Empathy without experience?

10 May

Anyone who’s been following the US economy knows that the “recovery” is tentative and more and more Americans continue to lose their jobs and/or are in financial stress.  In decades past, it used to be easy to dismiss those without work as unlucky, unambitious or even lazy.  But no longer.  Losing a job is no longer an anomaly as professionals coast-to-coast continue to find themselves out of work and often out for a lengthy period.

As a business owner whose workload has been up and down over the years, I’ve had great years and not so great years and I know only too well what is meant by feast or famine.  What I wonder today is just how many Americans can truly have empathy with those who are financially strapped through no fault of their own – unless they’ve been in the same place in the past.  As I attend various Tampa Bay events (sometimes as a volunteer) – I notice that there is a widening gap between those whose lives have changed little during this recession and have kept their jobs and their steady incomes.  The black tie and charity events continue to attract a good attendance and I’ve seen more money that usual spent in the past six months than I’ve seen before.

At the same time, I also know of many colleagues and friends who are grappling with the lowest incomes in decades and who are no longer the spring chickens they were when they started their business. The recession has dramatically reduced not only their steady incomes but often also their assets and the amount of years they plan to work before retirement.  Well qualified professionals who were once secure in their jobs have dipped into their retirement funds, taken out home equity lines of credit, and severely curtailed their spending. And despite all the belt-tightening and their fervent job searches, many professionals remain out of work and increasingly out of hope.

These two seemingly different groups were once a single unified workforce and many of those employed today but for the grace of god could as easily be alongside their professional peers on the unemployment line. Yet, I don’t see a level of empathy that one would expect from those who are lucky enough to have been unaffected by the economic downturn.  Which leaves me to wonder – can one have true empathy without experience?  Can someone who has never experienced financial strife identify with someone who does? Can a person empathize with another when you’ve never been in their position?   I’ve noticed that it is commonplace to say “I can imagine how hard it must be” or “I know how you feel” when there is no real empathy in place at all.

Our members of congress are unfortunately, some of these such people. It is easy to feign “commiserating” when you have a four year steady job without a chance of furlow. And, when some of our representatives vote to pass laws, many times the legislation involved will not affect them because they are exempt.  I believe that empathy is possible, but without a stake in the outcome of any situation, it is easy to feign empathy without really caring.

What do you think?  If you’re earning the same or more these days, take a moment out of your day to empathize and perhaps provide some relief (and hope) to those who are not so fortunate. After all, next month or next year, it could be you, and if that happens, I guarantee that you’ll be looking for empathy from those who were just like you.


Carol Dekkers, Software Measurement and Global Software Development expert, author, speaker. Want to engage Carol to be a speaker at your next event? Email Ms. Dekkers at dekkers@qualityplustech.com or carol@caroldekkers.com or visit http://www.caroldekkers.com for details.

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