My first empathy walk

Posted on September 16, 2010


I met a 3x cancer survivor, Alicia Staley, this afternoon, as part of an assignment in a leadership course at MIT Sloan. We chose Alicia based on an inspiring talk she had given the day earlier, which my partner for the assignment had attended. I must admit being slightly concerned about the value of meeting Alicia. My expectation of this ‘empathy walk’ assignment was that of a very experiential encounter with a person so different from myself that I would find it difficult to feel empathy for them, an experience that would really stretch me. Instead I was meeting with a person with a very similar background to myself who (how could I not!?) I already felt empathy towards.

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We discussed how we had both grown up in small villages, and how we recalled people greeting each other on the streets, how we were more exposed to people from different walks of life due to the physical boundaries and diversity of the village. In today’s urbanized, digital culture, it is too easy to escape the diversity of humanity. We can live amongst people very similar to us and participate in online communities, which on the one hand allow us to connect to a community, but on the other hand strengthen our ability to shield ourself from people different from us.

Alicia has done amazing work on creating a community for cancer survivors using Twitter. We discussed how strong communities often form when people go through similar experiences, especially periods of hardship, either at the same time or of the same nature. The strong bonds in these communities, the members ability to feel extreme empathy for each other, is based on this shared experience that they need no words to describe to each other.

She spoke about a friend who had described the experience of chemotherapy in a single sentence, along the lines of ‘riding a car with the windows down going backwards on a roller coaster track‘ – an experience similar to one I had, not in a hospital, but at Six Flags. This led us to start sharing more personal experiences, which helped us deepen our understanding of each other further.

The insight that we had from this is that empathy is based on finding common ground either through well chosen rhetoric (in the academic sense of the word) that enable us to recall experiences, and how they affected us, that relate to those the other person is experiencing, or by having gone through an identical set of experiences ourselves and therefore inherently feeling empathetic towards the other person.

We felt energized by the experience and agreed the following: Within 24 hours we will introduce each other to a person that we feel the other should meet. We will do an ‘empathy walk’ with that person, and then repeat the same process of introductions. Our hope is that this will ignite a new ‘empathy walk’ movement that will inject much needed eQ into our society. Get in touch if you want to get involved!