How empathy is a part of systems-change work

Sep 2, 2022

Working with more than 400 communities across the nation and in Canada to improve education outcomes for children can lead to tension between meeting partners’ expectations and needs while also staying true to the mission of the work. Malai Amfahr, Senior Program Officer of Constituency Outreach and Engagement with the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, invited her colleagues in the HealthConnect Fellowship to reflect with her on how empathy can show up in systems-change efforts. Here are some insights shared from that conversation:

Empathy is about connecting with emotions.

“Empathy is not connecting to an experience; it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.” – Brené Brown, Dare to Lead.

Amfahr expanded on this understanding by talking about empathy as not feeling sorry or sympathy for someone, but rather, as about connecting with other people’s emotions, identifying how a person is feeling in an experience, seeing things from another point of view, and really listening to what others have to say.

Empathy allows us to see different perspectives.

Describing empathy in this expanded way connects to a critical part of systems-change work that involves seeing systems through other people’s points of view. As Amfahr explained, our own lens, defined by who we are and the experiences we’ve had, influence how we see the world. While we cannot fully remove our lens, we can use empathy to understand other people’s perspectives as truth, even when their truth is different than ours.

Empathy is about curiosity.

Changing perspectives requires being curious. It begins by asking questions.

“If we think about leading with empathy, we wouldn’t just charge right in with our opinions,” says Amfahr. “We would take time to ask meaningful questions to learn about our stakeholders and learn what that does and how it aligns with the work we’re doing.”

The Habits of a Systems Thinker framework encourages advocates to reflect on their level of curiosity with questions that include:

  • Am I open to other points of view?
  • As I learn about new perspectives, am I willing to change my mind?

We need to define our stakeholders first.

Thinking about all the stakeholders involved in working toward a mission can help you know where to gather various perspectives. Once you define who your stakeholders are – not just the partners already at the planning table – you can then think about what actions or decisions might look like from their perspectives.

Amfahr offered these questions to consider when leading with empathy from the viewpoint of stakeholders to a coalition:

  • What are their assets (from their point of view)?
  • Why are they important to our mission/mission of the coalition?
  • What do they have the power to change or influence and why would they want to play a role?
  • Why might they not be engaged?
  • Who, where, and how might be the best way to engage them?

We need boundaries with empathy.

One challenge with empathy is that it can lead to feeling overwhelmed by others’ experiences. Alyson Simmons, Executive Director of the Central Iowa Trauma Recovery Center, shared how we need to approach others who have experienced trauma “in a way that’s supportive and enduring.” Others agreed that it’s important to express compassion and support, but empathy can sometimes lead to inaction due to overwhelm, burnout in the work, or making the experience about you versus the person who experienced it.

Empathy and mission can overlap.

While empathy can help systems-change advocates appreciate stakeholder perspectives, the work requires balancing that input with the mission of the coalition or organization. Otherwise, you might risk diluting your efforts to meet everyone’s desires and expectations.

Amfahr shared how the balance can be viewed as a Venn diagram that represents your mission and your partners’ interests. You don’t want to go entirely into their circle or vice versa, but where the two circles overlap is where the work together should happen. Fellow Mike Armstrong shared how this plays out among transportation planners who hear feedback from residents that they want shorter commute times and how that feedback needs to be balanced with the mission of creating healthy and walkable communities—a desire people also have.

“The whole point is to be curious, to ask questions, to try to learn more, to not come at it from, ‘I know,’ but to come at it from, ‘I want to know.’ So how do you flip that when you're interacting with your constituents and your stakeholders? You really want to engage without preaching mission, in a way that is open and pulls folks in.” - Malai Amfahr

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