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8. The Death of DEI
  • Writer's pictureAntonio Da Veiga Rocha

Empathy & Sympathy, Two Different Things.

There are strengths in both Sympathy and Empathy, but in the world of Diversity and Equity Empathy tends to carry more weight. This is mostly because Empathy requires a type of action that is more involving and evolving. Let’s first start with some definitions, both of the dictionary type and of our own here at KinSite.

'Sorry for Your Loss'

Sympathy is the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. It is also an expression of common feeling between people. Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of others. Though they may sound the same, they are quite different. Sympathy is that action we often express when someone’s family member has passed away: 'So sorry for your loss'. We want them to know that we feel for them, that we hold a sense of sorrow. This sorrow may or may not be a sentiment that comes from practice or experience perse, simply, an understanding of the current moment and of what others generally do in such moments. We can express sympathy merely by having 'common understanding'.

Walk a Mile in My shoes

Empathy, on the other hand, is first and foremost an ability that comes from practice (in all the many ways that we think of practice; study, training, activity, etc.). It requires shared perspectives and shared understandings, not only common. You may have heard the saying: You need to walk in someone’s shoes to truly know what they are going through. This saying is speaking about empathy. It asks the individual or group to be active in the process of understanding and sharing (the practices), that only by experiencing some or all of another’s journey/s can one have a better understanding of that other's position.

The Focus on Empathy

So why is the Diversity and Equity world so focused on the practice of Empathy versus Sympathy? Most of D&I work is opening up spaces so that those in the peripheral can also be centralized. Practitioners of D&I work not only seek diversity in social spaces but also that those spaces be just to that very diversity. This combination of diversity and equity is imperative, but it all first begins with diversifying the space, both physically and mentally. And so why diversification? Well, to work against homogeneity. To give you an image to work with, a homogeneous space is like a cocoon with mirrored walls. It feeds on itself because it is its only reference, and through such references seeks reasoning for its isolation. So much so that much of its capacity for empathy (in any scale) gets diminished due to its inward performances. What we want is the opposite of this experience (a space of differences) and empathy plays a big part.

Human evolution happens through the practice of encountering and working with differences (diversity). It is the natural way of all living things on earth (biodiversity). We come across the most detrimental human sufferings and pain when we ignore and/or remove this truth. To get homogeneous spaces to understand such importance and truths, the locomotion becomes the conscientious practice of stepping into someone else’s shoes; the practice of Empathy.

The Practice

So how does one begin to practice Empathy? Here are five steps that can get you started along this road of empathy work.

1. Do Some Homework: Much like with any learning, homework is important! If you are generally comfortable in your personal and/or work life, it means you hold certain privileges. So, ask yourself: what distresses are out there that I haven’t experienced in my day-to-day, or have had limited encounters with, and how may they be impacting people’s lives? How are such added stresses affecting their day-to-day? And what unfair challenges are they having to push through to arrive at the space I now occupy?

2. Invite Some Discomfort: It’s hard to go against the weight of comfortability, but empathy work requires you to explore someone else’s position. This will likely mean entering spaces that are uncomfortable for you, that expose you to areas of the human experience that you haven’t experienced or have limited experiences with. As such, inviting some discomfort into your life in order to gain perspective and knowledge, becomes an invaluable step forward.

3. Explore Identities: One of the best ways to practice empathy is by studying people’s identities, and your own! What makes you who you are? How have you come to be? What are your identifiers, both the visible and invisible ones? How does society view your identifiers and those of others? How do you view others’ identifiers and what preconceived notions do you, we, they, carry towards them? Where do such notions come from? How were they formed? And many others. Remember that empathy asks you to step into someone’s shoes, so it’s not only a matter of exploring their identity but identifying ways of better understanding them.

4. Minimize Judgement: Notice that we don't say 'Don't judge!' It’s actually important to judge as it’s part of our safety mechanisms. As such, we shouldn't stop it, but what we can do (I would also say 'must do') is monitor it and inform it. Empathy practice requires you to minimize your judgment so that you can be open to learning. If we use the ‘step into my shoes’ example, it’s as if you smelled the shoes and judged the overall outcome. You have learned nothing and have only reenforced some previous notions. What you’ve not done is inform your judgement by feeling the shoe, the weight, texture, comfort, fit, and markings, of it, along with the characteristics that gave that shoe its identity. Only by moving through as much of the process (involving) can we best create understanding (evolving).

5. Invite Differences: Our lives are motivated by them, or at least, by the possibility of them! It is in our nature to expect differences in the everyday. What has happened is that we have been taught that security lies only in the known, the familiar; in sameness. So much so that we mechanically move towards homogeneity against our natural instincts, and when we arrive there, we immediately notice that something is missing. In fact, many things are missing, they’re called Differences.

The Importance of Differences Continues

The process, study, and the practice of Empathy is not an easy one, and not one that can be completed in only five steps. It's not independent of ability and experience, and it requires the building of relational concepts along with the starting process described above. Still, it is a practice that is woven into every society's history, from their religious studies to their governing processes. Though we share this ability with other animals, it is a process human beings are the most capable of achieving and the most adapt at understanding. One is never too masterful of its knowing and never too late for its impact. Here at KinSite we say bring Empathy Practice into your life/work spaces and watch as your social-relational outreaches become that much more successful.


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