The Empathy Challenge

The challenge of empathy is that it requires us to overcome our own convenient mental shortcuts.

“He’s just disorganized.”

“She is so rigid.”

“They are biased.”

“They don’t care about disadvantaged people.”

These shortcuts are the opposite of empathy, which is defined as “vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Surely someone else doesn’t feel they are disorganized, rigid, biased, or uncaring.

Our first step towards finding empathy is to see our mental shortcuts for what they are: they save us the trouble of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, helping us box in and simplify another complex human being.

Our next step is to work to see and hear the story they tell themselves about themselves.

This story is, of course, a positive one.

“I am flexible, nimble and creative.”

“I am structured and diligent.”

“I’ve been around the block, and I’m not naïve.”

“I value hard work above all.”

What are the truly good, worthwhile things they are in favor of? What are the values they cherish?

Our empathy breakthroughs ultimately come when we understand the values someone else is fighting for.

We are all protagonists in our own story.

Walking a Mile…

Easy to say that we sometimes walk a mile in others’ shoes.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we rarely take on that full mile, it’s often just a short leg.

And, even though we mostly just dip in, do we ever find ourselves saying, “Ah yes, things from this perspective look exactly as I expected them to.”

It’s OK, we cannot help but be protagonists for what and how we see things and for our own lived experience.

But we can notice how, time and again, it is only one perspective.

We can notice how it is nearly impossible to overdo understanding other points of view.

And we can remember that the only tickets that consistently get us from here to there are listening with deep curiosity, and having strong opinions that we hold loosely.

Layers

The pavement on the cross-streets between 9th and 7th avenues between 14th and 23rd streets have been stripped for the past month. The first step here is milling, which takes off the top layer of asphalt in preparation for repaving, and, maybe because the city is in the midst of filling nearly 300,000 potholes, these streets have remained exposed and bumpy for weeks.

Here’s what it’s looked like.

Layers

In these few weeks, we’ve gotten to see what lies underneath: layers of patching, the old covering of potholes, extra asphalt around manholes. Sometimes even the cobblestone, which must be nearly 100 years old, is exposed, making me wonder if any more paving lies between that and the sewer system.

It’s a hodgepodge that’s been built up, layer by layer, over decades, one that we rarely see.

It is easy to be fooled by the thin veneer, the smooth top layer that is so easy to glide across. This layer fools us into thinking that it came into being fully formed. But of course everything builds on what came before it, on what lies below.

In seeing all this I’m reminded of the grimy past of New York City, of a time of dirt and struggle and disease, a time when this neighborhood was the home to slaughterhouses and slop in the streets, not fashion boutiques and 16 Handles.  Today’s glossy world sits adopt that messy history, one we are quick to forget at our peril.

I can’t help wondering how it’s come to pass that today’s reality feels so normal.  How, in a world where glamor and wealth and radical inequality has become the norm, we manage see only that top layer while ignoring the deeper moral questions that lie beneath: When did we go from building a system that rewards winners to one where the winners, quite literally, take all? And why does it seem so easy to drown out the quiet sound of people throwing up their hands and turning their backs on a system that doesn’t work for them?

Some of this stems, I think, from being fooled by that thin veneer, one that shields us from the fact that our success is not just the product of our own efforts. We literally stand upon decades, even centuries, of groundwork that came before us – times of toil and trouble and near misses that somehow all added up to this life, here and now. The foundation of our comfort, our accomplishment, and our success is our dumb luck of being born into lives in which deploying effort, brains and resources yields results.  That’s a winning lottery ticket held by precious few.

Sure, we deserve credit for our own effort, guts, and ingenuity.  But let’s not forget that we are nothing more than the top layer.

Word Economy

Most emails are too long. And most emails, long or short, are either emotional deserts or they transmit the wrong emotional content.

Short is the only solution to email overload, and radical email shorthand is employed by nearly all the successful busy people I know. But it only works if you pick words that transmit feeling too.

One word shorthand for…

Friendly: Hey, hi, please, help, okay, great

Informal: yeah, yup, nah, sure, yo, …,

Aggressive: just (“it’s just that”), never mind, forget it

Dismissive: whatever (…you want), fine, c’mon

Connection: thank you, truly, warmly, visit (with), sorry

Encouraging: go for it!, absolutely, fabulous, super, yes!

“Just the facts” is a nice idea. But like it or not we’re communicating emotions, even in six words or less.

Sacredness and motivated ignorance

I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Haidt, author of the new best-selling book (#6 on the NYTimes Bestseller list) The Righteous Mind, speak about his work.  Jonathan is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, he gave a great TED talk in 2008 on moral psychology and a few weeks ago he gave another great TED talk on transcendence.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for the publication of The Righteous Mind.  As chronicled in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a significant part of the book focuses on why the political left and the political right in the United States don’t understand each other.  Given the unprecedented divides in U.S. politics today and the run-up to the presidential elections, The Righteous Mind is a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering everything from the Tea Party to the environmental movement to Occupy Wall Street.

