Immersion Ideas: The transformational potential of empathy
After exploring the notion of ‘empathy’, Nathan Wiltshire shares his insights from facilitating a range of empathy experiences between unlikely collaborators across the world. This work, developed over several years of research and practice, seeks to guide willing people to overcome the many challenges presented in understanding others, with transformative learning that advances empathy into action. Read on to discover transformative empathy journeys from classrooms to villages in India! This article originally appeared in “Empathy Experiences” blog.
Invariably I begin classroom discussions the same way. “Tell me… Empathy… What does this mean to you?”. The response is all too predictable. The more eager students will respond almost instantaneously… “Yes, I know it! It’s putting yourself in another’s shoes!”. The more adventurous students might go on to suggest, “feeling someone’s pain”, or perhaps “it’s when we help others, supporting those less fortunate”. And I sigh a little inside, as like most I teach they are ill prepared for the depth and complexity before them. Before rolling up my sleeves, settling in for the long road ahead. For I know that empathy is scarcely reflected in these simplified, popularised slogans.
Herein lies a fundamental issue faced by those seeking a more empathic world. While it is a simple and catchy metaphor, in reality understanding others has little to do with shoes. Underneath this oversimplification, empathy is a multifarious, rapidly advancing concept. Muddying the waters are conflicting voices from mind science, social science and philosophy fields, as to the very nature of empathy.
To some it might seem overly academic to place so much importance on a definition. Yet, unless we are clear about the topic being debated we are effectively comparing oranges to apples and therefore unlikely to progress theory towards tangible actions.
Empathy, when two people create understanding for one-another.
To me, empathy involves the process of two people creating understanding for each other. In a deconstructed sense, this involves sharing affective emotional experience, elements of personal sense making, and constructing the perspective of the other person. This final component reflects cognitive empathy. For the purpose of this article I will refer to this process as ‘empathy’.
This discussion comes from several years of research, both in theory and practice beyond the classroom. I am not alone in suggesting there are several components of empathy to master along with many challenges anyone aspiring to empathise must overcome. [i] For a start, there are a number of self-related hurdles including bias, judgment, and the danger of becoming self-full. With these pitfalls averted, to be best positioned for empathy, people must represent their empathic understanding in some tangible form. What use is empathy if it cannot be demonstrated and therefore leads to nothing? Under these conditions, for many people it falls into the ‘soft skill’ category capable of nice ‘warm-and-fuzzy’ feelings. In my view, this is a great tragedy as empathy is much more; it is an essential capability for study, work and life in general, that can be taught, applied and demonstrated.
Complexity of understanding others provides immense challenges along with potential for growth.
When I began this work in 2013, I set about researching the topic of empathy from every academic angle. With over 250,000 peer reviewed academic journals, 13,000 already published this year alone, I had dived headlong into a massive body of knowledge and given myself a long reading list! What struck me was the great diversity of discussion channelled through empathy, from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, design and many more academic fields. Taking lessons from each, I developed two approaches to teach adults empathy and related capabilities, in classrooms and the world around us.
While these experiences have given many interesting insights into empathy and humanity in general, I have found a few fundamental aspects showing themselves time and again. In particular, when people begin a path towards empathy, some sort of change or evolution takes place within those people involved. In essence, as two people spend time together, they learn things about each other in-the-moment and themselves in-reflection, before creating a new understanding on a given topic or situation. Ultimately, this provides the potential for a future different to if they had not sought empathy in the first place.
Change the world (and yourself) with empathy!
Perhaps this is obvious, though it is worth pointing out as something I have witnessed countless times teaching empathy in classrooms and encouraging students to get out into the world and apply empathy-related skills for real. You might be thinking; why does this matter? Given the challenges of fostering more empathy in the world, it’s crucial to begin seeing empathy as a clear set of capabilities that can be taught. Furthermore, if we accept that transformation is required, learning institutions will be motivated to take additional steps to teach empathy, moving beyond the popularised, simplistic notions mentioned earlier. Educators cannot take this change, or transformation, towards empathy for granted. To support this paradigm shift it is crucial to explore how transformation occurs, create innovative approaches to facilitate empathy amongst people from all different walks of life, and support such efforts towards tangible social impacts.
Last month I had the pleasure of attending the European Association for International Education (EAIE) conference in Geneva, invited to share experimental findings on empathy as a platform for internationalised education. Reflecting the amazing array of empathy experiences over the years, as already alluded to, the team and I created a model to demonstrate our transformational empathy journeys.
Introducing Transformational Empathy Journeys from Classrooms to Villages in India
The model (see below) represents ideas on how one might go about building empathy at universities and in local communities by encouraging empathic interactions, and moving into deeper territory with immersive empathy experiences at a global scale. This graphic was developed with wonderful designs from university student, Declan Gamma. As a recent program participant, Declan features in a case study example in partnership with village leader, Sitaram. In summary, I propose eight key steps for educating adults on empathy, which are inter-related but not necessarily always linear in practice. Without a doubt, the best outcomes in terms of transformation and social impact tend to emerge following immersion experiences.
