Social Enterprise Spotlight: Seeding the Roots of Empathy

Over the course of the last 12 months I have read a plethora of articles and blog posts on the importance of empathy and the urgent need to nurture it. From Arianna Huffington’s words at the 2012 Skoll World Forum to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Project, from Bill Drayton’s article in Forbes to Paul Bloom’s more challenging piece in The New Yorker. Why the growing call?

We are moving in this world at a heightened pace, images fly at us from multiple media platforms. Tragedies from mass murder, to the drumbeats of war, to teen suicides rise in number and our hearts and minds struggle to makes sense of it all. The absence of empathy underlies the creation of these conditions; without empathy there is insufficient traction for conflict resolution. This is the problem Mary Gordon has been trying to solve since 1996 when she started Roots of Empathy.

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Mary will share her thoughts on empathy’s surprising power at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary next month. I spoke to Mary to get her thoughts on how we can foster this most beneficial and necessary trait in our communities.

With a growing chorus of people calling for the development of empathy, do you believe it is well understood?

Mary Gordon: I believe the value placed on empathy varies from country to country. For example, there are big differences between Canada and the United States. In the U.S., empathy is regarded as a soft, female trait, and is often confused with sympathy. In Canada, it is considered a desirable, non-gendered trait. So you have to begin work in a country knowing how empathy is perceived.

We know that empathy is developed by the attachment relationship between a primary parent and child. Exposing children to the experience of empathy gives them the capacity to build good relationships – it helps them learn and develop skills sets for entering adult life. Good relationships help in every aspect of life. You cannot be in a meaningful relationship with anyone unless you’re able to feel with them. In understanding this, you then realize that fostering empathy is not just the responsibility of the family, but of everyone. For example, in order to break out of the cycle of poverty we need to ensure that impoverished individuals experience empathy. That means those with power to inform policies must also operate with empathy.

What are some of the best ways we can develop empathy in ourselves and others?

Mary Gordon: One of the dreadful things I encountered overseas, was the lack of support for the bonding between child and parent. Many parents know they will lose their job if they stay home with their newborn. They are forced to give their baby to multiple people to take care of and the crucial serve-and-return exchange is undermined. One example of an empathetic Canadian policy is the extension of maternity leave to one full year. In doing that, policy makers supported a healthy attachment relationship between a baby and parent. What we haven’t done is extend it to people who don’t have benefits, which is also necessary.

If society wants to do something at a general level, they need to look at policy decisions that allow parents to spend time with their children and meet their needs. When families are well supported, there are better attachment relationships, and aggressive behavior like bullying is reduced. Empathy is about fairness. Citizens that have empathy make life fair.

Is empathy simply the ability to take the perspective of others?

Mary Gordon: Empathy is not cold cognition. It is the combination of emotional connection, understanding and care. You can be a true sociopath with the ability to take the perspective of the victim without the ability to care for what they’re feeling. For me, it’s very much a combination of the two. A little child’s brain, empathy and cognition are tightly aligned.

Sara Konrath wrote on The Empathy Paradox at the University of Michigan, after finding that there has been a dramatic decline in perspective taking and empathic concern in college students since the 1970s. She didn’t mean to have an impact but people went nuts over it. It’s a sign of the times, not just an American situation.

So we must ask: what is the difference in the landscape for children growing up? What are the policies? What are the points of connection and contagion for good or for bad?

I think you can have an impact if all of those that are trained to work with others – in corporate life, education or government – are aware of the needs of those that are learning or working with them. To be aware of an individual’s needs is to understand that at the very basic level, people desire a feeling of belonging. How do people feel like they belong? When they feel understood. It’s all about empathy.

This is a conversation about humanity.

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You have been working on Roots of Empathy since 1996, and even longer on understanding how empathy can be fostered. What gives you energy to maintain your focus in this work?

Mary Gordon: I’m not a Pollyanna in terms of optimism, but I do believe in the power of humanity to create an empathic space in which we all can live. I believe we have that capacity. I don’t think we’ll see it delivered in my lifetime and I don’t think it’s up to me. I don’t feel the weight of this on my shoulders, as long as people like you want to talk to me. And as long as people want to train for Seeds of Empathy or Roots of Empathy, they want to understand, to learn, to make things better. I feel very encouraged. I see acts of courage and hear about them every day. And I pass the stories on because they encourage people.

Someone once said to me, “It’s a curse being an innovator.” I don’t agree at all. I am very encouraged by the world I see. For every horror story I hear, I hear a positive story.

The Social Enterprise World Forum is a gathering of 1,200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you about attending the event?

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Mary Gordon: I think there is a particular surge of energy having so many people together that care about innovation. The fact that many in the audience may not have necessarily thought of empathy as a lever for change. That they’re already cued into social change and that it might help some of their initiatives to put on a lens of empathy. That by talking to all of them, it will open me up to having new relationships. I’ll get a lot of learning after the fact. It’s an electrifying group. I love talking to people that are switched on. I think that’s going to be great fun.

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Geraldine Cahill About Geraldine Cahill

Manager, Programs and Partnerships, SiG National

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