Empathy: the force that has guided and will continue to guide great strides in humanity, creativity, and society

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Empathy is an often misunderstood or misinterpreted word. It suggests consideration for the plight of the less fortunate, the troubled, the persecuted. However, empathy is actually a human ability that is fundamental to creativity and societal evolution. The philosopher and author Roman Krznaric speaks of our history being categorized as moments of empathic flowering or moments of empathic collapse (see video below). These moments of empathic flowering are interestingly also associated with great advances in creativity (think of the rise of great civilizations such as the Greeks). We may actually be in a time of empathic flowering if we consider the many social movements happening around the world (ie Occupy, Arab Spring, etc.) as well as a growing movement towards social responsible marketing (see articles here and here and here).

The power of empathy is that it requires you to make yourself vulnerable. This too is important for great creativity because you allow yourself to be in a position to see and feel things that others don’t. Vulnerability ensures a level of transparency, it allows you to connect at a deeper level with those in front of you or issues that are facing you, and it encourages behavior that is authentic. All of these traits are currently hot topics within the creative and marketing community. Moreover, as the world now becomes more socially-driven through technology platforms, the opportunity for empathy is higher because there are more vehicles to allow or push vulnerability.

Another important ingredient for empathic flowering is to be able to immerse yourself in the reality of those creating plight, not just in those suffering plight. Change obviously comes through the awareness of issues and championing action, but change also comes by knowing the motivations or realities of those forcing problems and working with those societal and social systems (or paradigms) to change behavior. Roman Krznaric speaks about this in his video as does Charlotte Beers in a recent TedxWomen speech (see below). Her example relates to an unexpected situation with a beer client when she was the CEO of a major advertising firm. 


The opportunity that we have with empathy is to nurture it proactively versus reactively. As this article has suggested, much of the actions of empathy are in reaction to situations. At the same time, a more empathetic society has greater potential. If we are to continue relying on a reactive use of empathy, we will need a good dose of fate to have moments of positive change. However, if we were to build institutions that allow empathy to be nurtured (much like it is naturally in human evolution – see video from Jeremy Rifkin), then we would make vulnerability more accepting and put ourselves in a more conducive state for creativity. Krznaric suggests having museums or exhibitions where empathy in the real world past and future can be experienced and discussed. A very cool idea. More companies should also look to play a part in encouraging empathy through their own actions, and through the communications initiatives that they deploy into the world. 
What do you think about the role of empathy in the evolution of society?

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