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Weaponize Empathy

Exploring empathy has a two-fold purpose for me:

  1. Once or twice in my life I have been told I only have one feeling, and while a bit tongue in cheek from close friends, empathy has been something I have wanted to continue to develop and truly believe is one of the most important skills you can develop as a leader.
  2. Anyone who explores social innovation or has an interest in solving problems from a human centered perspective is keenly aware that empathy is a key ingredient within the recipe of innovation. More importantly, being empathetic is one of the most powerful influences to bring about change, solve problems, and bring people together.

Leading innovation is part of a role I took on about a year ago as part of my responsibilities as a leader within the fire service. Not long ago a few team members and I took part in an empathy workshop put on as part of some amazing work being done at the City of Calgary in regard to innovation. Post workshop, I got thinking specifically about the work I am doing, and what the world is coming to after the events of the past few weeks and months… Virginia, North Korea or the US presidency, just to name a few.

Various thoughts came to mind, including disappointment in those who I believe should know better. But then I began to self-reflect. Mainly I still have hope that good triumphs over bad, and there is some semblance of justice yet to come as we have hopefully evolved as a human race. Through all of that, I thought about the notion of what the world would look like if we weaponized empathy.

I know the meaning behind the term “weaponizing” something is actually to “arm an object for destruction”, so what if we applied that philosophy with empathy as the object to destroy our impatience and intolerance in our day to day interactions? If I take a minute to think how many times I am impatient with the people I care about most, let alone co-workers or even strangers, no wonder some days we have it tough!

I realize I am being somewhat idealistic at the concept of empathy for all, and why can’t we just get along, but I would say that what I am suggesting is deeper than “love everyone, and let’s just get along”. What would your day to day look like if you really truly tried to understand a person’s perspective, experiences, and thoughts that form their feelings in your interaction?

What if we refocus the energy we employ in our personal defense weapons on destructive empathy? How about weaponized empathy? Really what I am getting at is reversing that negativity and reprogram it in our brains to have our first thought be, “ I wonder why,” and being curious about each other’s perspectives vs. being offended and thinking of how to respond back, locked and loaded and enforcing our rights?

Assumptions and misbeliefs are significant barriers to empathy and directly contribute to how we feel about a situation. More importantly, we need to test whether our feelings are lying to us about a particular situation – just because we feel does not mean it’s true. How often have you offended someone only to realize that your intent did not match the impact it had on the person and the situation? Ding ding ding, winner winner chicken dinner – well at least for me, anyways.

How often have you been in a position of disagreement or dissension on a particular point, and felt like if only the other party would just see your point? Whether it’s solving problems or working through conflict, the same principles can apply.

Warning, at first people may wonder why you are so curious to understand, but that will pass so do not let it discourage you in your approach! Test yourself for a week and I guarantee you will begin to see a change in your world and interactions.