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Aid to Zen: E – Empathy

This post is part of Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z by Alessandra Pigni.


Dear all,

Apologies for having gone quiet for a bit. The last few months have been unpredictable as it happens in life, and I’m now picking up some of unfinished business where I left it off. As promised and with no rush, I will make my way through the whole alphabet.

Why Empathy?

When I got to letter E of this Aid to Zen Guide I was spoilt for choice: I could choose between words like “expats”, “empowerment”, “effectiveness”, and more. In the end I picked “empathy”: I feel that if we could all get a bit better at it, we would neither need the expat-local divide, nor would we feel compelled to “empower” others and we would most likely be more effective in a job that is not just about technical skills, but also (and mostly) about human connection.

So first of all what is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of another person, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. Empathy is not about giving advice, nor  is it about feeling sorry for the poor unfortunate fellow human being who’s going through a rough patch. In fact, pity is most likely the opposite of empathy.

I may be stating the obvious, but there you go, here are the proverbial three things I’ve learned on empathy in the last unpredictable months:

#1: Care and empathy don’t follow protocols, they are spontaneous acts that can be deeply healing. Small things truly matter: genuine presence, a kind word that is not part of the protocol, taking the time and listen to someone’s story, and not rush through life and people as if they were tasks to get done, a tick on our “to do list”.

#2: Language matters. How we talk to people makes or breaks relations where power is in the air: the power to give aid, the power to cure, the power to do no harm, the power to heal. When we are in need, rigid bureaucracy and bureaucrats handing over “help” and services are among the most infuriating and depressing things. I just wonder how refugees must feel as they see door after door closing in their face because of unjust EU laws and, because of some people “just doing their job”.

#3: Even when in the midst of deep suffering no-one wants pity. We want connection. In other words, we want empathy.

Maybe we’ve been told that to keep our sanity in the field we need to protect ourselves and not get emotionally involved. Maybe we’ve been told that the refugees, or the patients who come to see us are ” just cases” that we need to manage. “Follow protocols, don’t show emotions, don’t give people hope” are the guidelines given by an agency to a field officer registering refugees.

Yes, healthy boundaries are essential, and there’s a fine line between being touched by people’s suffering and being crashed by devastating stories. We all have to work out the best way to keep sane when immersed in other people’s trauma and crisis. But distancing from the suffering of others is not the way to protect ourselves, rather it’s the way to become emotionally numb.

Often just being present with the person who is suffering is all we can do, and it’s enough. Sometimes it is better to say nothing and listen rather than offer some empty or think positive cliché. Empathy does not patronise, nor advise. Empathy fuels connection, empathy is “feeling with people”, not “feeling (sorry) for people”. Empathy does not say “at least you’re still alive, at least you haven’t lost your family, at least your home is still standing, etc”.

We could all be the patient, the refugee, the person fleeing from war. We all treasure our dignity and in the midst of a crisis no-one wants to be treated like case n. 000111. And it doesn’t even need to get that dramatic, we all have personal crisis that we can’t always leave behind when we go to work. Telling a fellow aid worker who’s going through a rough patch “at least you’re better off than people fleeing from war” is a comment I’ve heard more than once in aid circles. As researcher Brené Brown says “rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with “at least…”


Reading tip:

Introducing Empathy



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Mindfulnext/Aid to Zen 2011-2017 Creative Commons License
Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.