Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — often sparks an emotional response and ignites our motivation to help people around us. For example, after the gruesome video of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 circulated endlessly, the country was moved to fight back. Protestors rushed to the streets demanding justice, accountability, and revolutionary change. But as social media flooded with countless videos and examples of police brutality, it became clear that Floyd’s murder was one drop in an ocean, and our capacity for empathy quickly burnt out. To combat this, Lively Paradox CEO Dr. Nicole Price is calling for an Empathy Revolution.
Dr. Price spent a decade working in the engineering industry before leading other engineers and technical professionals, at which point she realized her brain didn’t work like her colleagues’. She was coached to adjust her leadership style to meet the needs of her team, but soon realized she wanted to find a way to develop others without inherently changing who they are. In 2016, Dr. Price started Lively Paradox with the intent to help leaders discover how to best serve their team while remaining true to themselves.
Part of her work covers diversity and inclusion, sometimes focusing specifically on race-related work, which was largely affected by the Floyd tragedy and the wave of racial consciousness that followed. “My first experience with that was in 1992 with Rodney King, but I got to see it this time as an adult,” Dr. Price said. “I was nervous because people were moving so fast, that I anticipated there was going to be a regression, that people were going to quickly stall out – and that’s exactly what happened.”
Dr. Price has launched an Empathy Revolution, helping people understand how empathy can be used as a tool to turn the desire to do something into actionable advocacy. She believes there are three facets of empathy that are necessary to create a more inclusive world: the ability to feel what other people feel, to be moved to do something about those feelings, and to be able to respond appropriately. To effectively help others and create lasting change, a foundation of empathy is needed, as well as a true understanding of others’ experiences. When we rush to respond without this foundation, advocacy movements fizzle out as quickly as they begin.
While there are several types of empathy, Dr. Price’s revolution is driven by radical empathy, a term coined by her thought partner and colleague, Dr. Ian Roberts, who helped her develop her own empathy skills. “When I think of a radical person, I think of someone who advocates,” she said. An advocate who not only is an ally or says they believe in something, but actually acts on their beliefs for the purpose of reform, change, or a larger goal.
Though radical in terms of a noun may be an advocate, the adjective meaning of radical describes an obscene level of something. “What would it look like if we took the three aspects of empathy – feeling what others feel, being moved to do something, and responding appropriately – and we did that with the sole purpose of being advocates to create social reform, and we were going to do it to such a degree that people think it’s obscene? That’s how I think about radical empathy,” Dr. Price said. “It’s a relentless focus on being empathetic.”
As an example, she described a friend who loves to spend hours shopping, something Dr. Price simply does not understand. Prior to her development of radical empathy, she approached her friend frustrated and confused as to why she didn’t want to quickly find what she needed and leave, creating resistance between the two. Meeting her from a place of radical, or relentless, empathy, she understands the positive effect retail therapy has and can now view the experience as quality time to share with her friend.
“People think, ‘Well how much empathy do you display?’ And my question back would then be, ‘At what point do you turn off trying to understand?’” Dr. Price said. “There’s no point at which you turn off trying to understand, and that’s the radical component.” To move people beyond the desire to do something into acting on that motivation takes two components: empathy for one’s self, and the ability to understand that we are a collective and as one of us does better, the rest of us do better, too.
“We have not done a great job of teaching people to be empathetic towards themselves,” Dr. Price said. “If I don’t believe that I am worthy, how could I possibly believe that you are worthy?” If someone cannot understand that their strengths naturally come with weaknesses, and that they are perfectly able to do the work they set out to do anyway, it will be difficult for them to keep up with advocating alongside big social movements. A lack of confidence as an ally and an advocate often prevents people from continuing to learn, grow, and adjust, and instead allows them to become numb.
The level of individualism in the United States, ranked the highest in the world, influences an individualist perspective among its residents. Societies with individualist mindsets put the burden of responsibility on each and every person, rather than the collective whole. The “American Dream” that any person can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and out of poverty is clearly representative of this, but fails to address barriers such as social determinants of health, structural racism, and other systemic injustices.
“If I am only concerned about me and how I feel, and I cannot look at the suffering of another person in any capacity and be able to understand that or resonate with that, then I won’t be moved to do any kind of social justice work,” Dr. Price said. However, if everyone were to believe in collectivism and abundance, they would understand that there is enough for everyone – enough food, enough protection, enough resources – and that providing someone with what they need doesn’t mean there won’t be enough left for the rest.
Where Empathy Meets Justice
According to Dr. Price, injustices mostly stem from imbalances of power and typically pre-date one’s involvement. For example, the origin of the for-profit prison system likely came with a racist connotation as mass incarceration doesn’t aim to lock up everyone, but a specific group of people. Today, people and businesses with no racist intent may use prison labor to create products or provide services for prisons. To them, their involvement with prisons is simply the means by which they feed their families.
“They’re thinking of it as, this is just my business, I didn’t create this system,” Dr. Price said, noting that the ability to separate oneself and avoid responsibility demonstrates a lack of affective empathy. “The moment I know the entire system was built off a racist idea, the appropriate reaction is not, ‘Well I didn’t have anything to do with it,’” she said. “That’s where empathy comes in to say, regardless of if I am accountable for creating it, can I be responsible to fix it? To be able to ask yourself that question requires empathy.”
A number of systems exist with similar power imbalances including the American health care system, banking, education, among countless other examples. Social determinants of health such as food insecurity and transportation, often driven by these systems, also affect one’s access to necessities. Realizing the extent of these systems’ reach, paired with the overwhelming number of social injustices, often leads to psychic numbing. It may seem simple and doable to help one other person, but when thousands or millions of people need help, many believe they can’t do anything to fix the issues at hand, and quickly either burn out or give up the fight altogether.
