Social Entrepreneurship: It Starts with Empathy

empathy in Guatemala

by Greg Van Kirk

Social entrepreneurship work is wrapped in uncertainty, ambiguity and competing alternatives. Empathy is the way to succeed.

Empathy is the key to creating any social impact, big or small. Why? Because without it, we fail. It’s that simple.

But don’t just take it from me. Empathy is the first step in human-centered design. It has been researched and recognized as the key success factor for global citizenship. And business leaders know that putting empathy in action has a profound effect on their teams, interaction with their clients, product design and the bottom line.

It’s so important to see things from the other person’s perspective… I want our managers to care deeply about the people who work for them, to know a lot about each person individually and what motivates them.”

— Neil Blumenthal, Co-founder/CEO of Warby Parker in Inc. interview, “Why Empathy Matters”

What does empathy really mean? 

While there is a tendency to see it as a “fluffy” concept, it isn’t. Empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings”. It’s about the other (no selfies here).

Just as social entrepreneurship is aspirational, so is empathy. You never reach a perfect empathetic state. You never cross the empathy finish line. It is a practice that requires ongoing and intentional active engagement, reflection and analysis.

It’s not easy. We must work every day to trigger our empathy and embed it in the core of our decision making, interactions, and actions. Because without working daily to build mutual empathy, there can be no mutual respect. Without mutual respect, there can be no mutual trust. Without mutual trust, collaboration efforts are futile. Consequently, innovation becomes impossible. This is why empathy must come first.

You never cross the empathy finish line.

If we are not practicing empathy we will also potentially do more harm than good. 

A lack of empathy, generally unintentional, is at the root of so many failures we see to address poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement. Without empathy, we become indifferent. In the words of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner,  Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.

Related: Empathy First: Lead with the Need… Not Your Ego

In addition, when we don’t make the effort to become empathetic, we fall back on being sympathetic. Sympathy is a “me”- centered emotion that leads to undignified and overly simplistic responses to complex challenges, causing us to become distrustful and resentful: “Those people are lazy! They just want handouts!”

The good news is that empathy leads to inspired and elegant responses to challenges. It empowers us to build mission-focused, dynamic teams.

So how do we trigger our empathy to succeed?

There are three scenarios in which we experience empathy:

First, our empathy is triggered when we interact with someone we have a close relationship with. Think of how you are naturally empathetic towards your brother, a good friend, your mother.

Second, we are empathetic towards people who have a shared similar experience, but who might even be strangers at first. Think of Alcoholics Anonymous. Total strangers come together and instantly “get” each other.

And the third trigger is just plain old physical proximity. Experience things with people. Be present with those you hope to support: eat with them, play with them, go to church with them, work with them, share joy and pain. Most importantly: listen, listen, listen.

When we want to create social impact with and for marginalized communities, we typically don’t experience the first two triggers of empathy. We aren’t family. We are not from the same communities or demographic. We don’t have many similar or shared experiences. That is why spending time — intentional time — together is so critical. You have to engage! And if you engage long enough you get all three triggers of empathy working for you. That’s why the most powerful social impact happens when those closest to the situation take the lead. People from the same communities they are serving already have all three triggers of empathy. They really, really get it.

 If we hope to play a positive role in helping others to become more empowered to create positive change, we must start with empathy. In Ashoka words, “We need the skill of applied empathy — the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to guide one’s actions in response — to succeed in teams, to solve problems to lead effectively, to drive change.”

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