Empathy as a Path to Change

Lesley D'Souza

October 5, 2016

In the wake of #Brexit I was struck by an indelible truth about what had happened. People were flabbergasted with the affirmative result of the referendum to leave the EU and kept struggling to explain it despite the army of experts who had gone on record stating that it would be ruinous to the UK. Indeed, almost anyone with a background in economics said the same thing, which is fairly unheard of. The reality that most people misunderstood about the nature of the conflict was that this was a decision that was almost entirely based on feelings rather than facts.

In student affairs we focus a lot on labelling ourselves; your Myers-Briggs type, your true colors, your Strengthsfinder top 5. We talk about people who embrace their emotions as part of the decision-making process versus those who rely on rational thought. We’ve separated the two and in many cases, placed a higher value on people, especially in professional settings, who can dissociate themselves from emotion and make “logical” decisions. (It’s interesting to note that this divide has been applied as a major difference between men and women.) Ultimately, it is a weakness and a barrier to necessary change. It’s a norm that is at the heart of catastrophic awareness campaigns that appeal with facts and logic. The Brexit “stay” campaign is one example. Another is the science community’s campaign to fight climate change. Both failed to appreciate that humans are emotional decision-makers. If these campaigns had instead focused on telling stories and infusing hope and positive feelings rather than reciting dry facts, I suspect we would have seen a different response in both cases.

The truth is that every big decision we make is based on our emotions. Regardless of how we can explain or justify the feeling we have about why it is a good choice, our most impactful decisions rest with our “gut”. By trying to remove ourselves from this truth, we are damaging our ability to mobilize as a group to tackle our most difficult problems.

“It is an ancient need to be told stories.” – Alan Rickman

Storytelling is our path to empathy. Humans evolved in small social groups that benefited from each member’s ability to care about the others. That caring was built on shared stories, learning and empathy. As our civilization’s population ballooned, we started to lose touch with each other as individuals and began to identify with those in their perceived group, and an ubiquitous everyone else. Then steps in social media technology. The vast possibilities with this new array of tools is still not fully understood or realized. It is both a barrier and a catalyst to creating empathy. The problem in most cases is that there is no push towards critical thinking and opening our mindsets to dissenting opinions. It is far more comfortable to let ourselves drift to spaces that amplify our existing thoughts and feelings, and with that, strengthen our ties to our identified communities, while increasing the gulfs between those we perceive as “others”.

I believe in our desire to be good and I have hope that we’ll eventually learn how to put these new tools to work in our favour.  I hope you’ll think about the need to connect emotionally with your community when you’re trying to effect change. The true path to change is forged with empathy, and we have a huge and transformative array of tools that we can put to good use in telling stories that people can feel. Please remember that the next time you try to explain away someone’s feelings with facts. You might be right, but if you ignore people’s feelings, everyone loses in the end.

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