How do you empathize with people you can’t relate to?
A few years ago, I led a social entrepreneurship club at my college. We were working on cleaning ponds for communities which lived nearby. Each community had a pond that served their daily needs. However, due to lack of awareness, every pond was so unkempt that it almost looked like a football field because of the algae layer. People would bathe, wash utensils and even defecate in the same pond.
So, we brainstormed and got to the task of developing a cleaning pump that would rid these villagers of the polluted pond at a negligible cost. We thought we had outdone ourselves until we visited the villagers again. You see, we had never bothered to ask the villagers if they really cared about clean water because it seemed so obvious a problem to all of us since we were privileged enough to have a regular and clean supply of water throughout our lives. We went with an offer of Rs 10 per family per month for the service. The first family refused. We persisted. We proceeded to talk to over 15+ families and we could only find a single family who was ready to pay. We were in shock of what had transpired. We asked if they didn’t care about their children’s health. We questioned if they realized that a lot of diseases they had been suffering from were water-borne. But they didn’t budge. We couldn’t make a lot of sense of it at the time.
That led us to a deeper question. How can someone not care about such basic necessities of life? How can someone be so different from us (assuming you’re also privileged enough)? How do you develop empathy for someone whose core life principles are in stark contrast to yours?
Before I delve into helping you find the right answer, let’s first understand what is common in all of us human beings, and what decides our actions/intentions. You see, all humans have a basic tenet that binds us together. We all have yearnings that we’re constantly trying to fulfill. These yearnings are of 5 types- personal, social, lifestyle, moral and practical.
Since each of us is built differently, we have different magnitudes of each yearning. It depends on your current as well as past circumstances. Our life is a constant act of juggling all these yearnings. Most often than not, there is a tradeoff to be made. If you try to fill up your yearning to find fame (social yearning!) then you must work hard which implies giving up on a part of your personal yearning of having more time for yourself. Needless to say, no one in this world has their yearnings sorted out.
All these yearnings are important to us and each yearning holds a different magnitude depending on what kind of human being you are and what circumstances you are in and have been in the past. So, when you want to understand someone’s perspective, think about the sub-components of each of their yearnings. Create a mental model of their yearnings’ chart. For example, a typical 60 year old would be high on social (social status), lifestyle (work-life balance) and practical (health) yearnings whereas a typical teenager would be high on personal (identity) and social (acceptance) yearnings.
Cool. Let’s rewind back to our question. How do you empathize with people who are on the opposite end to your human yearning’s chart? Let’s take the case of the village which didn’t care about clean water.
If you visualize a yearning chart for them, it would probably look very similar to this one.
Notice that the ‘Practical’ yearning is off the roof and crosses that red line mark. Well, each yearning has a threshold to it. When a yearning crosses a certain magnitude, you start making ludicrous trade-offs. When such thresholds are crossed, the person would do anything to fulfill that yearning at the cost of other yearnings. This is especially true for ‘Practical’ yearning where trade offs are more prominent compared to other yearnings. Someone who has crossed the threshold on ‘Practical’ yearning will be ready to give off any personal freedom, moral obligations (if it can) to fulfill the yearning. If you do not have food on your table, you mostly would not care about finding your passion. In essence, if your actions fulfill a yearning for someone who has crossed a threshold in any of the other yearning, it’s incredibly tough to get a meaningful and sustainable outcome out of it since the person will trade it off for temporary relief.
So, the next time when you want to peek into someone’s point of view, try building this yearnings chart in your mind (or on paper)! It might just make your life easier and also don’t forget to thank Tim Urban who in fact inspired this article (and is the original author of the yearnings concept) through his amazing blog that you should totally check out.(https://waitbutwhy.com/2018/04/picking-career.html).