Experiments in Empathy

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, Shruthi Vijayakumar, covers the Skoll World Forum session ‘Creative Tensions: Proximity and Power’.

We live in a world that is increasingly fractured and divided. The rise of populism has seen ‘othering’ and fear damage our social fabric and it has never been more important to have empathy for one another. It’s from understanding each other that we can begin to create a path forward together.

Early Tuesday morning 40 odd delegates had a powerful experience of just this, at a workshop titled ‘Creative Tensions’ led by the team at IDEO. In their own words, Creative Tensions is a format for collective conversation, expressed in movement, wherein participants reveal where they stand on an issue by where they stand in the room. The session left us appreciative of each other’s different perspectives, questioning some of our own views and just a little more empathetic and aware.

The facilitators posed a series of prompts, of seemingly opposing ideas, and we were asked to take a stance and share why we stood where we stood. Some of the prompts are as follows:

“Power is taken” <> “Power is given”

“We are the people we serve”  <>  “We are serving others”

“Money enables”  <>  “Money complicates”

“Failure is essential”  <>  “Failure is not an option”

With words and context open to our own interpretation, there was a wide variety of stances on each issue, and what began to unfold as we explained the positions we took was fascinating. Take the second prompt above. “We are the people we serve” vs “We are serving others”.  One participant who stood on the far left shared that “We have to be the people we serve. By serving ‘others’ are we not creating more otherness?” From the other end of the room someone responded “We can’t be the people we serve. We have to acknowledge that there are some differences and distinctions between us. Some of us are more privileged.” Closer to the middle, but still on the left, a young student shared “We benefit from serving others, we feel good, so in effect we are serving ourselves”. And so the conversation continued.

One of the most beautiful things to witness was seeing people hear each other’s perspectives, question their own views, and physically move along the continuum to show how their perspective had changed. None of our positions were static and as the conversation progressed we shifted where we stood in the room – a sign of not just hearing, but far deeper listening and suspended judgement.

So what can we learn from this process?

The issue often lies in how we define terms. Each of us has our own interpretation of many of these concepts such as power, service, and failure. In sharing what these words mean to us and how we interpret these issues, much shared understanding can be created. Take the prompt “Failure is essential” vs “Failure is not an option”. Whilst one person saw failure as the only path to success and to be embraced in tackling wicked problems such as climate change, another person stood on the other end of the room saying “failure in addressing climate change is not an option, we have to get there”. Through dialogue we discovered that despite positions appearing different on the surface due to our interpretations of these terms, we shared a much deeper and common vision.  Be it around a board room, a team meeting, engaging with customers, beneficiaries or funders, it can be powerful to take a moment to understand where someone comes from and to see how the language we use might mean something different to them.

Secondly, our ability to see possibility depends on the quality of our listening. If we can suspend our judgements, and be truly curious about what another has to say, only then will our own perception be enhanced and our views evolve, as was seen with people moving positions as the conversation unfolded. Deep listening is essential for us to see new paths and possibilities to achieve our desired future. This requires each of to be present, open minded and truly value and listen to one another.