How many of the world’s problems are to do with a lack of empathy? Racism, Trumpism, cancel culture, the calls for Brexit and the dismissal of those who call for Brexit. Growing polarisation and the inability to relate across ideological divides – these are hallmarks of our current culture. I wonder how much would be different if we were better at cultivating the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives?
Roman Krznaric describes empathy as “stepping into someone else’s shoes, gaining an understanding of their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide our actions.”
This is different from sympathy, which is about feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is more about understanding, seeing things through someone else’s eyes and coming to appreciate their feelings and thoughts. Some people appear to be naturally good at this, and Krznaric sets out to investigate what the characteristics of highly empathic people might be. If we can identify what it is that makes some people more empathic, perhaps we can all nurture it more in ourselves and in our culture.
Dipping into psychological research, the book describes how deliberately trying to understand other people’s perspectives can reduce xenophobia, or build support for marginalised groups. It can make you a better designer, because you can anticipate the needs of others. It has an important role in counselling and in repairing broken relationships. It can break down individualism, and drawing us out of our own preoccupations is a proven way to live a more content and fulfilled life. So empathy could be a “powerful tool that can both create radical social change, and give greater depth and meaning to our lives.”
The book then explores six ‘habits of highly empathic people’, with chapters on using our imaginations, seeking immersive experiences, or the art of good conversation. These habits are explored using stories and examples. There’s the radio soap opera that runs in Rwanda and tells stories across traditional ethnic divides. George Orwell and his experiments in living as a homeless person in order to write about poverty with authenticity. We read about how the evacuation of children from the cities during the Second World War brought home urban poverty to wealthier rural families, changing politics in Britain. Or the Quakers, and how they have used empathy as a tool in the abolition movement or in peace-building.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Krznaric’s writing. He’s something of a magpie for anecdotes, historical details, unusual connections. He’s an enthusiast for his subject, and is ready to try new things himself – such as founding the experimental Empathy Museum, for example, to test the book’s hypothesis.
Some readers are going to be sceptical about what empathy might acheive. Some are going to be suspicious of the whole idea, seeing empathy as an inherently soft and nebulous concept – though Krznaric has read the critiques of empathy and is not blind to its limitations. I suspect most readers will find a handful of things to try, possibly new habits to trial, and certainly plenty to think about. And I’m pretty sure that if empathy was cultivated more purposefully, in education and in politics in particular, the world would be a much better place.
That’s why I wanted to mention it on the blog, when it might appear outside the usual topics – the struggle for climate justice, for reclaiming democracy and a sense of the common good, for reducing inequality – all of these could benefit from more empathy.