more easily with people they like and who are similar to themselves. The outgroup empathy gap is a cognitive bias that makes people more likely to empathize with those they identify with and view as part of their in-group. Beyond debates around the desirability and effectiveness of empathy[1], could it be that selective empathy easily becomes another expression for prejudice and discrimination?

Current simplified versions of empathy rarely highlight the amount of work required to truly and authentically develop the ability to share someone else’s emotions. How can I put myself in the shoes of someone whose context and experiences are completely foreign to me? How to be aware and mitigate the outgroup empathy gap? How to ensure empathy is followed by constructive action? There are no simple answers to these questions. However, there are a few points to have in mind if your goal is to strengthen your ability to empathize with others and take meaningful action to address some of today’s most pressing challenges.

· Empathy requires work

To truly share someone else’s emotions and feelings requires understanding and this understanding usually comes from awareness and education. If we don’t intentionally seek to become familiar with other peoples’ contexts and experiences, how will we be able to empathize with them? Think about the composition of your in-groups, the exposure you have had to other cultures and other ways of being. Be curious and use this curiosity to increase your understanding of and familiarity with people who have different experiences from yours.

· Empathy requires humility

You can read books, watch films and have meaningful conversations with a wide variety of people. However, no intellectual exercise will ever come close to the understanding derived from lived experience. Empathy has its limits, and a good degree of humility is needed to accept that as much as you have read about sexism or racism, if you haven’t experienced them yourself your understanding of these issues remains limited. Furthermore, experiences are highly contextual, positionality and intersectionality play an important role.

· Empathy is just the beginning and not the end goal

If your goal is to become a more empathetic individual, I suggest being clear about your intrinsic motive. Perhaps you are interested in better understanding the feelings of racialized employees at your organization, but how will you use this understanding? Empathy without an objective significantly diminishes its potential for good.

I believe empathy is a powerful tool for allyship. By allyship I mean the lifelong process of building strong relationships and working in solidarity with individuals and groups from underserved communities. Strong relationships require consistency, accountability, and trust. You might be able to understand and share the feelings of your racialized employees, but if you don’t apply this understanding to effect and advocate for change, empathy on its own, will not take you very far.

[1] For those interested in a critical view of the effectiveness of empathy in regards to moral action and deliberation refer to Paul Bloom (2016) “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion”.

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