By Carolann Edwards, Global Director of Learning and Organisational Development, Norton Rose Fulbright
These words were written by Hal David in 1965 and set to music by Burt Bacharach. The song reached number seven in the US charts that year and number one in Canada. Since then it has been performed by more than 100 artists (Wikipedia) from Dionne Warwick to Ronan Keating. It’s a great song that has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, I hope that David & Bacharach will allow me to make a small amendment to bring their song up to date. Delete the words ‘love sweet love’ and replace them with the single word ’empathy’. Now try singing “what the world needs now is empathy. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”. If you don’t know the tune, you can pick up Will Young’s cover or Dionne’s on YouTube. As you can see, it works a treat.
The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person’. This skill has never been more important. The lack of it is at the heart of much of our angst on issues such as human trafficking, war, famine, gender-based violence, the effects of energy and climate change, inequality in the digital economy and rising levels of migration.
These last three issues are the subject of the G(irls)20 Summit in Munich, June 16-22; the plan is for the girls to examine them through the lens of the need to increase female labour force participation. To secure the commitments and policy changes required, the G(irls)20 will need to channel their empathy into their communique to the G20 Leaders. So what can the G(irls)20, policy-makers and the rest of us do to increase our levels of empathy? Well we can start with simple acts of visualisation. This is a way of creating space for empathy.
Just for a moment imagine that you live in a country where you do not have ready access to a computer and the internet. And (or) that climate change in your area has led to recurring floods that have washed away the soil and now you can no longer grow the crop that you need to sell in order to feed your family. You can’t get a job, because there are none. All of your family and friends are in the same situation, so they cannot help.
What will you do? Will you sit there complaining, maybe crying, or will you do something?
What about moving to another town? You think about that option; but you have heard from people you know that it’s the same everywhere in your country and in the countries that border your own. You know that there are better countries: you’ve seen pictures about life in Europe on the village’s communal TV, and you’ve heard good things from friends, relatives or acquaintances who live there. However, your country of choice will not grant you legal entry. So you turn to the trafficker. He says that they can get you in if you pay them.
You borrow the money or you accept a work-for-pay deal and you pay the trafficker. The day you are to travel arrives. You are nervous and feel sick to the stomach because the boat is in terrible condition; hundreds of people are packed onto it. You remember the stories you have heard about boats sinking and people dying. Or ending up in a refugee centre with no work, no home and little money–and no idea of whether you will be allowed to stay in the country or be sent back.
Taking all of this into account, what will you do?
Is it possible that your thought track might be as follows: “I know it’s very risky. But anything has to be better than the situation I’m in now. I’ll take a chance. I may be one of the lucky ones.”
It’s empathy of this kind which helps us to understand what motivates and drives people to do the desperate things they do in situations such as these. It also enables us to accept the need to help others and find better solutions to these problems that are of the world and caused by it.
Something we can all do is to work to improve our levels of empathy by understanding our biases. I can hear some of you thinking, “Nothing to do with me. I don’t have biases.” Sadly you do. In fact, we all have them. Every one of us makes judgements about people’s capabilities based on stereotypes of what it is to be: able-bodied or disabled; rich or poor; first world or third world; city or country-dweller; man or woman; religious or agnostic, etc. This is a problem because stereotyping is an empathy blocker. It accentuates a person’s perception that someone is different to me and therefore less worthy and/or entitled to have what I have and/or am entitled to because of who I am.
So, let’s try that again. What are your biases? List them. I know, it happened to me. You are shocked by what you’ve put down. Don’t be despondent, as the good news is that you can manage them if you want to. For example, when you find yourself thinking, “Well, she would do that, because she is from a different country or culture”, switch your thoughts to asking yourself these questions: “Is this always true? Where is the evidence that she does do what I think she does?” You may find that there is no evidence and that, as a result of the simple process of telling yourself to think differently, you do. You may, as a result, find yourself willing and able to put yourself in that person’s shoes in a manner in which you previously would not have been able to do.
Something else you can do is invest time in talking to others with different points of view. Reading articles and blogs which challenge and test your own beliefs can also help you become more empathetic, especially if you focus on accepting and respecting difference.
The fact is that with a little more empathy in the world governments, groups and individuals are likely to make better decisions, “not just for some but for every one”.