INSPIRATION: Empathy and the Humanities

KathleenShannonKathleen Shannon, Catalyzing Newport strategist and facilitator, builds on her earlier reflection on Peter Senge’s workshop to explore the role of empathy and the humanities in problem-solving and the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration, which we are investigating this week with Tom Scheinfeldt.

The key to problem-solving. Realizing we are human first. Part 2

As described by Psychology today, “empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors.” Empathy is a key element to problem solving for complex modern day issues. The study of the humanities helps to build empathy. It reminds humans to be human – to feel and experience – to learn, to trust, and to listen to the diverse perspectives of the problem before imagining a solution. This empathetic approach leads to more holistic, long-term, and foundational solutions.

Solutions, however, prove to be more complex among 200-250 year old institutions. Their identities are rooted deeply in protecting their history, often with too few resources. Moving forward might require admitting we are a bit vulnerable and the answers are not in the file cabinets or readily available at a board/staff retreat. The more rooted the problems, the more perspectives are needed to shed light on it. Fresh, outside perspectives can offer new insights and solutions, but it is rare in practice. How often are historians asked to participate in governmental policy decisions? How often do we as humanities organizations engage experts from other sectors, e.g., environmentalists, designers, technologists, in our strategic planning around Grand Challenges?

By engaging experts in other fields such as life sciences, sports, engineering, art and design, and technology, we are not abandoning our identity, but rather sharing it. This practice accelerates creative exploration that can lead to the discovery of new ideas and opportunities as well as expand awareness and value for history among diverse audiences. This type of collaboration is rarified in the humanities. It is not because it is not valued, but rather the result of a lack of capacity and resources to nurture and sustain relationships that will take time and education. The default is to focus on the quick “symptomatic solutions” at hand, sometimes referred to as a “band-aid.” Moving conversations and actions toward transformative solutions requires time, collective action, careful planning, and trust.

So what we are saying is that “collaboration often comes too late” in problem solving . . . and as humanists, devoted to a civil society with values and dignity for our humanness, we should be reminding people of what it means to feel, experience, explore, and discover – to open the door to trust, confidence, and collaboration. So join us in an effort to put empathy back into our approaches, realize we are not alone, and think collaboration first.