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Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It

by Roman Krznaric

  • Paperback
ISBN: 9780399171406
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  • Paperback
ISBN: 9780399171406

Publisher Description

Discover the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People A popular speaker and co-founder of The School of Life, Roman Krznaric has traveled the world researching and lecturing on the subject of empathy. In this lively and engaging book, he argues that our brains are wired for social connection. Empathy, not apathy or self-centeredness, is at the heart of who we are. By looking outward and attempting to identify with the experiences of others, Krznaric argues, we can become not only a more equal society, but also a happier and more creative one. Through encounters with groundbreaking actors, activists, designers, nurses, bankers and neuroscientists, Krznaric defines a new breed of adventurer. He presents the six life-enhancing habits of highly empathic people, whose skills enable them to connect with others in extraordinary ways - making themselves, and the world, more truly fulfilled.

Author Biography

Roman Krznaric is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, and advises organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change. He has been named by The Observer as one of Britain's leading lifestyle philosophers.

Review Quote

"One of Britain's leading lifestyle philosophers." --The Observer "Authentic relationships require us to see the world through the eyes of others. This engaging and insightful book helps us do just that." --John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus " Empathy explores the essence of being human.... Inspiring, fascinating and helpful." --Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha's Brain

Excerpt from Book

THE REVOLUTION OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS Empathy has a reputation as a fuzzy, feel-good emotion. Many people equate it with everyday kindness and emotional sensitivity and being tender and caring toward others. This book offers a very different view. Empathy is, in fact, an ideal that has the power both to transform our own lives and to bring about fundamental social change. Empathy can create a revolution. Not one of those old-fashioned revolutions based on new laws, institutions, or governments but something much more radical: a revolution of human relationships. Over the past decade there has been a surge of empathic thinking and action around the globe driven by political activists and advice columnists, business gurus and religious leaders. Protesters in the Occupy movement in Britain and the United States erected Empathy Tents and ran workshops on empathic activism. A radio soap opera in Rwanda, listened to by 90 percent of the population every week, inserts empathic messaging into its storyline about Hutus and Tutsis living in neighboring villages, in an effort to prevent a revival of ethnic violence. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have been taught empathy skills through Roots of Empathy, a Canadian education program that has spread to Britain, New Zealand, and other countries, that brings babies into the classroom and turns them into teachers. A German social entrepreneur has established a worldwide network of museums where blind guides have taken more than seven million visitors around exhibits that are in total darkness, to give them the experience of being visually impaired. All these initiatives are part of a historic wave of empathy that is challenging our highly individualistic, self-obsessed cultures, in which most of us have become far too absorbed in our own lives to give much thought to anyone else. But what exactly is empathy? And what does it look like in practice? First, let''s get the meaning clear: empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.1 So empathy is distinct from expressions of sympathy--such as pity or feeling sorry for somebody--because these do not involve trying to understand the other person''s emotions or point of view. Nor is empathy the same as the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," since this assumes your own interests coincide with theirs. George Bernard Shaw remarked on this in characteristic style when he quipped, "Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you--they might have different tastes." Empathy is about discovering those different tastes. If you want to grasp just what it means to make the imaginative leap of empathy, then let me introduce you to Patricia Moore, a pioneering figure for today''s empathic activists. In 1979, Moore was working as a product designer at the top New York firm Raymond Loewy, which was responsible for creating the curvy Coca-Cola bottle and the iconic Shell logo. Age twenty-six and fresh out of college, she was the only woman designer among 350 men at their Midtown Manhattan office. During a planning meeting to brainstorm a new refrigerator model, she asked a simple question: "Couldn''t we design the door so that someone with arthritis would find it easy to open?" One of her senior colleagues turned to her and replied with disdain, "Pattie, we don''t design for those people." She was incensed. What did he mean, "those people"? Riled by his response, she decided to conduct what turned out to be one of the most radical empathy experiments of the twentieth century. She would discover what it was like to be an eighty-five-year-old woman. "I didn''t just want to be an actress pretending to be an elderly person," she told me, "I wanted a true immersion character, an empathic character, where I could really walk in someone else''s shoes." So with the help of a professional makeup artist, she transformed herself. She put layers of latex on her face so she