Two of the underpinnings of Jonathan’s work – also explored by other authors – have already changed the way I understand the world.  The first is that reason follows intuition.   This means that we make decisions and form opinions with our intuitive minds, and then use our power to reason to support our intuitive decisions.  In Jonathan’s words, the intuitive (or emotional) dog wags the rational tail.   This is why we find it so incomprehensible that people with different moral outlooks don’t “just respond to the facts.”  We think that people look at facts to make decisions, when in fact they make decisions and then look for facts that support those decisions.

(and “people” isn’t everyone else, it’s you too.  That’s the really important part.)

The second big insight for me is around the notion of sacredness.  Jonathan argues that to begin to really understand people, you have to understand what is sacred to them.  The left and the right in the U.S. (on social issues) hold very different things sacred, and if you, in Jonathan’s words, “follow the sacredness” you’ll have a whole new window into how people process information and form their opinions.  So, as Jonathan described it, the right in the U.S. holds moral order, marriage and faith sacred; the left currently consider the environment and issues around race and social justice sacred.   In both cases, Jonathan argued that sacredness creates “motivated ignorance.”  In Jonathan’s words, “when sacredness conflicts with truth, truth gets thrown under the bus.”

This helps explain to an exasperated liberal why conservatives “just don’t get it” about global warming just as it explains to an exasperated conservative why liberals “just don’t get” having religiously-affiliated hospitals institutions pay for contraceptives for their members is morally abhorrent.

Needless to say, I’m better at seeing one side of this exasperation than the other.  And that’s exactly the point.  A lot of my blogging and my work begins with a deep belief in and respect for others and the power of empathy.  I’d also like to think of myself as an open-minded person.  But Jonathan’s work forces me to ask myself whether I create the space to really understand and appreciate what is sacred to other people whose morality differs fundamentally from my own.

It helps me understand why people won’t look at the same convincing, powerful facts that I will and just change their opinions.

It helps us all understand why we all have so much trouble understanding one another, why this country is so divided and why it seems to be getting worse, not better.

Jonathan’s request of us all in this 2008 TED talk is that we embrace moral humility, that we step out of the “moral matrix” that limits us to seeing and respecting people who share our morality and our values.  It is a challenging notion, and an important one, one that turns my world upside-down…in a good way.

Generosity and empathy

David Brooks wrote a powerful column on Friday, a mini-diatribe against empathy.  Apparently, empathy education is all the rage, the premise being that exposure to others’ difficult situations will lead to more right and moral action.

The catch, says Brooks, is that it doesn’t actually work.  Empathy alone does not get people to engage in moral action when there’s a cost to taking that action.  Worse, empathy alone may give one the sense that one is attuned to problems without having to do the hard work of acting to make a difference.

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments.

Tough words indeed.

While empathy alone is, apparently, flaccid in its ability to illicit action, a burst of good feeling does produce changes:

In one experiment in the 1970s, researchers planted a dime in a phone booth. Eighty-seven percent of the people who found the dime offered to help a person who dropped some papers nearby, compared with only 4 percent who didn’t find a dime.

Brooks implies that this is a short-term effect, and what drives sustained action isn’t feeling alone but some code (moral, ethical, religious, military) on the part of the actor.

So here’s the generosity reflection: I’d argue that being wildly, inappropriately generous has two potential effects, if you’re open to them.  The first is short-term, a kind of giddy euphoria that washes over you when you’re generous.  That may lead directly to more right action.  And the second (drip, drip, drip, over time) is an integration into one’s “code” (whatever it is, and wherever it comes from) of generosity as a core operating principle, an integral part of how we describe ourselves to ourselves.

Plus, I like the fact that it’s about action.  We talk so much about what we need to do, and talk is inevitably cheap.  The only way I’ve found to really change my behaviors is by actually changing my behaviors.

Increase global empathy

I had the chance to spend some time last week with Eric Dawson, the co-founder and CEO of Peace First.  Peace First works with kids aged 4 to 14 to teach them to engage productively with each other in peaceful ways.  Peace First is working to counteract the overwhelming barrage of violence that young kids come across every day – not just on TV and in video games, but in schools and in their role models – and teaching them and their teachers conflict resolution skills to live more productive and more peaceful lives.  They’ve already trained over 40,000 kids and trained more than 2,500 teachers.

When I asked Eric what his dream would be for a global goal for the next decade, he said he’d like to “increase global empathy.”

It’s elegant in its simplicity. It’s possible.  And it’s powerful.

