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Wicked Problems & Empathy (Part I)

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others…” – Marianne Williamson

The ‘mechanics’ of social innovation are difficult enough: achieving durable, transformative impact at scale to fundamentally disrupt the very system that created a wicked problem in the first place.

As a sociologist and cultural theorist, I can’t help but complicate things further by focusing on the social in social innovation – the cultural conditions and the very fabric of human relationships at play when we think about systems or breakthrough social change. By looking through a social lens, we dive even deeper into the complexity inherent in wicked problems.

A call for empathy

Two weeks ago, graduate students at the Munk School of Global Affairs decided to take this dive into the social, kicking-off the 8th Annual Munk Graduate Student Conference with a keynote address by Seán Coughlan, Chief Executive of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI), on subject of: Wicked Problems, Effective Solutions and the Role of Innovation and Empathy.

Roots of Empathy c/o Naming and Treating

Roots of Empathy c/o Naming and Treating

Seán Coughlan opened his address with a tip of the hat to Roots of Empathy, a Canadian social enterprise with a mission “to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults” that has successfully scaled out of Canada to the US, UK, Europe, and New Zealand.

The impetus for Roots of Empathy is similar to that behind a broader call to nurture empathy in society: there is a critical need to build understanding, break cycles of violence, and shift systems by opening our eyes to see, sense, and care for the networks of individuals around us.

Why are there cycles of violence or wicked problems in the first place?

Seán Coughlan shared his belief that human nature is basically good – generally, people are good. But “if a majority of people are good, why don’t we have a greater impact?”

The first answer: an absence or lack of empathy, emphasizing the critical importance of cultivating empathy among children – the driving force and goal of Roots of Empathy.

The second answer (potentially an even more broadly entrenched barrier): a fear of empathy – a fear of really walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Seán explained that this fear of empathy grows from a fear of helplessness. Empathy is ‘to understand and share the feelings of another’ – but what if we feel for someone, but feel powerless to help them? If we can’t see a solution, we are afraid to feel for the person facing the problem. Or as Seán put it, it may seem “better to be blind than feel helpless about the situation.”

It is hard to hear that articulated (or read it written) without immediately stopping to consider: “Have I done that?” Sitting in the front row of the lecture hall, I followed Seán’s train of thought one station further: our fear of empathy is likely also rooted in a fear of guilt or culpability.

What if we do understand what someone else is experiencing, what if we feel for them, but do not try to help? Or worse, what if we do understand, feel for the person, know what to do…and still do nothing?

In a way, we face these questions and their consequences every day, several times a day, beyond our own relationships or communities. Globalized communications, transportation, and information networks mean an entirely new scale of access to stories of suffering.

In sociology, there is a great deal of focus on the power of images and stories to shape our cultures and socialize our actions. The explosive and calculated use of deeply evocative images of suffering by cause-related campaigns and media (in the public, private, and social sectors) often overwhelms our compassion, while the language of globalization – and global power flows – implicates not only our role in these problems, but often (rightly or wrongly) our capacity to simply do something about it.

This can lead to pushback: ‘I can hardly handle empathizing with all the suffering in the world; I can’t be responsible for it all.’ The combination of helplessness, guilt, and responsibilization becomes an enormous deterrent to empathy, deepening our fear of opening up to empathy.

Fostering conditions for empathy

During his address, Seán Coughlan offered a way to counter this fear of helplessness: new, powerful solutions to complex problems that help us tackle these challenges and tie us to the calling of empathy to grow the solution. With this in mind, Social Enterprise Ireland focuses on the systems-changing potential of social entrepreneurs who “have the most potential to have an impact.”

Charismatic leaders and role models in and of themselves, these social entrepreneurs dare to prototype solutions to wicked problems, thereby empowering us as a society to re-engage fearlessly in empathy. Our fear can dissipate when the possibility of helplessness is erased. All the power is stripped from our fear- and guilt – by the power of the solution.

Empathy becomes an inherent cascading effect of impactful social solutions.

I like to think of it as ‘solutions-oriented empathy training’. By supporting innovative social entrepreneurs to scale their impact and reach more people, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland implicitly fosters the conditions for empathy – scaling the solutions that might just empower us to empathize with others through the possibility of positive action. 

Chicken-and-egg

The cultivation of empathy is also a fundamental step to further fostering the conditions for broader social innovation (as SiG Communications Manager Geraldine Cahill explores). Empathy is an important element of systems thinking; understanding and caring for others enables us to appreciate multiple perspectives and better understand the networks of relationships in a system. At the end of the day, social innovation and empathy are mutually constitutive.

C/O B Hartford J Strong

C/O B Hartford J Strong

Systems-change will never be the work of one person; but one person, or a small group of people, can be essential to tipping the scales on emotional norms, inspiring us to embrace, not fear, empathy. Art, literature, and films abound with the stories of these inspirational figures: they share their hope, challenge our helplessness, and invite us to welcome, care for, and share in the experiences of each other.

But not all stories get to be heard. As we begin to conquer our fear of empathy, and resolve the absence of empathy, through powerful social solutions and innovations, the next challenge will be to listen for the voices of those whose stories and experiences we don’t even know exist.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Seeding the Roots of Empathy


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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.

Exported ROE

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.

Exported ROE2

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?

SEWF

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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