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A thoughtful ramble about empathy and kindness

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Children take part in an empathy programme, Toronto#451052243 / gettyimages.com

A while back, I had a fascinating conversation with a good friend about empathy and kindness. ‘Do you have to have empathy for someone in order to be kind?’ ‘Are empathetic people more likely to be kind?’ (‘no’ and ‘yes’ are my short answers).

I have just been reminded of this conversation because I received a link to an animation from the RSA, all about empathy as an agent for social change. It’s wonderful and I highly recommend watching it. Why? Because I believe that empathy is one of the most under-rated human characteristics. It is the number one factor in helping improve personal relationships and communication. It is one of the most useful tools in professional life too – being empathetic with colleagues and ‘customers’ will give you a key to unlock potential.

So, what is empathy? My dictionary says: ‘The ability to share and understand the feelings of others’. I would add another, less concise, element – being able and willing to step outside my own perspective and prejudices (perhaps momentarily) in order to gain that understanding.

It can be an uncomfortable thing. How many of you have those really unwelcome moments of affective empathy, where you mirror someone else’s emotions? I’ve been in appraisals where I’ve had to give fairly difficult feedback and the appraisee has burst into tears. I have to work hard not to cry myself because the mere fact of seeing someone in distress makes me well up. That’s uncomfortable, particularly when that feedback needs to be given and heard in order for performance to improve. The interesting thing about the RSA animation was that it showed the difference between this ‘affective empathy’ and ‘cognitive empathy’, where you step outside your own perspective to understand others’ world view.

This isn’t easy. I’m empathetic and have a natural tendency to want to understand how someone is feeling, share that and act accordingly. But what about trying to understand and step into the world view of someone who has just voted UKIP? I’m ashamed that we have such a swell of people in this country that want to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ and retreat from the wider world. How can I feel empathy for people who believe that immigrants are spoiling our country rather than enhancing it? How can I empathise with anyone who votes for pulling out of a union that has improved our human rights and gives us around half our export trade?

I don’t think I can answer that one. It’s probably something I need to work on. When I find it easy to empathise with someone who is very different to me (for example, the homeless guy I pass in the street fairly often), I act with kindness and compassion. I chat to Tom because it must be lonely sitting on the pavement while everyone else hurries to work. Sure, I give him money and hot chocolate, but I’m pretty sure it’s the chat that matters most. But I don’t go far outside my comfort zone. I really struggle to empathise with what I see are narrow, bigoted views.

So, back to the original questions. I don’t think you have to have empathy in order to be kind. I saw a chap in the underground recently, who had his son in a buggy and was dithering at the bottom of the escalator. I simply asked if he wanted me to help carry it up. I didn’t need empathy at all. I just offered a helping hand up the stairs. He was grateful because he was young and shy and hadn’t liked to ask anyone. My empathy kicked in as we chatted, not before I was kind.

Are empathetic people more likely to be kind? Yes, I think they are. The people I know who seem to be missing the empathy gene tend to do less for others. They seem to be more selfish and more concerned with their own situation than others’. They are not bad people by any stretch but they ask fewer questions about how others are feeling and are less interested in their opinions. Often, these are people I might have fun with but don’t turn to as a true friend.

On a personal level, empathy makes people feel less lonely and more cared for. On a global scale, a lack of empathy collides with an inability to concede an element of power and perpetuates fear and misery. People starve in Syria because leaders won’t let in aid to ‘rebel-held’ areas; Palestinian families are deprived of an income because a wall divides their land; in Sudan a woman is destined to receive 100 lashes and the death penalty because she wants a Christian marriage.

These situations raise the question of whether power itself reduces empathy. I can’t answer that but I’m pretty sure it does. In order to survive in global power structures, empathy probably just ‘gets in the way’. If so, then THAT is what we have to change. I can’t claim to have a clue how we change it but we can all start by introducing more empathy into our own lives and letting it guide our actions.

We need more kindness in the world. We need more compassion. So my challenge to you this week is to increase your empathy and make a change in just one area of your life. Let me know how it goes!

Here’s the animation

By Carole Scott