looked old and wrinkly, wore clouded glasses that blurred her vision, plugged her ears so she couldn''t hear well, clipped on a brace and wrapped bandages around her torso so she was hunched over, taped splints to her arms and legs so she was unable to bend her limbs, and finished off her disguise with uneven shoes so she was forced to hobble with a stick. Now she was ready. Between 1979 and 1982 Moore visited more than a hundred North American cities in her persona, attempting to negotiate the world around her and find out the everyday obstacles that elderly people faced and how they were treated. She tried going up and down steep subway stairs, riding on crowded busses, pushing through heavy department store doors, crossing busy streets before the lights changed, using can openers and, of course, opening refrigerators. The result of her immersion? Moore took international product design in a completely new direction. Based on her experiences and insights, she was able to design a series of innovative products that were suitable for use by elderly people, including those with arthritic hands. Among her inventions was a line of potato peelers and other kitchen utensils with thick rubber handles, which can now be found in almost every home. She is credited as the creator of "inclusive" or "universal" design, where products are designed for people of all abilities, whether aged five or eighty-five. Moore went on to become an expert in the field of gerontology and an influential campaigner for the rights of senior citizens: she was instrumental in getting the Americans with Disabilities Act onto the statute books. Throughout her career, she has been driven more by the desire to improve people''s lives than by the lures of financial success. Now in her sixties, she is currently designing rehabilitation centers where U.S. soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq with missing limbs or brain injuries can go to relearn how to live independently, practicing everything from buying groceries to using a cash machine. Moore has become famous for her "empathic model," which has enlightened a whole generation of designers who now recognize the importance of looking through the eyes of the people who will use the products they create. "Universal design is driven by empathy," she explains, "an understanding that one size doesn''t fit all--and that''s what my whole career has been about."2 Her experiment in time travel across the generations is a touchstone for the empathists of the future. Making the effort to look through other people''s eyes can be personally challenging--and sometimes deeply exhilarating--but it also has extraordinary potential as a force for social change. THE SIX HABITS OF HIGHLY EMPATHIC PEOPLE Patricia Moore discovered the power of empathy in the 1970s. Then why are so many people suddenly talking about it now? The idea of empathy is not new. It first rose to prominence in the eighteenth century, when the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote that our moral sensitivity derives from our mental capacity for "changing places in fancy with the sufferer." But the recent explosion of interest is largely due to groundbreaking scientific discoveries about human nature. For the past three hundred years, influential thinkers from Thomas Hobbes to Sigmund Freud have been telling us that we are essentially self-interested, self-preserving creatures who pursue our own individualistic ends. Over time, this dark depiction of human beings has become the prevailing view in Western culture. In the last decade, however, it has been nudged firmly to one side by evidence that we are also Homo empathicus--wired for empathy.3 The recent discovery of our empathic selves is one of the most remarkable stories of modern science. I will be telling this story in the next chapter, but in short, there have been pathbreaking advances on three fronts. Neuroscientists have identified a ten-section "empathy circuit" in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling. Evolutionary biologists have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to be empathic and cooperative, just like our primate cousins. And child psychologists have revealed that even three-year-olds are able to step outside themselves and see other people''s perspectives. It is now evident that we have an empathic side to our natures that is just as strong as our selfish inner drives. This radical shift in our conception of who and what we are has started to filter into public life, prompting a wave of fresh thinking about how to educate our children, how to organize our institutions, and what we really need for personal well-being. "Looking after number one" is becoming an outdated aspiration as we begin to realize that empathy is at the core of being human. We are in the midst of a great transition from the Cartesian age of "I think, therefore I am," to an empathic era of "You are, therefore I am."4 Yet for all the unprecedented media coverage and public discussion of empathy, there remains a vital question that few people are talking about--and it is the one at the center of this book: How can we expand our empathic potential? We may well be wired for empathy, but we still need to think about how we are going to bring our circuits to life. I have spent the last dozen years searching for an answer to this question, exploring the research on empathy in fields from experimental psychology to social history, from anthropology to literary studies, from politics to brain science. Along the way I have delved into the lives of pioneering empathists, many of whom you will meet in these pages, including an Argentinian revolutionary, a best-selling Ameri

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Roman Krznaric
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Why It Matters, and How to Get It