Home » Roman Krznaric on How to Start an Empathy Revolution (Full Transcript)

Roman Krznaric on How to Start an Empathy Revolution (Full Transcript)

Roman Krznaric, author on empathy and the art of living, discusses How to Start an Empathy Revolution at TEDxAthens 2013. Below is the full transcript of the TEDx Talk.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: How to start an empathy revolution- Roman Krznaric at TEDxAthens 2013


We live in an age of hyper-individualism, an era in which an overdose of free-market culture and simplistic self-help, have led us to believe that the best way to lead the good life, and achieve human happiness, is to pursue our narrow self-interest, to follow our personal desires. In a way, the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ has become the leading question of our time. And I believe we urgently need an antidote. And that antidote is empathy.

But what is empathy? Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person, and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world. It’s about understanding where another person is really coming from.

Now, we all know that empathy makes a difference in our everyday relationships. You’ve probably had experiences where you’ve been arguing with your partner, or your husband or your wife and you thought to yourself, ‘I wish they just understood my point of view’. I wish they understood what I was feeling. What are you asking for there? Empathy, of course, right?

But empathy can do more than help in our relationships. Empathy can create radical social change. Empathy, I believe, can create a revolution, not one of those old-fashioned revolutions of new laws and institutions, public policies, but a revolution of human relationships. And we urgently need this revolution because of a growing global empathy deficit.

In the United States, for example, empathy levels have declined by nearly 50% over the last 40 years. The steepest decline has been in the last 10 years. At the same time, we have worldwide growing social divides. In two-thirds of western countries, the gap between rich and poor is greater today than it was in 1980. At the same time, over a billion people in the world are living on less than a dollar a day. Everywhere we turn, we see the conflicts caused by religious fundamentalism, ethnic tensions and anti-immigrant sentiments. We urgently need empathy to create the social glue to hold our societies together and to erode the toxic ‘Us vs Them’ mentality, that is the cause of so much conflict.

Now, there is good news, which is that, 98% of us, say the neuro-scientists, have the ability to empathize and step into somebody else’s shoes. Our brains are wired for empathy. We are Homo Empathicus. But very few of us have really reached our full empathic potential. And as a society, we haven’t yet really learned to harness the power of empathy, to create social and political transformation. That’s why I’d like to talk to you today about eight ideas which I think can create and start a global empathy revolution.

The first, is to train up the next generation. Empathy can be taught and learned. It can be learned just like riding a bike or learning to drive a car. It’s best to learn it when you’re young. The world’s greatest program for teaching empathy is the one you can see on the screen here which is called the Roots of Empathy. It began in Canada, in 1995. Over half a million children around the world have now done it. It’s spread to many countries. A unique thing about it is that the teacher is a baby. A real live baby comes into the classroom, every few weeks, the same baby for a whole year. And the children sit around the baby, and they start talking about the baby. What’s the baby thinking, what’s the baby feeling, why is the baby crying, why is the baby laughing? They’re trying to empathize, step into the shoes of the child. And they then use that activity to start thinking about empathy on a wider scale. What’s it like to be bullied or persecuted in the playground?

Roots of Empathy has incredible impact. It increases levels of social cooperation and sharing amongst the pupils. It reduces bullying in the playground. It even increases academic attainment. That’s why I think every child should have the right to do programs like ‘Roots of Empathy’. I hope that my five year old twins get to do it too, because they are the next generation of change-makers.

But we can’t wait around 20 years. For these change-makers to emerge, we need to become more empathic ourselves, and lead the empathic revolution as individuals, as adults. That’s why we need to develop an ambitious imagination. The latest psychology research tells us, that if you mindfully focus on somebody else’s feelings and needs, that is, empathize with them, that increases your moral concern with them and can motivate you to take action on their behalves.

Now one of the greatest empathic adventurers in human history, Mahatma Gandhi, pointed out that we need to be rather ambitious about whose shoes we decide to step into. He famously said, in a quote called Gandhi’s Talisman, he said “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self is too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest man who you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away”.

Just imagine if that empathic message was on the desk of every banking titan or media baron, or even on your own. But Gandhi also pointed out that we need to push ourselves even further, that we need to empathize not just with the poor and the powerless, but also step into the shoes of our enemies. Gandhi was a Hindu who said, “I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew”. I think we all need to learn to empathize with our enemies, to increase our levels of tolerance, to make us wiser people and also to develop smarter strategies of social change.

But how does a Muslim get to meet a Hindu, or vice versa, how do you people here today get to meet people who are different from you, and step into their shoes? Well that’s why we need to do something else in the empathy revolution, which is to spark our curiosity. Now the problem is, that most of have lost the curiosity that we once had as children. We walk past strangers every day, without knowing what’s going on in their minds. We hardly know our neighbors. I believe that we need to cultivate curiosity about strangers in order to challenge our prejudices and stereotypes, because we so often make snap-judgments about people. I believe that the thoughts in other people’s heads, is the great darkness that surrounds us. And we need to use cultivating conversations with strangers to penetrate that darkness.

My advice is that as individuals, at least once a week you can have a conversation with a stranger. Whether it’s the person who vacuums the floor in the office, or someone who, you know, you buy a newspaper off every day. The important thing is to get beyond superficial talk and, just talking about the weather, and talk about the stuff that really matters in life: love and death, politics and religion.

But we also need to cultivate curiosity about strangers on a social level and promote projects like the Human Library Movement which you can see up here on the screen. It began about 10 years ago in Denmark and the Human Library Movement is now spread to over 20 countries. If you go to a Human Library Event, like this one in London, what you do, you go along and, instead of borrowing a book, as you would do from a normal library, you borrow a person, for conversation. It might be a Nigerian soul singer, or it could be a single mother living off welfare. The point is to have conversations with people who are different from you, challenge your stereotypes. Just imagine, if you organized a Human Library Event in your own community, who would you invite along for members of the public to talk to, to spark their curiosity?

