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Empathy as a Path to Change

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Photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via Unsplash.com

Originally posted on ryersonstudentaffairs.com on August 12, 2016.

In the wake of the furor over #Brexit, I was struck by an indelible truth about what had happened. Most were flabbergasted with the affirmative result of the referendum to leave the EU and struggled to explain the result that occurred 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.

As humans, we tend to enjoy labelling ourselves; Myers-Briggs types, True Colours, Strengthsfinder top 5, etc. We sort personalities based on those who embrace their emotions as part of the decision-making process versus those who rely on rational thought. This separation has, 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, this dissociation between emotions and good decision-making 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 and ignore our emotions. 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, even if we profess not to be. If these campaigns had instead focused on telling stories that infused hope and positive feelings rather than reciting dry facts, I suspect we would have seen a different response from the populous in both cases. The good news is that we’re starting to realize this, and “Emotional Intelligence” or EQ is becoming more and more recognized as a key skill in transformative leaders.

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, because we will always fail to appeal to the emotions of the masses. Which is the key to making change.

“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 subgroups, and a ubiquitous “everyone else”. Then stepped 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 make 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 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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© Copyright 2016 - Lesley D'Souza * Photos by Katherine Holland Photography