Before Empathy. The missing link.

I recently gathered with Denver’s creatives for a celebration of “Empathy”. This monthly gathering emanates social innovation, social change and the nature of our innate, human desire to establish empathy with one another. To find community.

With international travel and education, empathy has become a “buzz” word whose ubiquitous nature leaves us wondering what the word truly means. “Empathy” implies the ability to understand how someone thinks or feels. Realistically, it’s impossible to fully comprehend the inner-workings of another human being or another culture. The only story we ever truly know is our own.

Here’s the problem: We frequently delve into empathetic rhetoric without first asking ourselves the question, “Why am I here?”

How can we engage authentically with one another if we don’t initially understand, at least to some extent, our own purpose and truth? How can we pretend to “empathize” when we forget to take time to welcome stories and learn the tools necessary to actually listen to one another?

In an article by Stanford University, the author simultaneously encourages “service-learning” (read: doing for) and abhors the idea that Westerners travel to other countries to implement their own ideas (read: learn from)! The juxtaposition of thought leads me to surmise that as a whole, we are still grappling with the paradigm shift of “doing for” and “helping” to “learning from” and “collaborating”.

I have witnessed empathetic negligence in schools in the U.S. and within collaborative learning programs abroad. People are trying to do good, yet are impeded by predetermined agendas implemented by organizations and history. The classroom and education are victim to the bane of history as well. We know we have to engage students, engage with students and encourage students to do the teaching and the learning in a collaborative way. As educators, we have to relinquish expectations of a specific outcome and welcome ideas we never could have conjured ourselves. (Kudos to those educators willing to facilitate as opposed to teach!)

Even in the design-thinking education model, empathy comes first. But we’re missing something. We haven’t asked that preliminary, essential question: Why am I here?

Here’s the solution:

  • Ask yourself the question: Why am I here?
  • Learn how to listen effectively and create space to find cultural empathy. “Walk with” your community.
  • Be willing to shift perspective in order to collaborate and create change together.

Away 2 Be provides local and global platforms to ask “Why am I here?” We listen, we engage and we facilitate change from a sustainable, comprehensive foundation.

Whether involved in meaningful, international travel or educational innovation, take the time to follow these three steps. Though “empathy” may be inherently ironic, the initial steps we take to achieve it will benefit ourselves, our local community and our world.




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