The power of empathy

“What would Madonna do?” – an example of a type of question you might ask if you’re stuck with an idea and need to look at it from a different perspective. Obviously you can substitute Madonna for a variety of people/things e.g. a teenager, Nelson Mandela, a robot, an organic farmer…The key is to consciously step outside yourself and take a different viewpoint.

This led me to wonder whether people with strong empathy skills (i.e. more easily able to step outside themselves and see the other viewpoint) would be better equipped for coming up with new ideas.

To consider this I needed to break down what exactly the skills of empathy are. Fortunately, I discovered that Roman Krznaric has already done this, and gave a great talk about it at the RSA.

The six ‘habits’ Roman talks about are:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers.
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
  3. Experiential empathy.
  4. Practise the art of conversation.
  5. Inspire mass action and social change.
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination.

These habits seem to me to be fundamental to idea development. To start with, being curious about others and having good conversations would certainly open you up to new ideas/connections. Then, an ambitious imagination about, for example, the future could help spark ideas/inspiration. Also, challenging prejudices helps to open up new ways of thinking about a problem. Whereas discovering commonalities can help bring together previously unrelated issues to solve a problem. Getting experiential – really trying out what it’s like to live how someone else lives is a rich and powerful way to inspire ideas. And all of these habits could create an idea which would lead to social change.

Everybody would agree that empathy is a good thing. But perhaps this very simple, human ability, when actively practised could power meaningful, deep ideas and change.

Do you think empathy should be more actively practised? Which of the habits do you currently practise or would like to practise? Can empathy power change?

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