Empathy 101: Try to Understand Their Perspective

Posted on 31st January 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I would like to recommend a thought-provoking article by Om Malik that ran recently in ‘The New Yorker’. Malik is a technology entrepreneur and writer based in California, and his article is a plea for those who benefit from globalization and digital progress to have more empathy for those who feel left behind.

Addressing a Technological ‘Empathy Vacuum’

The article – ‘Silicon Valley Has An Empathy Vacuum’ – is written with a keen awareness of the waves of political resentment that are washing across Europe and the US, and of their connection to digital progress: “Like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump has focused attention on the sense that globalization has eroded the real prospects and hopes of the working class in this country. Globalization is a proxy for technology-powered capitalism, which tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society.”

Data for the US economy make this resentment easier to understand: productivity and innovation continue to grow with technological progress, but median incomes are falling and there are fewer good jobs, particularly in certain regions. Some are doing very well economically – particularly those with advanced degrees or digital skills – but many fall behind because they cannot keep up with the changes that globalization and technology have wrought.

This article is also a reminder of a painful realization I had during the recent American presidential campaign. As I heard and read the snarling rhetoric from the campaign trail I realized that in many ways I am a prototypical target of that populist resentment: I am certainly not a member of the economic elite, but I am a highly educated expatriate, multilingual, comfortable with technology, and working around the world thanks to opportunities generated by decades of globalization. It would seem that millions of my countrymen resent people like me and have no appreciation for and little understanding of the life I lead. And if I am honest, I haven’t made much of an effort to appreciate or understand them, either.

I need to do better empathizing with people on the ‘other’ side of this social and technological divide. Malik puts it well: “It is time for our industry to pause and take a moment to think: as technology finds its way into our daily existence in new and previously unimagined ways, we need to learn about those who are threatened by it. Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced. Let’s start by not raging on our Facebook feeds but, instead, taking a trip to parts of America where five-dollar lattes and freshly pressed juices are not perks but a reminder of haves and have-nots.” Food for thought.

Good luck, and until next time…