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The Empathy Deficit

Why has cynicism, denigration, blame and brinkmanship become the standard for our public discourse?

I am a politics junkie, whether I tune into US, Canadian or Québécois media. I follow the debate because I believe we are at a critical point in our societal evolution, every bit as important as the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of democratic governance and the modern welfare state.

More than ever, the health of our societies is intertwined with the health of our economies. The metrics and principles we took for granted about how our economies work have gone out the window. The loss of these guideposts has made us fearful about the future, a fear which weakens our society, our communities and our personal well-being.

In a democracy, fear is corrosive. The symptoms are everywhere: either a dysfunctional legislative system where two parties are stuck in a deadlock, as in the US, or where a majority party squelches all dissent, as in Canada. Mass media and social media have broken us into tribes which choose to only hear what is said in their own bubbles. The only way we can be heard through the walls of these bubbles is through protests, such as the “Occupy” movement, the “Idle No More” First Nations protests, or the “Carré Rouge” student demonstrations in Québec which triggered a change in government, but no solution to the fundamental problems. Or worse, this pervasive fear triggers wild responses such as the mass shootings in the US and the corresponding overreactions of those who empty out the inventory of gun stores.

We need an open, honest and frank discussion about what’s at stake and how we can rebuild confidence in the future. This discussion is not happening because we are talking “at” each other. The problem is that no one outside our bubble is listening. People are scared. And fear is a tempting lever for demagogues, who use the language of cynicism, denigration, blame and brinkmanship to get their way, at the expense of everyone else.

This is no way to run a society.

It is really sad that an essential element of communication has gone missing in action. True communication is where we exchange thoughts and ideas, mashing them together to make something greater than the simple sum of its parts.

For true communication to work, there has to be a baseline of trust: an environment where my core values are not threatened. When there is trust, then ideas can come forth, and solutions found.

But trust is in short supply, because there is no empathy. Empathy is the ability to “put oneself in another person’s shoes”, imaginatively projecting ourself into the other person’s situation, to understand what’s at stake for them as a starting point to building trust.

To have constructive dialogue, we don’t have to agree, but we have to be sensitive, even a bit, to the other person’s point of view. I want to feel that I can be open with you, that you will not attack who I am, but we can generate a creative tension between our ideas which opens a space for a better idea to emerge.

If we are ever going to solve our issues and build the future that we really want, we have to be willing to walk even a few steps in the other person’s shoes. The moment we experience a bit of empathy, magic happens. Instead of talking “at” the other, we can start conversing “with” each other.

The choice before us is clear. Either we can give in to fear, defaulting to a zero-sum world of “every man for himself” survivalism, or we can choose to be bigger than our problems, to build a system where we each have the right to fully explore our own individual potential, and the responsibility to help others fully explore theirs. Only one path leads to prosperity.

The most critical deficit we face has nothing to do with money. Overcoming the Empathy Deficit does not require minting a trillion-dollar coin. All it takes is the willingness to consider, even for a moment, what the person in front of us is dealing with, and how we might feel if we were in their shoes. This costs nothing, at at the same time, it is priceless.

For more information

For more about empathy and the four elements of building trust, I recommend “The Likeability Factor” by Tim Sanders
http://www.timsanders.com/books/likeability-factor.html
http://www.amazon.com/The-Likeability-Factor-L-Factor-Achieve/dp/1400080509/

Related posts:

“How Big Is Your Whuffie”
http://blog.davender.com/2010/01/how-big-is-your-whuffie/

“Fear”
http://blog.davender.com/2011/06/fear-trust30/

Image: Navaneeth KN via Flickr
Direct link:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/navaneethkn/7975953800/
Used under Creative Commons licence

 

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