I spend a lot of time thinking about generosity, so I can’t help but contemplate how Eric’s dream about increasing global empathy intersects with my quest to give people permission to be generous.  To me, generosity is a “gateway drug” to empathy: when people tell me about their own generosity experiments, inevitably their “aha moment” is the experience of real connection with another person.  Anyone engaged in a conscious practice of generosity has to stop walking by and closing the door on other peoples’ experiences.  The decision to have a practice of generosity is an a priori decision to stop, to look someone in the eye, and to connect with her.

I’ve found that the practice of generosity creates transformation on multiple levels.  Being generous makes you be more generous.  Being generous helps you to experience more empathy and, in time, become more empathetic.  And being generous is an opportunity to tap into a true sense of abundance, in one’s own life and in others’ lives.

I’m glad to know Eric and to be getting to know Peace First, and I’m curious to hear what others think about empathy, about generosity, and how to cultivate both to live a richer life.

Here’s Eric’s moving 6-minute talk from Pop!Tech in 2008 (link is here if it doesn’t embed properly):

[vodpod id=Video.7806534&w=425&h=350&fv=]

Carrots and marketing to the poor

Baby carrots aren’t actually “baby carrots.”  They’re cut carrots that were originally “seconds,” carrots that were too small or deformed to meet supermarket standards.  One day Mike Yorosek , a carrot grower, had the clever idea of peeling and cutting them, putting them in a bag, and seeing if they would sell.  (“Bunny balls,” his other idea, never caught on.)   The rest is history.

Lately, things have gotten tough in the carrot business.

With the recession, people started spending less overall, and when spending picked up again, people bought less-expensive whole carrots.  These end up in refrigerator purgatory – the vegetable drawer – where they’re not eaten.  So while people HAVE carrots, they don’t eat them, and the carrot industry suffers.

Jeff Dunn, who until recently oversaw Coca-Cola’s North and South American operations, is the CEO of Bolthouse, one of two big growers in the North American carrot market.  Faced with flat sales, Jeff is setting out on an aggressive new campaign and he’s totally ignoring all the “benefits” of his product.  He’s not trying to market carrots as a better, healthier alternative to junk food; he’s trying to market carrots AS a junk food…catchy Cheetos-like mascot, crinkly packaging and all.

Image courtesy of Fast Company Magazine - Still life by Jamie Chung

What can we learn from this carrot marketing fable?

A lot is made in the poverty-alleviation space of how we overlook and ignore the voice and the preferences of the beneficiaries of our work.  Well-intentioned, we talk to people about health benefits, about money saved and doctors’ trips averted and days in school, all the while ignoring that this isn’t how you market anything well.  Rich people buy shampoo because of a sense of aspiration, belonging, a story they’re telling about themselves to themselves and to others – why oh why would poor people think or act any differently?  “Benefits” don’t sell.

This is happening for one of two reasons:

  1. Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.
  2. Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

(let’s leave aside, for now, that we need a whole lot less ivory tower and a whole lot more people from and of the communities being served).

It’s easy to tell the story of disrespect, but it might be that the people pushing hand-washing, bednets and solar-powered lanterns simply don’t have the same marketing chops as the folks in Atlanta (Coke).

It’s about time we look seriously at what products, outside of alcohol and tobacco, are being successfully marketed to the poor:  cellphones, obviously, and mobile payments; maybe Lifebouey soap or microloans or kerosene (yes, kerosene too.)

It’s time to understand what sells and WHY, and it’s time to take the notion seriously that one of the best things we could do to make a positive impact is to get better at selling things – even free things – to people who need them.  It’s time to take seriously the notion of BUILDING markets, and not just building solutions.  And any efforts that lead with “it’s good for you” had better end up on the cutting room floor.

Your Money or Your Health?

I’m sick today. Being sick in the middle of the summer is a double whammy. Eighty-five degrees and sunny with a sore throat should be an oxymoron.

Yesterday I completed an alumni survey sent out by my esteemed business school. It was more or less standard fare: what have you been doing professionally, what kind of responsibilities do you have at your job, how much money do you make, how happy are you? I wonder if the compilation of these results are more for collective voyeurism and one-upmanship (“I’m wealthier than my peers”) than because they give the administration the opportunity to reflect on the curriculum.

Two questions stood out for me. One asked me to rank what is most important to me, from most to least, choosing between things like my health, the well-being of my children, my income, my net worth, time to do stuff outside of work, my involvement in my community, etc. Are they serious? My health and my children’s well-being are in a category by themselves, aren’t they? Are there actually people out there who put those things at the bottom of the list? I’m curious to know.

The second surprising question asked what skills most help me in my professional life. The surprise was that the list included both the obvious skills for a business school to care about (analytical thinking, leadership ability) and some surprises (ability to listen, empathy). I suspect that my rank-ordering will be in the “long tail” relative to my peers (I put those “soft skills” high on the list). My question is: if all the alumni came back and said what they really needed most was empathy and listening skills, would that result in an about-face in the business school curriculum? If not, why is HBS asking?