Now, how do we know that these conversations and encounters between strangers, can really make a difference? History tells us so. We need to learn from history. We normally think of empathy as something that happens between individuals. But empathy can also exist on a mass scale, on a collective level.

Now, of course if you look through history there have been moments of mass empathic collapse. Think of the Holocaust, or the Rwandan Genocide. But there have equally been moments of mass empathic flowering. One that I think is vital to know about happened in the Second World War during the period of evacuation in Britain. When the Germans were going to bomb British cities, the government evacuated, sent away over one million children to escape the bombs, to go and live with foster families, with complete strangers. It was the greatest meeting of strangers in British history, maybe in world history.

And what happened? Well the result was that relatively well-off rural people living in provincial towns, were suddenly faced in front of them, with the realities of urban poverty in Britain’s cities because the children they saw now in their homes, were malnourished, had diseases, had torn and ripped clothes. There was a mass empathic response and public outcry, at the destitution that people now were suddenly discovered in their homes. And there was public pressure from women’s organizations, political groups, to pressure the government to introduce new child welfare legislation. And the government responded immediately, which is extraordinary because this was a moment in the middle of the war when there was great resource scarcity. The government introduced free food for children, new vitamins, new health packages, education packages. The government started, due to this empathic encounter, the origins of the British welfare state. It shows, I think, that empathy is not just a soft and fluffy concept about being kind to people. It can actually shift the social and political landscape.

We need to create encounters like this, today. Luckily, they are already happening. In the Middle East, for example, there is an organization called the Parents’ Circle. And it does extraordinary grass-roots peace-building projects. My favorite one, that they did was called the ‘Hello Peace’ telephone line. Now, if you are an Israeli, you could phone this telephone free phone-number, and you are put through to a random Palestinian stranger. You could talk to them for up to half an hour. Palestinians could phone the number and they were put through to Israelis. In the first five years of operation, over one million calls were made on this line.

Just imagine if you could set up one of those phone lines today between rich and poor or climate change skeptics and climate change activists. One thing I haven’t spoken about though, is creating experiential adventures. Just imagine if we didn’t just have conversations with people but we could actually experience something of their lives. I think a model of this is an organization called ‘Dialogue in the Dark’, which is a unique form of museum experience where you go into a room for an hour in complete darkness, and a blind guide takes you through to discover what it’s like to be deprived of your sight for an hour. You do activities like trying to buy fruit and vegetables and you fumble with your money. You go into a cafe, try and sit down and drink a coffee and, you know, find out how difficult it is. This museum experience is extraordinarily powerful for people, and this organization has spread around the world. ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ has appeared in over 130 cities, in 30 countries. In fact, it’s recently just opened in Athens, and over 6 million people have gone through its doors. So we need to create experiential adventures to expand our circles of moral concern.

We also need to learn to harness technology. Technology’s always been important in empathic movements. In the struggle against slavery in the late 18th century, the technology that was used was the printing press to print posters, tens of thousands of them of how many African slaves could be fitted on a British slave ship going to the Caribbean. This poster led to mass public outcry, petitions and it led to, eventually, the abolition of slavery and the slave trade itself.

Today, the technology we need to think about is social networking technologies, digital technologies. Now, we know that they can be powerful. We know that during the Arab Spring and in the Occupy movement, social networking platforms helped spread powerful emotions, like anger and like empathy. Somebody could take a photograph of a young woman called Nedā, shot on the streets of Tehran, and within hours millions of people around the world knew her name, about her family, who she was, and went on to the streets to protest at state brutality.

But you also need to recognize that modern technologies, digital technologies, have a danger to them. Because, most social networking platforms have been designed for the efficient exchange of information, not for the exchange of intimacy and empathy. In fact, they tend to promote, sometimes, superficial relationships. There’s a danger that they promote the quantity of the connections we make rather than the quality. They tend to connect us with people who are very much like us, who share our likes in music or films. So we need to create a new generation of social networking technologies, which focus on expanding deep empathic connection and connecting us with strangers.

But as well as this, we need to learn to become empathic leaders. Because we are all leaders, we all have spheres of influence, whether it’s in schools or in the workplace, in churches or community organizations. We can take a lead, I think, from great empathic leaders such as Nelson Mandela who realized, that in the transition from Apartheid, it was vital to try and create empathy and mutual understanding between black and white South Africans. That’s why, in 1995, during the Rugby World Cup, he asked black South Africans to support an almost all-white rugby team, a team that was a hated symbol of Apartheid. And the moment when he shook hands with the South African rugby President, after they won the World Cup, I think, was one of the great, empathic moments of modern history, and we can all try and follow Mandela’s example.

So those are the ingredients to start an empathy revolution. But there is one more I haven’t mentioned, which is to cultivate Outrospection. Socrates famously said that, to live a wise and good life, we need to ‘know thyself’. And we’ve traditionally thought that this means looking inside yourself, gazing at your own navel. But I believe to know thyself, we need to balance introspection, with what I call, outrospection. Outrospection is the idea of discovering who you are, and how to live by stepping outside yourself, and looking through the eyes of other people and discovering other people’s worlds. Empathy is the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection.

Now empathy, as a concept, is more popular today than at any moment in human history. It’s on the lips of politicians and neuroscientists, business leaders and spiritual gurus. Even in the last 10 years, Internet searches for the word empathy have more than doubled in frequency. That’s extraordinary. But we have to do more than just talk about empathy or search for it online. We have to turn empathy into a form of social action. We need to harness its power for social and political change. That is the way we’re going to create a revolution of human relationships in the 21st century.

Thank you.