Some insights from facilitating empathy experiences
The more time I spend working with people from all backgrounds in classrooms and in villages in India the more I see the value of empathy. In the interests of readability I summarise and discuss five insights from these experiences. In sharing this work, I hope to inspire others to pursue empathy teaching and learning, to encourage more collaborations and empathy-related research.
Insight #1: Empathy can be taught to anyone, including adults of all ages
There is growing evidence that empathy is declining, including amongst young adults.[ii] In my experience, it is not because people are disinterested in the topic or incapable of learning empathy. Furthermore, learning is not influenced by gender, despite the ongoing inference that empathy is somehow inclined towards females. Furthermore, this potential is not restricted to youth. I have enjoyed collaborating with many people in their 40s and 50s, many becoming top performing students in my classes. In my experience, when confronting empathy journeys, men and women of all ages have similar challenges, within their own personal context. Similarly, both genders have the same potential for powerful transformative outcomes when overcoming these struggles. Instead, I suggest that declining empathy is a symptom of a lack of formal opportunities to learn empathy and related skills.
A common misperception exists that empathy is one concept although it is actually dozens of disparate but inter-related ideas supported by research from several academic dimensions. In my experience, few students are perfect at all aspects; with most students requiring expert and peer support in areas they find personally challenging. I see two key variables in someone’s ability to learn empathy; firstly, suitable learning environments, and secondly; the pedagogical approach. University seems to provide the ideal environment for transformational experiences, as the process of being a student often leads people to discover more about themselves and the world in general. It is a time most are likely to be open to new ways of thinking. Why not begin to see the world through an empathy lens!
Insight #2: Learning empathy requires first-hand experience supported by ‘flipped’ classrooms
In technology-driven societies people are bombarded with self-help-style messages, whether it be keeping up with the latest trends, needing to be fit and healthy, do more to save the planet and so on. It’s easy to become desensitised to it all, with messages relating to empathy falling by the wayside. There are plenty of TED-style talks on empathy, some inspiring, while others are a type of sugar-hit packaged in a kitschy twelve-minute visual bonanza! I believe that more substance is needed, to inspire people in a more sustained, empowering way that is more likely to bring about action and impact.
With this in mind I created workshops that take empathy-related theories and turn them into methods to be applied in the real world beyond the classroom. Taking a ‘flipped’ approach to pedagogy,[iii] students take empathy concepts and apply them with their family or local community, before returning to the classroom with first-hand experience of empathy-related concepts.[iv] These experiences form the basis for classroom discussions, peer and expert guidance and make-sense for continued learning. This works best when we foster a safe space for sharing that allows students to fail, gather feedback from peers and experts, adjust their approach and transform thinking.
From this approach students make personally relevant foundations for a deeper, authentic connection to taught content. This is reflected in the many students I speak to, sometimes years later, sharing tales of continued empathy-related activities and personal transformation, with significant positive impacts on themselves, their families, and their communities. Read examples here.
Below see images from Empathy Experience’s workshops hosted at major universities.
Insight #3: Empathy starts with the right type of intentions
With the popularisation of empathy, I see some interesting claims of empathy-in-action, such as marketers seeking to understand customers, or banks seeking to be customer-centric. Most of these examples do not reflect empathy and there’s a simple reason why. The understanding is sought with intentions that act as a barrier to empathy. Neuroscientists suggest that for perspective taking to be possible, people must be motivated by one or more positive pro-social intentions; for example a desire for greater affiliation, a positive effect, and social desirability.[v] It is inconceivable that profit-focused organisations, with budgets, sales targets and the like, would genuinely embody such positive intentions. At the end of the day, empathy is two people coming together to develop understanding for each other, with the foundation of genuine positive intention to benefit the other.
When it comes to teaching empathy, I am often asked how to select participants, particularly for the more demanding India Immersion program. How do I know if someone will succeed in developing empathy with villagers? Is there a particular skill required or should they be experienced travellers? The answer is, intention. In my experience rarely is someone motivated by one clear factor, instead there are likely to be a range of intentions including self-orientated and self-less components. Adding to this complexity, it seems intentions are not static and can evolve over time. For example, a participant may be initially motivated by self-full intentions, such as fulfilling degree requirements or ticking India “off their bucket-list”. While, this initial stance is far from optimal for empathy, new intentions can emerge as community relationships are established and friendships flourish, finding connection and developing passion for the community. This transformation in turn increases empathic concern and the likelihood of moral actions by the participant [vi] towards social impact outcomes in partnership with the local community.
Insight #4: Empathy requires mastering the self-full versus self-less paradox
An essential element of empathy is recognising a difference between our own thoughts, emotions and those of others.[vii] Complicating this is the Self, projecting our own personal socialisation experiences, influences of education and cultural beliefs for the purpose of making sense of new experiences, this includes when seeking to empathise with others. To become aware of this requires a layered approach to self-reflection and self-development. In my work in India, this process occurs when living in a unique environment, mostly disconnected from technology, with activities designed to facilitate interactions with villagers followed by individual self-reflection. This seeks to create a new sense of self-connectedness between student and village partner.[viii] It is wonderful when I see people gain new self-awareness! It seems to empower people with confidence to interact with others from an entirely different culture and way of life.
