Empathy isn’t sympathy

My youngest is currently getting stuck into her school’s debating society. Weekly topics range from getting rid of the monarchy to pushing vaccine mandates, with pupils getting dropped into a side at random, and at short notice.

You might well have done the same yourself when you were younger; I didn’t, mainly as I was too busy being awkward and gangly.

The orthodontist has terrible/disturbing taste in art. Discuss.

My daughter really likes the approach, both for the range of topics (which we often end up discussing over the dinner table) and for the reflection it promotes about how to make an effective case.

The other day as we sat at the orthodontist, waiting for a replacement retainer (hers, not mine), we were deep into whether a technocracy was better than a democracy when she raised a concern.

The format of debates requires you to defend a position, regardless of what you believe. So far, she’s not found herself pushing something she strongly disagrees with, but she felt uncomfortable about the thought of it.

Indeed, your beliefs – and any objective facts – count for nothing in formal debating. Yes, you can bring evidence, but it is in compelling presentation and investment in the logic of ‘your’ side that you can usually prevail. Put differently, debating seems to care more for what is convincing than for what is grounded in evidence.

At which point we wave from our PoliSci benches and give a big ‘hello’.

I noted that when I allocate students into my negotiations, I often like to put people in roles that don’t fit their own views, on the grounds that it’s a good exercise in learning to empathise. You might find it axiomatically true that X is right, but there are others out there who (strongly) disagree, so perhaps by trying to put yourself in their shoes for a bit you might better understand where they’re coming from.

But you see already the potential for a replication of the same dynamic as that debating society: maybe everyone focuses on ‘winning’ rather than the empathy.

In the debating society the format is very much focused on that competition, so it’s a real issue. For negotiations, I hope we have more latitude to limit the problem.

Most obviously, I never judge negotiation exercises on who ‘wins’, and often there is no clear ‘win’ available in basic structural terms. Secondly, the debrief that always follows is about process and substance, with consideration of the differing value judgments, how they arise and their impact. And finally there is often a degree of integration: progress towards agreements is usually about finding common ground rather than domination.

However, the orthodontist discussion did give serious pause for thought. In an age when politicians sometimes seem to be willing/able to say anything to gain support/profile, there is a danger that simply giving students rhetorical skills breeds a false impression that all truths are equal and find their value only in how well you speak of them.

Yes, the scientific method does point us towards the essential need for evidence, but maybe this isn’t enough. Empathy cannot be presented as a equivalent of sympathy or of equivalence, but as a tool for improving our understanding of contested spaces and topics, with which we can then work to find more inclusive ways forward, working together.

Maybe I’ll suggest that as a future topic for someone’s debating society.