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The Power of Empathetic Thought

We spend a lot of time talking about self-reflection, self-improvement, and self-discovery. But in his latest book, Empathy, author Roman Krznaric suggests that all this self-obsession might be one of the reasons we all struggle as a culture to find happiness. As the title of his book suggests, Krznaric explains that empathy, “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions,” might actually be a better path. And we have the biology to back it up.

Krznaric—who holds a PhD in political sociology and is the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum—weaves together compelling research and narratives to illustrate that empathy is critical not only to our happiness but to human survival. And more poignantly, he explains that everything we’ve been taught for the past 300+ years by people like Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud—that we are self-motivated, self-interested, self-preserving—might be quite wrong. He argues that we are actually innately empathic beings and that it is time to move from the Cartesian age of “I think, therefore I am,” to an empathic era of “You are, therefore I am.” Below, we asked him more about what this means.

A Q&A with Roman Krznaric

Q

You call the 20th-century the Age of Introspection: “The era in which the self-help industry and therapy culture promoted the idea that the best way to understand who you are and how to live was to look inside yourself and focus on your own feelings, experiences, and desires.” In opposition to this, you say that we should create a new Age of Outrospection—but you also acknowledge that we shouldn’t completely reject introspection. What’s the balance?

A

I think we need to recognize that empathy—the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world through their eyes—is actually a really smart and interesting route to self-reflection. It’s a way of discovering who you are by discovering the lives of other people.

Let me give you an example. I used to walk past a homeless guy for years near where I live in Oxford. He was always muttering crazily to himself and wore no shoes in the snow. I never thought we’d have much in common and I never bothered to talk to him. But one day I did. I found out, to my utter surprise, that he had a degree in philosophy from Oxford University, and we subsequently developed a friendship based on our mutual interest in moral philosophy and pepperoni pizza. But I also learned how much I’m full of assumptions and stereotypes about people—I was completely mistaken about this guy! So my attempt to empathize with him, and hear his voice and story, was a route to personal self-understanding for me. I think this shows us that all that Freudian inner searching needs to be balanced with a bit of empathic “Outrospection.” Both are useful ways of exploring who we are, and who we want to be.

Q

You cover some incredible and brilliant examples of empathy throughout history. Who is your number one, empathetic hero?

A

I’m a big fan of the American product designer Patricia Moore, who actually features in the opening of my book. Back in the 1970s, aged 26, she disguised herself as an 85-year-old woman: She put on fogged up glasses, bound her hands to simulate having arthritis, and wore uneven shoes so she hobbled. She then spent three years going up and down subways stairs, opening department store doors, and using tin openers with her bound hands—things like that—to find out what it might be like to be an octogenarian. As a result of her empathy immersion she came up with brilliant inventions, like those thick, rubber-handled tin openers and other utensils that can be used by people with arthritic hands (i.e., the Oxo Good Grip).

She showed how empathy is a cornerstone of smart design. Her latest project is designing rehabilitation centers for U.S. war veterans with missing limbs or brain injuries so they can relearn to live independently, doing everything from buying groceries to using a cash machine.

Q

Throughout the book, you suggest that you’re weary of social media. Is this primarily because it promotes self-obsession?

A

Empathy in the digital world is a big challenge. Most social networking apps are designed to connect us with people who are similar to ourselves—sharing our taste in music or films, for example. My hope is that the next generation of apps will be just as good at connecting us with strangers.

A good prototype is a “speaking exchange” project which used a simple online video platform. It enabled teenagers in Brazil, who wanted to learn English from a native speaker, to get their lessons from elderly people living in a care home in Chicago who were lonely and wanted people to talk to. Brilliant! This is the kind of digital project that really builds empathy across cultures, and it would be great if more people got involved in this kind of thing.

On a more personal level, I think we need to move beyond the emotionally illiterate world of online “like” buttons. If you see, via Facebook or other platforms, that a friend has done something interesting or has gone through something tough, like a family death, don’t just “like” their post or write a one-line comment. Phone them or Skype them and have a real human interaction.

Q

We were fascinated by the Roots of Empathy class you describe—which is taught by a baby(!) and which more than half a million children aged five to twelve have participated in. How do we teach our children to be empathetic?

