Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Can empathy be taught?

“Can empathy be taught?” This question came up when I and my friend Rahul Abhyankar were taking a stroll along Kaikondrahalli lake near our apartment. Rahul asked me, “What is one thing you wish were there as part of your engineering curriculum?” That got me thinking. I am fortunate to have gotten my undergraduate degree from one of the finest technology institutes in India (IIT Bombay).  However, I felt that the curriculum had little that will enable us to define which problems are worth solving. Now I know that empathy is the first step in that direction. Hence, the question, “Can empathy be taught?”

“Empathy” is tricky because it is not so much about a set of techniques that you can teach in the classroom. Or so it seems. Empathy is about understanding where “the other one is coming from”. It is a process of understanding some of the assumptions underlying other person’s context. Sometimes that can be drastically different from one’s own context. And then we end up defining the wrong problems to solve.

My favourite example of a transformation from lack-of-empathy to empathy is depicted in the 1988 Oscar award winning movie Rain Man. It starts by showing a young, ambitious, and selfish Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) discovering that his estranged father has died and has left very little for him of his multi-million dollar property. Moreover, Charlie discovers that most of the property has gone to his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant, whose existence Charlie was unaware of till then. Charlie pretty much “kidnaps” his brother from the mental institute in order to negotiate a deal to get his “fair” share of the property. As a result both brothers end up spending the next six days together on their way en route Los Angeles. At the end Charlie learns to care a little less about the money and care a lot more about his brother. It is a long way from where Charlie starts - calling Raymond “weird” or a “retard”.

Can a simple walk together as depicted in the movie poster generate empathy? MIT Sloan school has experimented with the concept of “empathy walk” in their leadership courses. Prof. Edgar Schein explains that “empathy walk” begins with following instructions to students – “As part of your homework next week you are going to pair up, preferably with someone you do not already know. Your first task will be to get acquainted with each other sufficiently to decide what kind of a person is most different from you concerning occupation, social structure, status, nationality, and so on. Once the two of you have figured that out, find such a person, and interview them about their world. Next week in class we will have each pair report on whom they picked, how they established contact and what they learnt from their get-together.”

How did an empathy-walk participant feel about it? The best source I found is a blog written by Allan, a student at MIT Sloan titled “My first empathy walk”.  In this Allan talks how he and his partner met with a 3x cancer survivor and what he understood by being empathetic. According to Allan, being empathetic is about finding a common ground among your differences. Will there always be a “common ground”? Ancient wisdom says that the answer is “yes”. Sometimes we refer to it as “humanity”. 

MIT is not the only place where empathy is taught. The other places where empathy is being “taught” are schools of Design Thinking in Stanford and Potsdam. Perhaps there are more.

Can we make “empathy walk” exercise a part of every school curriculum? I don’t know. What I know is that I plan to experiment with this concept in my workshops including the upcoming workshop on “Design Thinking”.

1 comment:

  1. How did Dustin Hoffman go about understanding what it is like to be an autistic savant? Dr. Darold Treffert who was a consultant for Rain Man during its making gives an excellent depiction in his article Rain Man, the movie / Rain Man, real life. Here is what he says about Dustin Hoffman:

    He watched hours of tapes and movies of savants, both autistic and retarded. He studied scientific papers and manuscripts, talked to various professionals, visited psychiatric facilities and spent time with savants and their families to experience those relationships firsthand. There were three individuals Dustin Hoffman met and studied in depth. One was Kim Peek who is described elsewhere on this Web site. Another was an autistic savant and his brother (just as in the movie) who prefer to remain anonymous. He spent a great deal of time with them in their typical family activities.

    The other autistic savant Dustin Hoffman got to know well was Joseph Sullivan who lives in Huntington, West Virginia along with his parents, Drs. Ruth and William Sullivan. There had been two excellent documentaries filmed about Joseph, a 1967 film called The Invisible Wall and a 1986 film entitled Portrait of an Autistic Young Man. Both were projects of the UCLA Behavioral Sciences Media Laboratory. Dustin Hoffman carefully studied not only the films themselves, but also some sixteen hours of outtakes from the 1986 production. Therein he was able to get a very in-depth look at a most impressive young man and his family.