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Empathy and subjectivity

A wellbeing lens requires and promotes empathetic planning, imaginatively engaging with and respecting various stakeholders' subjective viewpoints.
Good lives in decent societies rely really heavily on empathy. That means on people’s ability and their willingness to see things through other people’s perspectives and to share their thoughts and their feelings. And so empathy is a really central feature of the wellbeing lens. By thinking and talking about wellbeing, we’re making a deliberate effort to consider how people feel, to be more caring and more considerate. It’s increasingly being recognised that some people are much more empathetic than other people and that some kinds of roles and situations encourage empathy while others inhibit it. Empathy can be deliberately cultivated at individual but also organisational or even international levels.
And by putting wellbeing at the centre of our concerns in social planning, we’re consciously trying to humanise the planning process, reminding ourselves that if the point of planning is to improve people’s experiences, then empathy has to be understood as a core capability for all social planners and all social facilitators. If we bear in mind that a wellbeing lens also encourages positivity, we should note that empathy isn’t the same thing as sympathy. Unlike sympathy, empathy isn’t primarily about feeling sorry for people. It’s a more flexible, more sociable concept and it refers to considering and sharing people’s good feelings, as well as their sufferings. Remember, in a warm relationship, people share each other’s joys as well as their sorrows.
Do-gooders may be prone to showing a willingness to feel your pain, but most of us want other people to recognise our satisfactions and our enjoyments too. For people who study or promote wellbeing, appreciative empathy is a useful term for an attitude that involves consciously trying to include recognition of other people’s good feelings. In order to empathise, we’ve got, first of all, to listen respectfully to people’s subjective accounts of their emotional responses to situations. If a government or a corporation organises a survey of citizens’ happiness or of employee satisfaction, this is a step towards empathy. Respecting people’s subjective viewpoints in this way doesn’t, however, mean accepting them uncritically or allowing them to be the sole guide for decision-making.
Sometimes people’s feelings mislead them. Sometimes people don’t fully understand their own feelings or can’t report their feelings accurately. We know that some people are generally more empathetic than others. We also know that empathy varies according to situations and relationships and institutionalised roles and habits. For example, empathy is generally encouraged and cultivated among one-to-one carers, such as nurses and childminders, and among life coaches and talk therapists. It’s actively discouraged among soldiers, lawyers, and surgeons. Empathy is inhibited when a role requires objective detached judgement. So teachers are expected to practise empathy when interacting with students. But teachers’ empathy is discouraged when they’re enforcing rules or assessing students work anonymously. Doctors are expected to be empathetic listeners.
But surgeons must switch off empathy when taking objective medical decisions and when they’re performing operations. Empathy can also be severely inhibited in encounters between people from different cultures, such as people of different religions, different ethnicities, different generations, or different professional cultures. Sometimes the need for empathy is simply neglected. Designers and architects get so distracted with technicalities that they forget to imagine user experiences. Writers are often so focused on the sophisticated content of their messages that they forget to put themselves in the reader’s position. A really important function of the wellbeing lens is to promote and to cultivate empathy where it’s most needed.
And this is particularly urgent where empathy deficits can lead to damaging outcomes; for example, when schools or medical services are organised in ways that promote avoidable suffering among pupils or patients. More positively, a well-being lens also encourages us to base our plans and our decisions on appreciative empathy, enhancing those functions that people have told us gave them pleasure or satisfaction or meaning. For example, architects and town planners are increasingly recognising the importance of place making, making homes feel homely, making public spaces feel vibrant and sociable. Empathy matters in all kinds of planning, at all stages of the planning process.
And when we appraise ourselves of situations, it’s really important not just to observe the objective conditions and the observable facts but to consider the human feelings and the meanings that are involved. Empathy matters in all areas of planning and at all stages in the planning process, from initial plans through decisions through to evaluations. And what really matters from planners, what planners are duty bound to take consideration of is not just the observable facts of a situation, but the feelings that those situations evoke in the people who matter to that plan or to that organisation. So take the example of a play park. It may be very neat. It may be technically robust.
It may be extremely efficient in its particular functions. But what matters ultimately is that the children enjoy playing there and that they play well there and that their carers enjoy the environment. Do the children feel challenged by the play park to play in interesting ways? Does the play park facilitate solo play or interactive play? Do the carers feel sufficiently relaxed that they want to go there again? These are the things that ultimately matter about a play park. And so similarly in all kinds of planning, what really matters is that we consider the feelings and the thoughts and the interpretations of all the key stakeholders of all the people that matter for those plans.
And so when you engage in this course, we’d be really grateful if you could share with us your experiences of how appreciative empathy can be fostered in planning, so that plans take account of the thoughts and the feelings of the relevant stakeholders to your activities and your organisations.

A wellbeing lens requires and promotes empathetic planning. Here we explore how wellbeing planners put themselves in other people’s shoes, and respect their viewpoints in planning and evaluation.

We argue that empathy can and should be ‘appreciative’, i.e. learning from people’s joys not just from their sufferings. We also note that showing respect for various stakeholders’ subjective viewpoints doesn’t mean naively accepting people’s subjective perceptions of their wellbeing or of the causes of wellbeing.

We also note that empathy, and respect for other people’s subjective viewpoints, is more encouraged in some roles and professions than others. Empathy is encouraged and cultivated among one-to-one carers such as nurses and childminders, and among life coaches and talk therapists, whereas it is actively discouraged among soldiers, lawyers, and surgeons.

  • Can you give examples of how organisations have effectively taken account of the thoughts and feelings of their stakeholders?

  • How could your employer take into account the feelings of the most junior employees?

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Social Wellbeing

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