System Thinking With Empathy and Outrospection

December 4, 2012

By Matt Palmer

The 99%. The 47%. The Right, The Left. The Centerists. The Deniers. The Environmentalists. The Elite. And on, and on. Labels. Social stratification. Dividing points. Intractable positions. I win if I can make the other side lose.

On some levels, society has become a nasty place. The tendency to find points of division is greater than our ability to embrace our commonalities. Certainly the modern media machine has an agenda to amplify these divisions, making for more compelling television or media experiences; at least that is the prevailing attitude.

There are big challenges before us today around climate change, energy, food, water, and structural strains within the global economic system. How do we shift and transition? Can it be done if the divide between sides continues to widen?

How does true social change happen? What will inspire the next revolution in human relationships? What can be learned from the reconciliations in Rwanda? Or the abolishment of slavery in the UK in the 1800’s?

There are many theories about how this can be done, or should be done. I watched a great  video today from RSA Animates called “The Power of Outrospection” by Roman Krznaric, that suggests cognitive empathy as a critical tool for the solution set.

Cognitive empathy is about perspective: stepping into someone else’s world, and coming to understand their worldview. How do they experience the world? What are their beliefs and fears? Not letting labels define what we think of or believe about others.

Imagine an energy debate where groups divided by rhetoric come to understand the unity of their values? As Krznaric points out, empathy can be a collective force, and even more powerful if we expand our universe to develop new friendships with those we spit vitriol at. It reminds me of a radio interview I heard a while back on CBC with a female environmentalist. She was out for a walk with her newborn child and ran into an oil company executive out with her newborn. They were bitter enemies, yet agreed to walk together. They walked and chatted for a long while, and the environmentalist, who had previously had extremely negative feelings towards this other woman, realized “She doesn’t wake up every morning with an agenda to destroy the world.”

Empathy requires vulnerability. To be vulnerable is not weakness, rather as vulnerability expert Dr Brene Brown says, “It is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change.” I wrote about Dr Brown’s very powerful TED talk here.

Stepping outside of ourselves to understand others, as Krznaric suggests, is not an easy thing for many people. In fact, I would argue that Web 2.0, the social media revolution, which has the objective of connecting us, has in many ways disconnected us not only from each other, but from ourselves. Authenticity has become whatever fits within a 140 character tweet. We reach out to others through Facebook status updates, and text messages, where interpretations can easily get muddled or worse, rather than reaching out to shake someone’s hand, and looking them in the eye over a coffee.

As we move forward, solutions will come through embracing a system thinking approach to complex challenges, and giving greater weight to vulnerability and empathy, than certainty. Because as empathy and vulnerability become essential components of our art of living, as Kznaric suggests, we all gain a greater depth of human experience and more authentic lives. Divisions get bridged, solutions are found and implemented. It sounds simple, yet some readers will want to complicate it, deny it, refute it. And so, we reach out again with vulnerability and empathy. The circle of the art of life.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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