A

Most children develop empathy naturally: by the age of two or three they have the capacity to see things from the perspectives of others. But we can bring out their latent empathic potential by teaching empathy in the classroom. The Roots of Empathy program is fabulous, and now operates from the age of around three upwards. A class adopts a real live baby for the year and on regular visits the kids sit around the baby discussing “Why is she crying?” or “Why is she laughing?” or “What’s she thinking or feeling?” They’re trying to step into the baby’s shoes. They then use this as a jumping off point for discussing what it might be like to be bullied in the playground or be someone in a wheelchair. This kind of program has superb results: It reduces schoolyard bullying, increases cooperation, and even raises general academic attainment. I think empathy should be a school subject in the same way science or geography is.

Q

We’ve all been guilty of glancing at a devastating photo or hearing a horrific news story in the background and then simply continuing to go about our day. Is this something we should feel bad about? How do we avoid “empathy fatigue” without becoming emotionally overwhelmed?

A

It’s true that all those images of suffering in the media can leave us fatigued or numb. But occasionally they still have real power, like the recent photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. It sparked a mass outpouring of empathy, moral outrage, and led to people taking to the streets to demand their governments open their borders to refugees. What really brings such images to life, and can help overcome our fatigue, is if we hear someone’s personal story. We need to recognize a part of our own lives in theirs. While we can hear their story in the media itself—for instance in a news interview—the best way is a face-to-face encounter. As John Steinbeck wrote, “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.”

Q

You make the case that empathy can be a collective phenomenon, and that climate change presents the greatest contemporary empathy challenge for us all. You say that you feel hopeful on this issue—can you explain a little bit about why?

A

I’m a pessimist and an optimist. On the one hand, human beings are pretty terrible at empathizing with future generations—what it might be like to be a teenager living in a climate-changed world in Los Angeles or Delhi or Shanghai in 2100. On the other hand, we see important movements like 350.org which are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to take action. Such movements are an inspiration. We’re gradually realizing that we need to step into the shoes of future generations and of people who are being hit by the impacts of climate change right now, such as drought-struck farmers. The good news is that empathy education programs like Roots of Empathy actually enhance ecological awareness.

Q

In your book, you explain that we have the capability to expand our empathetic potential. Can you give us your elevator pitch on becoming more empathetic?

A

1. Practice Empathetic Listening. If you are arguing with your husband, wife, or partner, focus on two things: What are their feelings? and What are their needs? Giving them a chance to express their feelings and needs is a powerful way to reduce tension in tough situations. It really works. Even if you can’t always reach agreement, ultimately we just want to know we’ve been listened to.

2. Cultivate Curiosity About Strangers. Having a conversation with a stranger at least once a week is a good prescription for empathic health. Talk to the guy who sells you a newspaper each day, or the quiet librarian living across the street. And make sure you get beyond superficial talk and discuss the stuff that really matters in life: love, death, ambition, hope…

Q

We’ve never been more connected, there are only six degrees of separation between each of us, I’m only a phone call away, etc. But you write that spatial distance is still a barrier to the spread of empathy. Why is that?

A

Though spatial distance is a problem, I don’t see it as fundamental. Yes, it’s true that we might more easily care about the old lady next door who has broken her leg than for a Syrian refugee. But we can walk straight past a homeless guy who lives on our street just as easily as we can empathize with a stranger who has been in an earthquake in a faraway country, as long as we can hear their personal story in the news. The real question is not how near or distant people are, but how to give them individuality.

Q

We heard you launched your Empathy Museum—the world’s first! Can you tell us a bit about it?

A

The Empathy Museum is an international traveling exhibition designed to help you step into the shoes of other people and understand their lives. Our opening project, which launched in London in September, was called A Mile In My Shoes. It was a giant shoe box on the banks of the River Thames, and when you walked in you were fitted with the shoes of stranger—maybe the boots of a sewage worker, the size-12 high heels of a bearded drag queen, or the loafers of an ex-prisoner. You then were able to literally walk a mile wearing their shoes while listening to an audio narrative of their life. This exhibit is now on its way to Australia, where it will appear as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. We’re planning to take it to Beirut, Singapore, and Brazil, and will be collecting new shoes and stories along the way. Wouldn’t it be great if it went to North American too? How about a giant empathy shoe box in Time Square or on Santa Monica Boulevard?

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