Empathy allows us to understand others

'Putting yourself in someone else's shoes' is an imperfect metaphor for understanding what they are feeling. Picture: TSPL
'Putting yourself in someone else's shoes' is an imperfect metaphor for understanding what they are feeling. Picture: TSPL
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IF YOU must swap shoes, it is desirable to find someone with the same size feet and an aesthetic sensibility close to your own. A shoe size up or down, laces instead of velcro, patent leather over moulded plastic, all are a challenge to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Whereas the person you swap shoes with might like theirs, for you those very same shoes might be uncomfortable, not cool or just plain ugly. They won’t make you feel the same.

This renders ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’ an imperfect metaphor for understanding what they are feeling. I think the main difference between empathy and sympathy is this: the latter is a detached observation of someone’s emotions, the former is toe to toe, seeing an individual’s pores close up as if in a mirror.

It would be far easier to sympathise with a person whose feet are squeezed into a pair of shoes a size too small with heels an inch too high than to have feelings of empathy. Empathy takes effort.

One of the reasons you might not drive at 45mph in a school zone is because you can empathise with the shock of the impact, the pain, the crushingly hard surface of the road against your face. It is a mark of just how complex human beings are that where the presumed empathic response to potential pain and death has failed to reduce speed, the smiley LED face for keeping to the speed limit has succeeded.

Empathy; what’s in it for me? In the case of the caring professions one answer is that empathy is an essential tool which might lead to a better response to helping them. Where empathy fails there is always the argument that it is also a job and the smiley LED face incentive is translated into one of money.

The salaries of chief executives in charities has caused some controversy. Salaries for public sector workers are now in the spotlight due to the recent industrial action in pursuit of better terms and conditions.

One chief executive I spoke to, who was looking to cut the pay of hundreds of their staff, bridled at the suggestion that they should make a corresponding cut in their own salary. The chief executive said that they would not; the reason for the salary reductions for staff was to address the need for large savings and a matched reduction in their own salary would have made a negligible contribution. You can’t argue with the logic but you can balk at the lack of empathy.

A similar empathy gap exists within the procurement function of public bodies. Naturally everyone would wish to aim for an efficient and cost-effective use of public funds.

Nowadays many care-providing functions which historically were provided by local authorities are carried out by the voluntary and also private sectors under block or individual contract. In seeking to gain best value for the public purse there is a pressure on commissioners to minimise the rates charged by non-public bodies. The consequence is a downward pressure on the salaries of those paid to work in these services; many staff in the voluntary and private sectors performing care roles have jobs with inferior terms and conditions compared to the person at the checkout when they do their shopping; or to the person who cuts their hair, with no disrespect to them. But this is the result of a process that is presided over by staff in the public sector.

In fairness there is an anecdote about a local councillor who, when challenged about a local authority body being given preferential treatment, responded that the council wouldn’t have created it only to give it no business; a case of empathy trumping procurement legislation.

When we lose the capacity to empathise with someone because they are an anonymous part of a large group, or so distant from our own experience that we struggle to identify with them, we lose sight of them as fellow human beings.

It is one thing not to want to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is quite another when you tried the shoes on before they did, hated them and put them in a pretty box with their name on it.

• Lesslie Young is chief executive of Epilepsy Scotland, www.epilepsyscotland.org.uk