Empathy & Perspective

One of the critical functions of empathy is the ability to understand foreign situations—the things outside your self. This paves the way for pragmatism. As opposed to most “strategy” which is idealism or retroactive wishful thinking.

-Yahoo doomed themselves when they became a media company. Ok, now what?
-The record industry responded poorly to technology, we get it, what now?
-I knew the war in Iraq was going to be a mistake! And…?

Much of the discussion of these types of problems is best categorized as flippant analysis. Simplified is another word. I tend to interpret it as condescending too. It all stems from an inability to understand and place yourself in a reality you may not approve of or even care about. That is, to empathize.

Yahoo is a 20 billion dollar company. What are they supposed to do? Quit? The people in the situation are real, they wake up everyday and show up at an office and are expected to do something. They have quarterly filings, signed contracts, relationships and expectations. What are they supposed to do? In our lives, we’re much more likely to find ourselves as one of these people—just trying to maintain in a situation whose constraints we had nothing to do with—not the rebel billionaire with a chance to make things over completely.

Edwin Hutchins found, in his book Cognition in the Wild, that however organizations ultimately come to be organized determines how they think and process collectively. The factors and the personalities that formed the organization, in other words, formed and are the terrain. They matter more than just about anything else.

Since Kuhn philosophers of science have wondered if it’s even possible for a generation educated in a new paradigm to understand the assumptions taken seriously in the paradigm that came before. In a way, this is exactly the kind of gap empathy is aimed to bridge. Can you (or are you willing to) temporarily internalize a perspective you know to be flawed in order to understand the reality of someone else? This is what Hutchins wanted us to see, that to grasp why an entity makes a decision has as much to do with the choice itself as the way the group is structured. We’re missing a large part of the equation if we pretend the only thing that matters is the merits of either side of the decision.

It appears that this was the case with Cicero. Although wonderfully articulate and astute, he constantly misread the political situation because he was clueless to what went on in other people’s heads. His calculatedness, his ideals, his vision, it was always turned upside by some action he had not anticipated—as though it was some shock that Caesar had become convinced that only bold action could save Rome or that Octavian would eventually tire of being a pawn.

Because it doesn’t really matter what you think. It matters how they thought. People often confuse concept empathy with the concept sympathy. As they relate to emotions, sympathy is to agree, to share and to approve of how someone else feels. Empathy is the art of acknowledging those feelings without having to take them on yourself. Maybe this occasionally means thinking “it’s just too complicated for me to reduce to a couple sentence summary” or “I can only imagine the headspace that guy must be in” and leave the pronouncements to the charlatans and fools.

Finally, empathy gives you the perspective to “start from where the world is, as it as” as you look to change it into what you want it to be.

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