Evolving Empathy, personal and systemic

Empathy starts out as a personal feeling of resonance with another’s pain or joy. It moves on to become the practice of stepping into another’s shoes – and having them feel heard and understood. We need our empathy to expand and evolve so that it embraces more people and living things, and so that it shows up as part of our cultures and our social systems – not only helping us feel more empathy but also stimulating the products of empathy – bonding, partnership, and mutual aid – even when we are not personally feeling particularly empathetic. We need all this more than ever, since we have become so thoroughly interdependent. Our ability to survive and thrive – even being effectively self-interested – actually depends on it.

Empathy is our ability to share the experience of other beings, both within our own mind and heart and also in our life with them, so that they know we are companioning them in what they are going through.

Empathy is a natural feeling as well as a capacity that we can develop – both in how much it embraces and in how we apply it out in the world. It is also important to understand that empathy exists – in an evolutionary sense – because it helps us relate to others with whom we need to collaborate in order to survive and thrive.

This last point can guide us in expanding the benefits of empathy to more of life. That’s because we now need to collaborate with more “others” than ever before in order to survive and thrive.

As we humans achieve global dominance at all scales and even into the future, our ability to understand our impact on other lives becomes increasingly important. This is not just for ethical reasons – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – but for our own enlightened self-interest. In a world intimately interconnected by telecommunications, mass mobility, economic activity, and natural dynamics like atmosphere and oceans that embrace the whole Earth, self-interest becomes increasingly meaningless unless it takes into account our increasingly profound and factual shared destiny.

Given that our aspirations, affinities, and passions so shape what we do individually and collectively, it becomes vital to upshift our empathy to take into account our expanded and often hidden impacts. We need to develop the capacity to respond more fully and competently to the new realities created by our actions and to shift what we do to better serve the life needs of all involved. Wherever we fail to do this, reality will let us know, often in seriously disturbing ways. As a central part of developing our responsive capacities, we need to consciously evolve our experience of empathy and the ways our societies embody it and serve its life-healing and life-weaving functions.

I see four directions for evolving empathy and using it to heal and transform civilization:

  • expanding empathy itself,
  • spreading empathic practices,
  • creating cultures that evoke empathy, and
  • creating social systems that promote empathic outcomes whether or not the individuals in those systems feel empathy.

I’ll explore each of these below, offering just a taste of examples and resources in each category. Many more exist and could exist. An entire movement could be built around transforming the world through empathy – a movement which would include but reach far beyond calling on individuals to be more empathic.

Expanding Empathy Itself

It is natural to feel empathy for people and living things that are like us or closely related to us. To a large degree this response is built into us biologically and cognitively. When most of us see someone hurt or expressing pain or joy, mirror neurons in our brains get triggered, making us feel the same experience. However, we are also inclined both biologically and socially NOT to empathize with people and life forms that are not like us or related to us. Examples of such “othering” may include people of another race, gender, culture, class, political or sexual orientation, and so on, as well as many life forms – animals, plants, bacteria, ecosystems, etc. – with whose suffering we can’t identify. We also don’t tend to empathize with suffering we don’t directly see or hear – for example, the suffering of animals who end up as “meat” in the grocery store, or of the thousands of children who die of hunger every day, or of future generations likely to live in the resource-depleted, toxic, violent environments that may be the legacy of our uncaring and unsustainable civilization. Our impacts become hidden from us by distance, time, and the complexity of the systems we’re embedded in.

We can see a trend in history towards greater empathy, intimately related to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “arc of the moral universe” that “bends towards justice”. We see it in Christ’s injunction two thousand years ago to “Love thy enemy”… in the campaign 150 years ago to end slavery… and in the many more modern social movements promoting social justice for women, disadvantaged minorities, and even whales, factory farmed animals, forests, and nature itself. True, much progress in these movements derives from the demands and political and economic pressure exerted by oppressed people and their allies. But empathic appeals and moral development also have played major roles through efforts like diversity training, deep ecology workshops, and even songs, art, and novels – Uncle Tom’s Cabin being an early classic example, exposing more whites to the experience of slaves. Activists and charities often focus our attention on the story of one person whose experience embodies the suffering of the class of people who they seek to liberate, empower, or otherwise benefit. Nonviolent movements intentionally instigate and/or publicize confrontations in which oppression is made painfully visible to privileged people whose empathy is triggered by viewing it on mass media and who subsequently undertake or support remedial action and social change.

