Someone else’s shoes
1 August 2019 at 8:29 am
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie reflects on the role empathy plays in our community.
“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.” – Barack Obama
In a week where there has been a lot of talk about empathy, unemployment and not having enough money to live on, I think it is useful to reflect on the role empathy plays in our community and particularly in the charities sector.
There are many things we learn through experience. I learned not to assume others shared my experiences or perspectives on the world very early on in my career, well before I began working in prisons and youth training centres.
Being able to empathise beyond my experience has been critical to much of the work I have done in the charities sector. What I find remarkable is how often people in government and business assume a shared perspective, their perspective. In many ways, this lack of insight, this lack of empathy, is at the heart of our failure to meet the needs of those who are not exactly like ourselves. It plays out in so many ways.
Many years ago I was sitting in a school welfare office with the school counsellor and a 15-year-old boy. There was nothing remarkable about the setting or the exchange. I was a probation officer and special education teacher who had been working with the boy through a local youth welfare service. My role was to observe this interview, perhaps offer an encouraging word if it became too tense, but not to interfere in any way.
The school counsellor began by telling the boy she was a qualified psychologist and the purpose of this discussion was so she could understand him better in the hope of developing some way forward that would be good for everyone. What followed was the kind of berating inquisition that is all too often imposed on young people in the name of “counselling”: Did the boy understand how important school was in shaping his future life? Would his parents be happy if he failed at school and never realised his potential? Didn’t he want to be a success?
Throughout this process, the boy maintained a relatively positive demeanour – answering the questions with polite minimalist dismissal, happy to indulge the process, partly because I was there, and partly because he knew it was all so inconsequential.
To the school counsellor, this was a troubled boy, quite bright, but wasting his life through not attending school and getting up to all kinds of mischief. Perhaps even more concerning, he seemed to drag others into his activities, sometimes with negative consequences. He needed to be put back on the right path, the kind of straight and narrow path she had taken through school and university to a good job.
To the boy, this was a silly old woman who knew nothing about life, trying to make him do things that were not only boring and unengaging but a real waste of his time.
What the school counsellor did not understand or acknowledge was that this boy was already a success. He was the leader of a small gang and was able to obtain almost anything he wanted – sometimes by getting others to take things. He had a desirable girlfriend, was sexually active, had access to alcohol and other drugs when he needed. He played music in a band and sport with friends, in-between partying. He lived a very full life. By his standard, and by the standards of most 15-year-old boys, he was very successful. The idea that success meant sitting in an office with a certificate hanging on the wall working eight-hour days in a school so you could pay a mortgage was absurd.
The boy became a successful young man, a music producer, and cutting-edge music engineer, skills he did not learn at school.
Most people who work in charities have learned not to be judgemental, to recognise that our way is not the only way, to understand that different people have different experiences of the world and its possibilities. Most charities do not seek to impose solutions on others, but to provide increased opportunities for everyone to realise their own potential in their own way.
If you look up the word “tolerance” in the thesaurus, one of the synonyms suggested is the word “charity”. Tolerance and understanding, the essence of empathy, are often what set charity workers apart.
Research all over the world is telling us narcissism is on the rise in the 21st century and empathy is on the decline. We are becoming more self-obsessed, less communal.
This narrowing individualism was reflected in some of the discussion around empathy this week. The suggestion that only lived experience of the same circumstances gives you understanding and real empathy is simply not true. We can all be more empathetic and less self-obsessed if we take the time to listen, engage, sit quietly and understand.
Unfortunately, public policy seems to increasingly be backing the pursuit of individualism over the strength of our communities. Our focus is more inward, more isolated, more about me.
Most of us work in the charities sector precisely because it is values-driven. Most of us have chosen to look beyond self-interest, to try and improve the communities we live and work in, to not only demonstrate empathy but also create new opportunities.
This week has highlighted how shallow our empathy has become and in so doing, offered us all a challenge. We need to share more stories, more art, more rich portrayal of the lives of others. We need to promote empathy. We need to get more people standing in each other’s shoes.
As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream; “I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.”
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.