Heather Hansen

Forget Empathy. Focus on Perspective.

Forget empathy. Focus on perspective.

I have a client who works at a school. Years ago the administration decided to have the kids do something for the homeless people in their community during the holiday season. So the kids knit scarves. When the administration took the scarves to the homeless shelter, the person who ran the shelter shook her head in dismay.

“What beautiful scarves! And I know the kids put tons of work into these. But most homeless people don’t wear scarves.

When you live on the street, safety comes first. You’d rather be alive then warm. And scarves can be dangerous. Someone can strangle you with a scarf.

The homeless people didn’t want scarves, they wanted socks.That didn’t occur to my friend. It never occurred to me either. But maybe it would have if we had worked to see things from those homeless people’s perspective. If we saw the street the way they saw it, and saw the scarves the way they saw them, we might have seen that socks were a better answer. If the homeless people were our jury, we had lost. We needed more perspective-not more empathy.

There is a lot of talk about empathy today, and when my clients bring it up I want to take a page from The Princess Bride and say “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” There is a huge difference between perspective and empathy. And perspective is what you need.

Perspective is to see what the other sees. The origin of the word is “to look at, through”. Perspective is looking at things through another’s eyes. Empathy, on the other hand, is to feel what the other feels. The root of the word empathy is “in feeling” or even “in suffering”. Empathy is to feel what another feels, and to feel their suffering.

But feelings can be paralyzing. If my friend had felt things the way the homeless people did, she would have felt anger, frustration, dismay and fear. None of these feelings were going to solve the problem. None of these feelings would help her serve her “jury” of homeless people. Only perspective could do that. It’s time to forget empathy and focus on perspective.

Perspective allows you to act, and perspective always comes first. When I work with my consulting clients I give them a card with my formula on it. “SEE-think-feel-act-GET.” It all starts with seeing, which impacts thinking. Thinking impacts feeling and feeling impacts action. Then you get your results. So truly, what you see is what you get.

When you start with feeling, you miss the mark. You might think homeless people feel angry, afraid, or frustrated. None of that is going to help you know that what they want is socks.

I learned the importance of perspective over empathy in the courtroom. I defend doctors in medical malpractice cases, so I rarely have empathy on my side. The jurors are all patients, and in 20 years I’ve never had a doctor on one of my juries. So I start at a disadvantage. The jury sees things through the patient’s eyes, and might even feel what the patient is feeling.

In order to win, I have to see what the jury sees. Then, when necessary, I have to change it. If the jury sees an injured patient, I have to help them see a doctor who is doing her best. When the jury sees a brain damaged baby, I work to make the jury see the doctor’s perspective and all she did to prevent that damage, which cannot ever be completely prevented.

I don’t need to feel what the jury feels. They often feel the patient’s pain, his regret, her frustration. That’s ok. I can still win. If I can change what the jury sees, I can change what they think. Then I can change how they feel, how they act, and the verdict I get. What you see is always what you get.

So forget about empathy. It’s nice, in the right hands and at the right time. But perspective is what wins. Change perspectives, and you’ll change lives.

Heather Hansen

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