Another aspect of the evolution of empathy is the move from charity to social change. Charity helps reduce the suffering of individuals. Empowerment and support help people get beyond their own suffering, individually and collectively. Yet more often than not, the suffering and destruction we want to ameliorate is generated by social conditions, cultures, and systems like the ways our economies, politics, governance, and justice systems are set up. It takes additional sophistication to recognize and change the sources of suffering and destruction. In many ways this is already happening, sometimes with little if any empathy as part of it, simply a principled commitment to justice, democracy, or sustainability. But I suspect there is a special power available to those who ground their systemic change efforts in an expanded sense of empathy, and who draw more and more people into that deeper and broader sensitivity and resonance.

We find empathy can evolve to be both more inclusive and more strategic and potent in its impacts. Both trends, already underway, urgently need to be expanded and accelerated.

Spreading Empathic Practices

Empathic practices are those that help us share the experience of other beings, both within our own minds and hearts and also in our relationships with them, so that they know we are companions in what they are going through. These practices range from the most simple acts like hugging to more developed practices like Nonviolent Communication (which empathically helps us clarify each other’s needs and how to meet them) and Dynamic Facilitation (which helps groups co-create breakthrough solutions to shared conflicts). There are dozens of other practices, which I encourage readers to share in comments on this blog post.

Interestingly, both Nonviolent Communication and Dynamic Facilitation use focused forms of active, reflective listening which help the speaker feel deeply and fully understood. This form of empathy embraces and reflects the speaker’s underlying emotion and frame of reference, as well as the more surface content of what they’ve said, with the listener checking (with real curiosity) to see if they are actually “getting it”. That high level of empathic engagement is often itself transformative, changing opposition into affection, defensiveness into openness, and opinionated assertiveness or withdrawal into shared inquiry and active co-creativity. These skills, more broadly practiced, would profoundly change our experience of conflict and our ability to use its energies to make life better instead of worse.

Furthermore, this is only one variety of listening practice. Almost all types of real listening enhance empathy, for obvious reasons. Additional examples include indigenous-inspired listening circles, fishbowl process, and dialogues across racial, gender, cultural, religious, political, and other divides. Practices promoted by Joanna Macy – like the Council of All Beings and The Work that Reconnects – extend that listening into the nonhuman natural world and future generations, using imagination and role play. Arny and Amy Mindell’s deep democracy/process worldwork forums add the idea that we all have all the voices of an oppressive system within us and we can listen to them within ourselves and among us as we interact, shifting the energies of the oppressive system by our deepening awareness of the field of struggle, story, and need that we all share.

“Experiential immersion” involves voluntarily entering into the role, lifestyle, or life constraints of someone very different from oneself. This practice is being undertaken by leaders in government, politics, and business, as well as engineers and health care workers to better understand the real needs of the people they serve.

Guidelines for living an empathy-centric life can be found in Miki Kashtan’s new book Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness.

Creating Cultures that Evoke Empathy

Groups and cultures traditionally and understandably celebrate themselves and promote empathy within their communities and limited circles of concern. This serves the solidarity, common sensibilities, and boundaries that make them coherent entities. We want to honor and support that dynamic.

Yet our modern world is now swarming with cultures tangled up and interacting with each other. Within, among, around, and beyond these cultures we also find billions of people and groups all seeking their own identity and a whole world of natural entities and systems manifesting themselves in unique ways – and all these are thoroughly interdependent and in need of empathic attention to help them move beyond invalidating, undermining, and destroying each other.

