I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy: in our intimate relationships, in the workplace, in society. I’ve been thinking about its value, its discernible presence, and, inevitably, its absence.
The starting point for this was what I imagined would be a pleasant walk from my home in Shoreditch down to London Bridge Station the other morning. My off-piste working rhythms mean I rarely have to encounter rush hour, and, setting off to walk the straight line south at 9am, I foolishly imagined the crowds would be thinning out a bit by then.
I was wrong about this. Not that crowds, in themselves, are that much of a problem for me. I’m an adult-life-long-Londoner (I’m used to the throng), well above average height and can channel Pelé when it comes to weaving around those in my way.
What does stop me in my tracks, however, when walking along a London street in 2016 is a principle. At its heart, a question of empathy.
Why do I have to look where you’re going for you because you’re too busy looking at your screen?
What really, really gets me (boy does it get me, unhealthily so, I’m sure – I should, by now, be able to rise above it), is the shocked-yet-gormless expression the screen-glued give you when they eventually do look up for a split-second and realise that yes, you’re in front of them, just as hundreds of other people at this moment in time are in front of them because there are people, like us, all over old London town, walking down streets trying to get somewhere right now.
It would be so much easier if we could all just look where we’re going.
For me, it’s the zenith of antisocial isolationism; place, context, means nothing; fellow human beings mean nothing. They are not interesting enough to watch, the people walking past you on the street. They’re not all shiny like the people on your little screens.
[I should confess here I’m half guilty of this heinous crime myself. I am almost always plugged into my headphones when out walking. There is a constant soundtrack behind every step (unless I’m in a shop, I switch off then) but the screen is in my pocket; my eyes busy making a movie set from the surroundings.]
[I’m sure I’ve made this rant before you know…]*
What also gets me is that these same people wouldn’t walk along a street trying to read a book, or watch a mini TV. What’s the difference?
All genders, all ages, are equally guilty. And it’s not just a London thing.
When I got to my destination the other morning, a sleepy little town in Sussex, I walked up an empty path towards the restaurant where I was meeting my friend. I passed one person, a middle-aged woman, looking at a smart device the whole time she was in my view. As she passed me, she hit my arm with her bag because she wasn’t looking where she was going. I refrained from pushing her into a hedge (which was very empathetic of me, I thought, given the circumstances).
The next stop on my empathy track was the robbery of Kim Kardashian West.
I have to confess here that the truly heinous crime that happened to her is just about top of my worst nightmare list.
The thought of being woken up by the sound of intruders, crystallised in tone by those times when we have woken up thinking we’ve heard intruders (listening out when all you can hear is your own heart beating); the thought of someone holding a gun to your head and the thought of the thoughts that would be rushing through your mind…we always say such things are unimaginable but they’re not, that’s their true terror – we can imagine them all too easily.
I saw the condemnation of any jokes about Kardashian on Twitter before I saw any jokes about Kardashian on Twitter. Later, I saw various strands of victim abuse (why do we always attempt to justify any criminal act by turning on the victim?) – she was ‘asking for it’ because she’s rich, because she’s famous; because she wears jewellery and takes photos of herself in that jewellery; because she doesn’t have a big enough security detail.
Kardashian is a divisive figure and, fittingly for a woman who has done so much to shape our use of social media, continually divides it. Not much has been made of the post-traumatic stress she must be experiencing; not much has been made of how much smaller the cage of fame might now feel; not much has been made of the fact that being robbed at gunpoint is a crime more likely to happen to you if you are poor, or that, however blessed you are, some days your luck just runs out.
That, at some point in all our lives, we find ourselves helpless.
Surely it’s our fear of being helpless – and recall of the hopelessness we have experienced when we’ve found ourselves in helpless situations – that is our key trigger for empathy when reading such a news story? It’s not all ‘virtue-signalling’ when we want to #PrayFor somewhere or someone, when we condemn the horrors of Syria or the terror of Nice.
We can imagine.
But sometimes it’s our distance from the situation that can trigger something else: opportunism, vitriol, the need to rationalise away our fears by blaming the victim (a way of distancing ourselves from the possibility, of assuring ourselves it wouldn’t happen to us as we’re too smart).
Which brings me to the final terminus of my empathy circuit: empathy at work.
Emotional intelligence, happily, is now big business. Everyone is talking about it. Books are written about it. Leaders are sent on training programmes to develop it. To claim it has been whole-heartedly embraced would be pushing it – emotion is still a radioactive word in business – but that’s not to negate the positive progress that is being made by reminding people they are, first and foremost, human beings.
The danger is why. Certainly business psychologists have recognised that using a more empathetic approach with your employees is a proven tactic to get them to do what you want. 21st Century citizens don’t take kindly to orders. We need our whys as well as our whats, whens and hows.
And this is the sell-in for the EQ agenda – better people management to achieve better productivity (the holy grail for any business). All perfectly logical. All sensible.
The trouble is, the tactic cannot work if the empathy provided is subject to an on and off switch. Occasional, situational empathy does not a people-centred culture make.
Trust. Confidence. Belief. Commitment. The opportunity to tell it like it is and be listened to. These are the things that drive productivity, that deliver performance, but, to hard-wire these things into an organisational culture, every touchpoint has to be humanised. You can’t have occasional episodes of empathy interspersed with abuse (which, as it happens, is exactly the MO of most abusers).
From attraction to exit (particularly exit), with customers, employees and suppliers, the empathetic business tries to level with everyone, always tries carrot before stick, remains alert for any dehumanising practice or behaviour, ensures its leaders aren’t too distanced from the ‘little people’ on the front line. Constantly, relentlessly – and in the knowledge that, at times, they will undoubtedly fail.
We are only human.
Whatever your political persuasion (or view as to how she might seek to achieve it), the rhetoric delivered in Theresa May’s maiden conference speech as Prime Minister has placed empathy – and the need for greater empathy in public life, in government and in business – centre stage in the UK political arena.
Reminding us there is more to all of us then pure individualism and self-interest, reminding us that empathy is our most basic human instinct, is something we need constant reminding of (particularly when so many of us can’t even unselfishly walk along a street any more or sympathise with a crime victim).
But for May, just as for any organisation attempting to develop its EQ, it’s the tallest possible order (and we should remember that too).
Using EQ as a purely tactical tool to manoeuvre staff, or as a purely rhetorical device to gain power, is the dirtiest trick of all. There is no greater betrayal than feeling someone who really ‘gets’ you is just trying to get at you; is just playing you.
We’d all be well advised to also remember, if we’re going to talk more about empathy, every one of us has a daily mountain of work to do to deliver it too and that that, inevitably, will take us into some challenging spaces and towards some very difficult conversations.
After all, real empathy is about trying to imagine how you might feel in someone else’s shoes, understanding how someone does feel in their shoes, even when those shoes are unrecognisable, or seem most unsuitable, to you.
*I have touched on this theme twice, as it turns out: