Dear Richard,

I enjoyed reading your blogpost for #SCD2016. It’s especially what you wrote about empathy, that made me think about it longer. And it made me very curious. Can empathy help, to make cyber space a better place?

I’m familiar with the concept of empathy as a means to get along well with people and groups in everyday life. It’s one of the soft skills requested by my job. We talk a lot about it in management meetings.

I like your short and gripping definition of empathy, ‘to put oneself in the shoes of another in the attempt to understand them’.

Often it’s easy to find the empathy in me for a person. That’s the case, when there are similarities between me and the other person, when I can feel as they feel, when I can follow their thoughts, when I can agree with them. Commonly we call that not being empathetic to each other, but having a good chemistry together.

And then sometimes empathy is not so easy to find. That happens, when I do not agree with a person about values, that are important to me, when the person behaves in a way I find unacceptable or inappropriate. In most such cases I wish I could simply turn away from that person and leave them to their fate. 

But in business world that’s mostly no option. People have to work together. 

So I try to find as much understanding as possible. And that works best by trying to take that person’s view on things, to step in her/his shoes as you call it. That works, when I have some knowledge about that person. It doesn’t work when I know little or nothing about them, because then I need to speculate and that may mislead me completely. 

Empathy needs information about my opposite person. That’s in my view and experience the most limiting factor to that concept in real life.

You may possibly not have trouble with this restriction, while approaching a fictional character, you want to play. You will often find lots of information in the scripts and you may fill in, what lacks. 

With enough information, empathy is brilliant to grow an understanding.

This in mind, I wondered if I (as a well wishing fan) can empathise with you. 

I know very little about you. I know a bit, how you work (❤️ it) but I don’t know much about your background. Some facts, yes. Mum, Dad, Brother, school, studies, work. But how did it feel to you to be the little brother? How did it influence your life? Things like that shape our view on this world profoundly. 

I know definitely too little, to step into your shoes and try to see the world with your eyes, to understand you.

So the answer is: No, I can’t be empathetic with you. As much as I’d like to be, it’s impossible.

That thought surprises me, especially seing all those fan discussions about you, your intentions, your views on the world, often driven by the wish to be empathetic, to understand you. Impossible, all just speculation.

Nevertheless this speculation often has a base. 

Being unable to step into an other person’s shoes, people often put that person (in this case you) into their own shoes instead.  And imagine, how they would feel in the other person’s situation. They process their experiences and values on situations, happening to the other person. As different as people are, as different are the answers they find. And that fuels many discussions. 

That point is surely caused a lot by our online lifes. As most of us, you try to give away as little private information as possible online. Mostly even less, than we do in real life. 

On the one hand that may be a good strategy, to survive on line and it may prevent a lot of harm and abusive experiences. 

On the other hand it also makes empathy impossible. 

The more I protect myself online, the less I can expect empathy from my surrounding. 

‘Every human being deserves empathy’, I can completely agree with that. But as long, as cyber world is a world to hide more, than to show, the concept of empathy alone can’t make this part of our world better.

But something else, you speak of, can help!

My real life strategy to deal with people, I don’t know well, is to look at their intentions. 

We are mostly very suspicious about people’s intentions. Very often we define people’s intentions by some facts we interpret. 

As ‘One, who supports Donald Trump can’t have good intentions’. 

But is that true? 

Honestly, we can’t know it. Most of us will have made experiences already by having made a bad choice in best intentions. 

We humans can’t live with black holes in our pictures of other humans. Our brain isn’t able to just have a half picture. There is no category for ‘Don’t know yet’. Therefore we complete our picture of persons at those black holes. We do that, by using our experience and our values, hugely without knowing at all, that it happens. Our brain does it for us. Brilliant thing, such a brain. Sadly not programmable like our computers. It’s programmed by evolution and our experiences. And evolution is slow. Human evolution hasn’t really had time enough to catch up with our globally connected online and offline world yet.

There is one option to program our brains though, that we can use deliberately. That’s our experience. Experience grows from doing things. When we do good positive things, that programs our brain as much as all negative ones. Sadly that’s too often out of our control. Bad things happen to us and we can’t change it. 

Therefore it might be good, not to rely on our own experiences alone, facing unknown persons.

That in mind, I always simply suppose, my opposite person has good intentions. She/he wants to do as well as possible, just like me (I’m very good of course, always have just the very best intentions).

This technique is brilliant, it often gives me a very different look at a person, their actions and thoughts. A thing, I can’t accept being done in bad intentions, may be considerable to be done in good intentions. (Not supporting Trump though!)

It works astonishingly good. Not in all cases, of course sometimes people have no good intentions. Bad much more seldom, than most of us imply.

At the same time it seems to be so very difficult. Our wish, to categorise people in good and bad is obviously really strong. I often meet people, who tell me, they find themselves unable to try this strategy.

It’s very common to classify things we’re not sure about rather as bad, than as good. That surely was helpful in the Stone Age, when it was risky to trust people with a spear. 

The good of this technique of implying good intentions is, that it works before we know much about a person. For me it’s often the step, that opens the way to empathy. It’s much easier  to communicate with people, who have good intentions. I can be more open, and then they can be more open. That can lead to understanding.

And, it doesn’t only work in our real world space, it also works very well in cyber space❗️

Thank you, Richard for making me think and reflect this topic. I’m astonished by my results, but I’m wiser now.