Pluralistic and multicultural visions inspired many forms of art, media, and interaction that have helped people enter into the life experiences of others unlike themselves. A leading edge example of this is the multiple-viewpoint drama pioneered by Anna Deavere Smith, who gave compelling one-woman performances of the actual voices of diverse people involved in major riots from every angle. Many forms of journalism serve this same function, although journalism’s “present both sides” rule is inadequate to reflect the multiplicity of viewpoints and experiences present in any issue or event. This was exemplified in dialogues among pro-life and pro-choice activists organized by the Public Conversation Project, which managed to successfully invite participants out of their polarized political boxes into an exploration of what they actually felt individually, exposing a full spectrum of responses to the difficult issue of abortion. We also can learn from the Restorative Circles movement that specializes in ensuring that people on various sides of a crime really hear each other’s stories of what happened and what led to it, and how to use that understanding to create better conditions in the future.

Still too much of modern culture evokes us-versus-them empathy – a self-centered empathy that reinforces our identity with our type of person, our culture, our country, our perspective or “side” of an issue, while demonizing – or, at best, ignoring – the “other”, whoever or whatever that may be. To the extent all cultures, groups, and sides do this, empathy becomes polarized and too narrow to prevent disastrous conflicts or serve our ability to work together on our rapidly emerging shared crises and opportunities. So we need to nurture cultures that, as a matter of pride, support and cherish the rich diversity within them while engaging in practices and events that evoke empathy and healthy interaction among all diverse people and groups.

Edwin Rutsch runs a resource-rich site promoting ongoing inquiry into many aspects of creating a culture of empathy.

Creating Social Systems that Promote Empathic Outcomes

On the face of it, this sounds similar to the previous category. But it is bigger: It involves institutionalizing both the practices that evoke empathy AND ensuring that the valuable products of empathy are produced whether or not the members of the society feel individually empathic beyond their immediate friends and associates.

For an example of institutionalizing practices that evoke empathy, consider official political framings, forums, and councils – such as Citizen Deliberative Councils – designed not to present pro-con, win/lose debates but to empathically clarify who believes what about an issue and why in ways that help ordinary citizens use the resulting understanding to work together to formulate broadly agreed, common-sense solutions. Politicians might be required to publicly respond to such conversations and have their responses publicly evaluated by the citizens involved.  Such a culture might promote the standard in deliberation that anyone who offers a proposal be willing to be the person most negatively impacted by their proposal. It might institutionalize things like Restorative Circles as a first resort in dealing with crimes, and promote or require mediation and principled negotiation to deal with civil conflicts.

As part of the expansion of empathy described in the first section, a society might particularly promote education in systems thinking, complexity science, psychedelic experiences, role plays like The World Game or sustainability oriented video games, and other ways of appreciating our interconnectedness with each other and the world as part of appreciating the world’s inherent interconnectedness.

Moving into the realm where the system promotes the outcomes of empathy even in the absence of empathic feelings, we find the promotion of rights – human rights and the rights of nature. Rights impart to a person or type of person – or any entity that society chooses, from corporations to animals and Nature – certain status, freedoms, protections, and entitlements, particularly immunity from abuse and freedom to shape their lives how they see fit within the constraints of decent treatment to others. The establishment of rights is usually accompanied by the promoters’ empathy for (or membership in) the group or entity being so legitimized. But once established, rights invoke a level of listening, support, and protection – things otherwise promoted by empathy – that exists whether or not people feel any empathy towards the entity with those rights. (I find it fascinating that the concept of “rights” rose to ideological prominence as part of a major social development – associated with the Enlightenment and the emergence of capitalism and democracy – whereby community and caring relationships were progressively superseded by bureaucratic state and corporate power, the commodification of life, and the cult of individualism. Modern appeals to empathy, community, sustainability, etc., can be viewed as an effort to counter the alienating and reductionist aspects of the Enlightenment.)

