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.

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Kelsey Spitz About Kelsey Spitz

Kelsey is the Senior Associate at SiG National.

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