As charity leaders we talk a lot about generosity and volunteering, and quite rightly so. But in my view the skill that unlocks everything else (and is rarely spoken about) is empathy.
It’s perhaps best summed up by that old adage: "You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes." Empathy is identifying with and sharing someone’s feelings at an emotional level. And empathy lies at the heart of all charitable work – listening to people outside our immediate circles, understanding how their circumstances, needs and views differ from our own, inspiring action.
A crisis of empathy
New YouGov research points to a real crisis of empathy in UK society. The majority of British adults said they felt there was less empathy in society now compared with 12 months ago. All sorts of factors could be contributing to this – the uncertainly around Brexit and the alienating effects of social media – but it’s clear that cracks are appearing nonetheless.
The reality is we’re not listening to each other and, in particular, we’re not engaging with people who are different from us. Why should we be concerned? Because falling levels of empathy mean fewer donors or potential volunteers will support our causes.
It’s about seeing things from other people’s point of view; not just their rational arguments, but understanding how they feel.
Creating a more cohesive society
This works at a micro level, person to person, helping you form deeper friendships and more successful relationships at home and in the workplace. But it works at a societal level too, improving political discourse. The world’s greatest leaders and most successful diplomats recognise the importance of putting yourself in other’s shoes to engage and achieve change.
Just think about Nelson Mandela – he understood that success was not about showing who was the strongest. It was about listening, finding common ground, identifying shared experiences and shared aspirations, then realising them together.
How charities can drive empathy
Charities have a critical role in helping people to develop empathy. Volunteering itself is one of the best ways to build this critical skill – it’s empathy in action. It means spending time with people who ae different from you, understanding their needs and wants, truly placing yourself in their shoes. There’s a double benefit, of course: we improve the life of the beneficiary, while developing a skill that will help us in both workplace and home.
This is what we do in the Scouts. We bring together people from different backgrounds, helping them listen to each other and work together. For instance, we have worked with the Alzheimer’s Society to train more than 22,000 scouts to become Dementia Friends.
Making connections like these can have a profound and lasting impression on that young person. And the public recognises this. An encouraging 92 per cent of people approached for the You Gov poll said they thought scouts helped to develop empathy.
Inspiring better cultures and leadership
A recent study by DDI (2016) also identified empathy as the most critical skill in successful leadership. Unfortunately, the same study found that only 40 per cent of business leaders were considered to be strong in empathy. In my role, I’ve seen the power of empathy first hand, encouraging our staff and volunteers to use coaching methods to have better conversations.
So let’s champion the power of empathy. When we spend time with different kinds of people, promoting the value of volunteering to build this great skill, we increase understanding and tolerance and create stronger communities. We should never be afraid to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Matt Hyde is chief executive of the Scouts