Walking in Each Other’s Shoes: How Empathy Leads to More Inclusive Policy

4 minute read

By: Catherine Waters, Learning Lab Manager

Innovative approaches and tools have gained considerable traction in public policy development in recent years. Approaches such as behavioural economics, design thinking, co-creation, and collaborative problem-solving, all rely, explicitly or implicitly, on policy-makers’ ability to empathize with diverse perspectives. Empathy is the foundation stone of collaborative working, diversity, cultural competence and inclusive policy techniques, providing both an emotional and a rational basis for understanding and ultimately addressing complex public policy challenges.

Collaborative and innovative policy tools demand a more profound understanding of the actual lived experiences, choices, and behaviours of the citizen or “user” of the public policy. Using an empathetic approach, the policy analyst aims to understand the problem directly and without judgement by empathizing with the stakeholders involved. Through empathy, analysts are able, as much as is possible, to suspend their own judgements and experiences and enter into another person’s view of the world. But what is empathy?

Empathy is about enquiry, understanding, compassion and inclusiveness. By using empathy, we are able to understand a problem or situation through the experiences of those directly affected and thus identify more effective responses. Empathy is not necessarily about agreeing with the person who we empathize with, nor about minimizing or eliminating differences. It is a route to a deeper understanding and inclusive problem-solving, and is particularly important when public policy is directed towards vulnerable or marginalized populations.

Opening up the public policy process to more voices and a wider range of experiences makes it a more difficult path, but a more modern and democratic one, and ultimately a more effective one in terms of policy outcomes. Empathy involves emotional intelligence, as we disengage our own responses to try to understand someone else’s. It is all the more important when we do not agree or sympathize with another’s perspective to be able to acknowledge and try to understand it. It is disruptive to have many players in the policy discussion with different emotions, views and perspectives, and skills such as conflict resolution and negotiation are critical. However, as is often said in the field of diversity, it is important to be comfortable with being uncomfortable; and conversely, to be uncomfortable with being comfortable. If the policy debate is going smoothly and there appears to be consensus, something may be missing!

To empathize in the policy process is also to be highly rational. Empathy is a route to uncovering important data on a problem. Listening skills – so simple, but still so difficult to do – are critical, to ask open and non-judgmental questions and to listen without interruption or argument to the responses. Through engagement, consultation, observation, and shared experiences, policy-makers gather information and come to a deeper understanding of problems.

In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission inquiry into residential schools and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were based on an empathetic form of enquiry. Both sought witnesses to provide deep insights into the experiences, both physical and emotional, of Indigenous individuals and communities, and to make these insights available for all Canadians. Also, the focus on Gender Based Analysis (GBA+) in federal policy-making highlights the experiences and emotions of vulnerable groups through empathy, to understand the consequences and impact of policy options.

So why is ‘empathy’ so difficult to do? To be empathetic in the public policy field and open it up to diverse perspectives involves sharing the process with sometimes disruptive, conflicting views and challenging perspectives, and losing some control over the policy solution. Empathy is a skill that can be learned, practiced and improved and, in a diverse and complex society, is not only the right way to conduct public policy, but also ultimately the one most likely to lead to successful outcomes.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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