36 Hours in Empathyville

A visit to a land of empaths

Posted Jul 27, 2011

Imagine a room full of scholars, thinkers, teachers, administrators, social innovators, writers, and activists who have devoted their lives to understanding and practicing empathy. These people, many of whom wear more than one of these hats, are all gathered together for an intensive 36 hour workshop called "Empathy in Action."

What kinds of images come to mind when imagining this scene?

As one of the attendees to this conference that was recently held in Washington, DC, I admit that I had some trepidation about what exactly this group of people would be like. Would they have dreamy faraway eyes and fairytale imaginations? Would they "get personal" with me a little too quickly? Would there be group hugs? Would they use the word "vision" in every sentence? Would they be Luddites? And most importantly, would they chide me for my Gucci purse,* telling me that the money I spent on it could have gone to feed starving people in [INSERT COUNTRY HERE].

What are your stereotypes about people who are highly empathic, and who have invested their lives to genuinely making the world better in some way?

Anyway, here is what I found: the most defining characteristic of the 50 or so people who were at this conference was that they were people. That is, they were imperfect, which to me is the definition of human.

I walked in the room feeling like that kid in the cafeteria looking for a place to sit. The attendees were clear-eyed. Hmmm... cross that one off my list.

No one accosted me, in fact, it was the opposite. There seemed to be a higher percentage of introverts (shy folks) than usual in the room. Another one crossed off.

Hey - wait a second! Why weren't these people coming up to me? Couldn't they see how nervous I was? Why wasn't anyone making an effort to introduce themselves and make me feel welcome? I had better find a water bottle to cling to like a grown-up teddy bear. And so on, was my reasoning process, until, blushing, I realized how non-empathic I was being in that moment.

So I started with "hello, I'm Sara, nice to meet you" and throughout the next 36 hours, connections slowly and cautiously were built from that most fragile of social rituals.

Even more shocking was how different each of these people were from each other: There were younger people and there were more experienced people. There were people from Ivy league universities and there were people from small community elementary schools. There were parents and non-parents, women and men (!). There were hippie-dippie types, nerdy-wonky types (I'm outed), and 31 different flavors beyond. There were Americans and internationals, and people from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. There were thinkers, feelers, talkers, and doers.

So, 36 hours in a room full of very diverse people with many different ideas, and what happens? Well, what happens is what needs to happen if we want a more empathic world: we practiced empathy with each other. Tentatively, imperfectly, but sincerely. People came from so many different perspectives that this was not easy. Attendees made a conscious effort to listen, to limit interruptions, to stretch beyond their own knowledge and experiences, and to communicate in the universal languages of stories. Some of the braver people took risks, singing, telling jokes, drawing pictures, and risking one of the biggest fears people have (bigger than death), which is public humiliation.

Needless to say, I am perplexed at how this all worked, but saw ("had a vision of") a glimmer of possibility for the future of empathy.

And it begins with people like you. Imperfect people. But people who give a care about empathy.

Ashoka is the organization that sponsored this conference (along with the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust). You can read more about their empathy initiative at empathy.ashoka.org.

*For the record, I found this embarrassingly gorgeous piece of sleek design at a thrift-store. Not that pure aesthetic appeal needs much justification.