Last week, a couple of workmen were at my house, helping to remove a termite nest.
It looked like it could take a couple of hours to remove the earth the little critters had built up against the water tank.
“This seems to be taking longer than expected.” I thought to myself, as I watched the workmen shift the final mornings wheelbarrow and head off for lunch.
So, pulling myself away from the laptop, I decided I would lend a hand for an hour.
3 wheelbarrows later I was done!
Like an aging bear heading for hibernation, I slumped back at my desk for a Skype call, so drenched in sweat I looked like I had stood under a power shower.
Not quite ending apartheid, but a handy insight and exercise in empathy, all the same.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, he could have come out a bitter and angry man.
Instead, he was full of acceptance and understanding.
Even though many in the white community of South Africa were still dismissing him as a terrorist, he tried to put himself in their position; to understand how they saw things. He invited his white jailer as a VIP guest to his inauguration as president, and he invited the prosecutor in the Rivonia trial to lunch. When speaking of the Afrikaners to Desmond Tutu, he said, “You can very well understand how they must be feeling.”
He reached out to them using the symbol of the South African rugby team, The Springbok, which was excoriated by many black people as a symbol of Afrikaner power.
Empathy is a powerful tool and Nelson Mandela was clearly able to cultivate a great deal of it. Empathy is a character trait that aided him in his efforts to abolish apartheid, establish multiracial elections in 1994 and go on to became South Africa’s first black president.
There is nothing new about empathy and it has always been seen as a prerequisite for social services and other similar professions.
But more recently a growing interest in emotional intelligence, in the business sector has seen an increase in coaching, training and other services to help enhance soft skills such as empathy. The ethos being, that leaders who understand their staff can be a better guide—and staff, who have leaders who understand them, tend to stick with the business.
But can empathy be taught in a classroom or are people born with it?
Clearly, the way we are brought up can influence your ability to cultivate empathy. Travelling to different countries and meeting many different people helps to break down cultural barriers and to understand different points of view. Equally, maintaining bias around gender, race or religion that has been conditioned through upbringing, can limit our ability to understand others.
There is still be an opportunity to further develop our empathy through experiential learning.
In Sam Richards’s TEDx talk, he bravely takes an audience through an exercise to open their minds and to feel empathy with members of the Iraqi insurgency. Feeling empathy with Iraqi insurgence would be challenging for anyone in this audience—it was in Pennsylvania, a state that went on to lose 200 soldiers and saw more than 1,200 injured in Iraq.
Using storytelling techniques, Sam Richards places us in the shoes of an Iraqi insurgence and the life that could lead them to kill a foreign soldier, while comparing it to the story being told by the other side. This seems quite an extreme technique but I found it quite effective.
One could conclude that a key catalyst for empathy is information. The more we know about a person and their situation, the easier it is to develop an understanding of their perspective.
This is fine when looking at a big picture, but what about the smaller stuff?
Everyday spontaneous confrontations: empathy for the warden who clamped the car!
Maybe there is a point where empathy should lie exclusively with ourselves?
However we look at it, empathy is often not easy, but can be highly effective for resolving situations and learning more about the people around us.
Author: Matt Rickard
Apprentice Editor: Renee Jahnke/ Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Image: Astrid Westvang-Flickr