As participants become self-aware it can lead to self-centredness or what I call ‘self-full’ behaviour. Herein lies the paradox; under this condition it becomes difficult to separate our self from what we see in others. If this fails participants can begin to project self-orientated understanding such as sympathy, can suffer from personal distress, and view others with pity, a form of de-humanised perception.[ix] These are all significant barriers to empathy.
Selflessness provides an ideal counter balance. The team and I have experimented with the traditional Indian concept of Seva. When viewed in a social context, as popularised by the Indian freedom movement, Seva refers to be in selfless service of others.[x][xi] We found that undertaking regular acts of Seva meant participants began to demonstrate greater ability to switch between self-aware and self-less. In addition, a newfound ability for selflessness can reinforce positive intention when the going gets tough towards the end of three weeks of village experience. This seeds the realisation that continued effort is an opportunity to support social impact in the host community, a purpose bigger than the individual and their minor personal struggles.
Insight #5: Empathy transformation creates social impact, which must be reflected by tangible representation
Some of the most impressive empathy transformations I have witnessed have taken place in the most unexpected ways, between people coming from polar opposites in terms of lifestyle, education and culture. Furthermore, I have seen countless examples of villagers gaining new confidence as an empathy approach places the highest regard to local knowledge and wisdom from their experience of daily village life. By facilitating authentic empathy experiences we see mutual respect emerge, a powerful force to create renewed energy to overcome inertia and acceptance amongst communities that little can be done to solve engrained issues. This is the shaping of a new, shared reality, [xii] whereby some philosophers believe a tangible form must be represented for empathy to exist. [xiii]
My experiences in the field support this notion, that it is not sufficient to proclaim empathy without demonstrating it. If settling for less these activities fall into the same trap of vagueness mentioned earlier. Not only that, but representing empathy in a tangible way creates a level of transparency in thoughts, a type of self-filter for assumptions and bias. With this, the other person sees the full extent of understanding and can respond in-kind. This might sound simple but is incredibly powerful.
Empathy can be demonstrated in many ways, from simple actions like sharing stories that reflect new perspectives. Read examples here. However, storytelling is often just the starting point! I have been a part of several empathy experiences that sparked social impact projects in villages, founded on new collaborations between student participants, villagers and our local team. It seems that once new understanding is formed, those involved are driven to do something about it, to fulfil positive transformation for themselves and others. Across the many villages I have worked people are not wanting charity, they simply need understanding and respect from outside, to nourish within, and forge their own futures.
Below see images from Drishtee Immersion’s India program of empathy and social innovation.
From classrooms to villages in India, time and again I have witnessed empathy as a powerful catalyst for positive change. What steps will you take to transform yourself and your community with empathy?
[i] Batson, D. (2009) “These things called empathy: eight related but distinct phenomena”, in Decety, J. & Ickes, W. eds. The Social Neuroscience of Empathy”, MIT Press, London.
[ii] Zarins, S. & Konrath, S. (2017) “Changes over time in compassion-related variables in the United States”, in Seppala, E. eds. Handbook of Compassion Science, Oxford University Press, London.
[iii] Crouch, C. & Mazur, P. (2001) “Peer instruction: ten years of experience and results”, American Association of Physics Teachers, Vol. 69, Iss. 9, Pp. 970.
[iv] Hall, A. & DuFrene, D. (2016) “Best practices for launching a flipped classroom”, Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, Vol. 79, Iss. 2, Pp. 234.
[v] Zaki , J. (2014) “Empathy: a motivated account”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 140, Iss. 6, Pp. 1608.
[vi] Hollan, D. (2014) “Empathy and morality in ethnographic perspective”, in Maibom, H. eds. Empathy and Morality, Oxford University Press, London.
[vii] Zaki, J, & Ochsner, K. (2011) “You, me, and my brain: Self and other representations in social cognitive neuroscience”, in Todorov, A, Fiske, S. & Prentice, D. eds. Social neuroscience: Toward understanding the underpinnings of the social mind”, Oxford University Press, New York.
[viii] Zahavi, D. (2015) “Self and other: from pure ego to co-constituted we”, Continental Philosophy Review, Vol. 48, Iss. 2, Pp. 143.
[ix] Harris. L. & Fiske, S. (2009) “The social neuroscience evidence for dehumanised perception”, European Review of Social Psychology, Vol. 20, Iss. 1, Pp. 192.
[x] Srivastan, R. (2006) “Concept of ‘Seva’ and the ‘Sevak’ in the freedom movement”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, Iss. 5, Pp. 427.
[xi] Ciotti, M. (2012) “Resurrecting Seva (social service): Dalit and low-caste women party activists as producers and consumers of political culture and practice in urban northern India”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 71, Iss. 1, Pp. 149.
[xii] Ratcliffe, M. 2012 “Phenomenology as a form of empathy”, Inquiry, Vol. 55, Iss. 5, Pp. 473.
[xiii] Zahavi, D. 2014 “Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy and Shame”, Oxford University Press, London.