Acting On Empathy

THERE is a pervasive theory from people outside the development sector that those who work in nonprofits, charities, or field agencies are “do-gooders”, motivated by empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – rather than the drivers that influence those working in other sectors.

Do Gooders Or Doing Good?

Anecdotally, this is essentially true. However, as many NGO workers know, it is also nuanced. Bangalorean Rohit Shetti of SATHI, elucidates the problem with this ideal:

“Empathy is of course a desired trait, but we must live with the same range of human emotions in the development sector as in any other.

“However, with more and more professionalisation of the development sector, empathy will become harder and harder to find. But, we can always hope to find oases.

Aid worker, Adam Cole, a specialist on economic development from an African perspective, explains:

“I would differentiate empathy from compassion, sympathy, or good will. For example, I imagine evangelicals [Christians] often have the latter, but inadvertently cause harm by lacking genuine empathy – which is understanding the world through someone else’s eyes.

“With true empathy one would hopefully have an understanding of power dynamics and lopsided relationships.”

Inculcating Empathy

Studies by psychologists and neurobiologists show that your brain, as well as feelings and experiences, can affect one’s ability to empathise. But, fortunately for us, this trait can be learned through rigorous mindfulness, loving/kindness meditation, physical activity, or giving back through prosocial behaviour.

Forbes suggests these ways for corporate leaders to develop empathy, which are also relevant for nonprofit leadership:

“Attend to basic needs first, clarify questions and statements to make others feel heard, practice emotional intelligence by showing vulnerability, learn continually, recognise perspectives, unplug and be present, walkabout and listen, try teambuilding, grow empathy through self-awareness (a transference from personal connections to work relationships), start with you (advocate for yourself as well as others), and ask/reflect/communicate.”

So once this feeling is encouraged or instilled, how does one incorporate it into their daily work in a field?

Empathy In Practice

Shetti proposes that in reality, “True empathy means working with the community and getting the community itself to come up with solutions – maybe we [as development workers] can just articulate or advocate them [rather than coming up with the solutions for them]. This requires long term commitment, dedication, and could also involve sacrificing a part of oneself.”

From an NGO’s perspective, this bottoms-up approach, rather than the less relevant and unsustainable top-down method, encourages participation more than implementing projects on behalf of a community.

Research shows, by consulting with beneficiaries, participatory planning, developing community support, involving local government, and encouraging private sector participation, there is community-wide buy-in, therefore a larger likelihood of programmatic success.

Cole echoes this idea and backs the ‘Peace Corps approach’ which entails “helping people develop their capacity to use their own resources and skills to resolve their needs and improve their own lives”.

He explains that essentially, when individuals/teams go into a community, it should be with humility, a plan focused on listening and understanding, and a goal of empowering the community through capacity building so they can help themselves, rather than a notion of “changing the world”.

“See the world through their eyes. I think this builds trust and furthermore gives insight to the needs/wants of a community. In doing so, I think it’s important to get rid of any preconceived notions of a community (i.e. they are poor and unhappy or they are poor and so much happier).”

Share Your Experiences

How do you/your staff work to ensure that your organisation is truly empathetic in your work? Start a conversation in the comment section below with ideas on how to better engage within the communities in which you work.

Pic: Still from Love, Hate and Everything In Between, a documentary on empathy.

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