Episode 14 - Empathy
What role does empathy play in social entrepreneurship? Is it important that practitioners in this field understand the experiences of those they help? These are the big questions that Jerrid and Courtney tackle in this week’s episode of Teaching Change.
Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling in a given situation. Empathy diverges from sympathy because while you may understand a person’s perspective, you are not necessarily endorsing or condoning it.
One school of thought in social entrepreneurship is that fostering more empathy in society will lead to more social entrepreneurs. When you are in the business of changing people’s lives for the better, it is paramount that, to some extent, you understand their journeys and can identify why they feel the way they feel. Without empathy, the motivation to solve some of society’s greatest issues, such as homelessness, income inequality, and drug abuse, may not be as strong.
Still, Jerrid receives mixed reviews when he talks about empathy in his social entrepreneurship class. While some students are receptive and embrace empathy, others are more ambivalent. For these students, empathy is another word for emotional and has no place in business. They believe that social entrepreneurs do not need to feel. They just need to do.
Jerrid and Courtney reflect on how much empathy plays a role in their jobs and life in general. Jerrid recounted a frustrating experience he had recently when he suffered a tire blowout on his car. As he went to various auto stores to remedy the situation, he was met with an indifference which made a bad situation worse. Luckily, Jerrid continued his search and found someone who understood his frustration. This was the store that ultimately received his business.
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” – Henry David Thoreau
Sure, empathy is a good practice. Both Jerrid and Courtney agree that it could solve a lot of conflicts that we see in the world today. However, could there ever be too much empathy? Courtney offers up a cautionary tale about an encounter in a Publix parking lot. A stranger approached her and asked her for money to pay for a car repair with the promise to pay it back. At the time, all Courtney could think about was what if the shoe was on the other foot and she needed financial assistance. Courtney gave the stranger the money and never heard from her again. Jerrid counters that it was not empathy that compelled Courtney to give the stranger money. At the point, Courtney modified her behavior and “gave the money to the universe,” sympathy became the motivating factor.
Conversations on empathy in social entrepreneurship often end with how to build it—which is easier said than done. The necessity exists. The ability to empathize broadens people’s perspectives and allows them, metaphorically, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Seeing a social ill from the person’s point of view that it affects the most has the potential to galvanize more people to seek innovative solutions. In essence, it will make the world a better place.