Walking In My Shoes: The need for empathy

  • January 9, 2017
  • By Guest Blogger
  • 2 minute read

What does a Depeche Mode single have in common with this post? Turns out, more than I thought.

Last month’s Electoral College vote marked the culmination of the 2016 election season. The embattled conservative conscience has presumably found a voice—a conscience that was at war not only with itself but also with a liberal opposition. Echoes of such conflicts can be seen and heard around the world as different countries and identities (based on race, gender, socio-economic class or sexual orientation) search for anchors and a leader that can guide them toward true north. This is the very essence of the human spirit—chaos, followed by destruction of an old order, followed by a new dawn.

I was moved by the struggle of the Sioux tribes in Dakota. Throughout my stay in North America, works such as David Roberts‘ Once They Moved Like The Wind, Bruce Catton’s Civil War, Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven, Alex Haley’s Roots have helped me understand Native American, confederate, Mormon and African-American societies better.

Halfway across the globe, Aleppo lies in ruins and Syrians have lost more than their homes. Japan and Europe deal with consequences of an aging population and an insular rigidity to stick to their roots.

Closer (to my) home, demonetization has divided India on political and ideological lines.

Each of these issues are very complex and have many dimensions. There are no easy answers. One thing is certain, though— there are connections between issues. For instance, the plight of the rust belt states as highlighted in JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is deeply connected to unemployment and the hollowing out of the middle class in America.

The other common aspect is the absence of a bridge between subscribers of two opposing world views. Quite often, political gerrymandering ensures that such a bridge is never built. I call that bridge empathy.

Empathy is a short word as most profound concepts are. However, empathy is extremely difficult to practice. It requires a maniacal focus on understanding others and working toward achieving their goals at the cost of delaying personal gratification. It also calls for giving without an expectation of reward or appreciation.

Quite often, asking people about their background, history, and past struggles can illuminate underlying causes of their biases or expectations—and consequently, where they are coming from.

Whether you are designing a software application for an end user, negotiating a contract or trying to form a cohesive policy acceptable to liberals and conservatives, the importance of appreciating the history of a view, with the goal of truly understanding its present and influencing its future, cannot be emphasized enough.

Empathy requires one opposing party to meet the other more than midway to reach a common ground. The question is, will you be the one taking the high road?

This post was originally featured on Medium and was republished with permission from Abhishek Kothari, an Olin MBA ’14 alumnus.

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