Several other approaches to institutionalizing empathy come from green economics. Perhaps the most profound (and elusive, in practice) is internalizing the social and environmental costs of a product into the price of that product. Currently most social and environmental costs are “externalized”, that is, society and future generations “pay” for the damage created by a toxic product rather than it being paid for by the company producing it and the consumer buying it. If those costs were included in the price we had to pay to buy it, then suddenly the most benign and sustainable products would be cheaper than the toxic ones. And if that were the case generally, then most people would buy healthy products simply because they cost less – even if those consumers are not motivated at all by the empathic sensibilities of environmental and social responsibility. The empathic result is rather built into the system via the price dynamics that govern the “free market”. The market would then go about healing the world instead of destroying it.

Other green economic ideas that serve this empathic purpose include supporting local economies, cooperatives, systems of sharing and gifting, and sustainable technologies of production, use, and disposal. When economic activity – and, we might add, politics and governance – are mostly local, people tend to know who else is involved, how they behave, and what the consequences of everyone’s actions are. The feedback loops are tighter, quicker, more personal, visible, and trackable. Although it is not guaranteed, we tend to find more caring and responsibility in such a local context than we find in national and global contexts where the connections are more dispersed. Co-ops, of course, require us to work together for mutual benefit, rather than for someone else who is managing or owning our work and our products – and that level of shared responsibility requires an ongoing level of empathy being present.  (In normal corporations top-down control dynamics enforce cooperation even in the absence of empathy, although more and more corporations are actively promoting empathy and empathy-based teamwork to enhance productivity.)

Whereas individualism and consumerism demand that we all own and control our own stuff, the expense and unsustainability of that approach is becoming increasingly obvious. We find more people sharing tools, housing, cars, garden produce, and any number of other things motivated at first by economic and ecological concerns, but then discovering the delightful side-effect of community, of getting to know each other and participating in the development of mutual aid networks that over time involve more and more gifting to each other. Numerous online sites facilitate connections between people who have various goods and services and people who need or want them. Visions of economies based on connection and generosity are emerging. Gifting and sharing can be based mostly on the satisfaction of needs (no empathy required) but they generate the most satisfaction when we actually know each other well enough to be creatively appropriate about the gifts we give and when we FEEL the humanity – both the need and the joy – that such a relationship fosters in all involved.

Related to both these green economic principles is the use of sustainable technologies, from solar power to recycling. Here again, empathy can be a guiding dynamic or the social and technological systems can simply generate the outcomes of empathy – healthy collaborative relationship, in this case with nature – without any need for empathic feelings. Central to green economics is the principle of working with nature. Nature recycles all its waste, so we can, too. Nature uses solar power, so we can, too. The fact that these practices are sustainable is grounded in the fact that they embody a partnership relationship with nature which, through eons of trial and error, has found patterns that work over long periods of time. Some of the approaches rooted in that worldview are permaculture, biomimicry, and The Natural Step, as well as many indigenous practices. Permaculture, in particular, involves a form of “listening” to the needs and gifts of a specific place or site that looks a lot like human empathy translated into human-natural sensitivity. But practices like these can be embedded in official policies and cultural traditions that don’t require any empathic feelings to generate the beneficial results that empathy normally brings.


Grounded in our built-in empathic sensibilities, we can expand our sense of the people and non-human lives to which our empathic feelings apply. And we can use specific practices to develop our empathic feelings and the ways we apply them in the world. Such individual and group approaches are vital but insufficient as strategies to ally ourselves collectively with all the living beings with whom we are becoming increasingly interdependent. For the sake of ourselves, future generations, and the fate of our world, we need to spread these enhanced sensibilities and empowering practices into every aspect of our society – and, beyond that, to shift our cultures, our economics, our politics, our justice systems and all other social systems so that they produce the benefits of empathy – bonding, partnership, and mutual aid – even in the absence of empathic feelings.

These strategies for consciously evolving ourselves and our societies embrace so many of the things that change agents and movements are already working on. Hopefully some of the good people involved in these efforts will find this empathy-centric perspective useful in doing their current work and shaping their strategic directions for the future. Perhaps some will explore further what might be involved in generating a movement whose goals, methods, and impact are all shaped above all by empathy.

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