Empathy aims to get people to look at others as not a data point, but a living breathing human with feelings. The key is to consider if it were to happen to you, what would you want to happen? In a personal example, Dr. Price shared a recent experience where she went to the hospital in overwhelming amounts of pain. While waiting to be treated, a woman entered the room and asked for insurance information and a co-pay. “I am on my knees in pain, at this point I don’t even have my purse, and she’s just looking at me,” she said.
She doesn’t believe the woman’s intentions were malicious, but simply that the initial check in part of the hospital process could use more empathy. “I imagine if that woman thought about herself in that kind of pain, she would never stand there with a laptop saying, ‘Can I get your debit card?’” she said. Dr. Price also noticed a shift in attitude after the woman discovered her doctorate-level education, something that should never occur and could also be addressed through radical empathy.
Dr. Price has endured several personal experiences which demonstrated both she and others had room to improve in terms of empathy and compassion. However, the idea for radical empathy and an Empathy Revolution stemmed from her work and partnership with Dr. Roberts. The two met in an airport in 2014 after she admittedly eavesdropped on his phone call, hearing him patiently remind his employees to do work they’d already committed to doing. She was touring the country teaching reality-based leadership and how to turn excuses into results, and her logical and reasonable side questioned why he would bother continuing working with these employees.
At the time, Dr. Roberts was working in the Baltimore City school district where he helped empower children and staff alike to overcome low attendance rates and other obstacles. He explained to Dr. Price that if he fired everyone who worked there, there would be no one left interested in filling in. Instead, he used his role as a leader to develop his employees. People come with skills and gaps: where they naturally have strengths, the opposite of that is going to be a natural weakness. His job, he said, was to leverage the skills and minimize the gaps.
At the end of his four years in the district, 70% of the students were going to college, among other significant strides made. “I thought, ‘The people I’m with everyday aren’t dealing with that,’” Dr. Price said. “If they could expend just a little bit of empathy and compassion, if they could lean more into their roles of developing people instead of judging people, what could we create for the world?”
After nearly five years of regular conversations, active listening, and coaching with Dr. Roberts, Dr. Price realized she could be doing this on a larger scale. Seeing Dr. Roberts’ demonstration of empathy towards her now allows her to create content in ways that resonate with people without shaming them. Being able to say she also had to make a paradigm shift allows her to demonstrate that she has felt what they feel, can understand where they are, and can help them, because someone once demonstrated the same radical empathy towards her.
Take Your Heart to the E.R.
According to Dr. Price, one of the keys to being intentional and building empathy is active listening: not listening for agreement, accuracy, or anything other than understanding someone’s position, how they feel, what they believe, and where they’re coming from. Though she used to believe active listening and empathy served the person being heard, she now understands it builds and strengthens the empathy muscle in the person listening.
One exercise Dr. Price uses to build empathy is to ask someone to think about a time they were granted grace. She gives them two minutes to speak and share while she only listens. They are instructed to describe how they felt, what they thought, and how they plan to pay it forward, and she simply listens without responding or physically reacting through facial expressions. The goal of the exercise is to work to better understand the other person and in doing so, understand more about their situation, motivations, and decision-making processes.
Another way to strengthen the empathy muscle is to turn on a news station you normally wouldn’t watch, for example, and just listen – not for accuracy or to react or to disagree, but to understand where they are coming from. “I don’t have to agree to be empathetic,” Dr. Price said. “I’m just trying to be in your shoes for a moment and understand how you might get to the point where you are. It is from that position of understanding that we can have a better conversation.”
Personally, Dr. Price experienced her own reckoning with empathy following the death of her mother in a drunk-driving incident. Feeling as though she had to push all emotions down to be able to survive the trial, she did not allow herself to experience grief until much later. Even then, she wasn’t sure it would be acceptable to use grief as an excuse when so much time had passed. She was working, getting her degree, and watching her son graduate, when she realized she was moving through the world in incredible amounts of pain, and no one even noticed.
“That is when, I think, my heart went to the E.R. and I started to recognize that in others,” she said. “I can see and feel when others have the face on but they’re not quite there, something is bothering them.” Though some people develop empathy from being nurtured throughout their lives, for others it can take a life-altering event, such as a major loss.
Prior to losing her parents, Dr. Price’s decisions were driven by logic and reason. Through her personal journey with grief, she became aware of the need for empathy within everyone, despite their other strengths. “If there was a group I am aiming to serve, it’s the pre-orphan Nicole, the person who is logical and reasonable whose logic and reason is destroying the world because the heart component is missing,” she said.
Join the Empathy Revolution
According to Dr. Price, people will often relate her idea of radical empathy to showing empathy towards dangerous criminals and those who need to be committed to institutions or prisons. However, she offers a disclaimer that she is instead referring to a situation such as road rage: we may not know what someone is experiencing that led to them cutting us off, and rather than judge and react inappropriately, we may as well fill in the unknowns with good intentions and act accordingly. She believes the people who will face the most challenges with radical empathy are not those who have little experience receiving empathy, but those who struggle to grant empathy toward others.
“If there’s one thing that I’d love for people to walk away thinking, feeling, and believing, it’s that showing empathy is not charity,” she said. “This is not me doing something for you and now I have served you – that puts me back in that power position that creates an unjust world. As I listen to you, my heart softens, my heart opens up, my understanding opens up – it helps me.”
Dr. Price believes initial game-changers in the Empathy Revolution will be schools, hospital systems, faith-based institutions, and HR departments across multiple industries. Through her work with schools, she has implemented one simple change: adding students’ photos next to their data points. When administrators make decisions regarding whether students have enough food at lunch time, for example, they have to see the faces of the children who will be left out and cannot simply treat them as numbers. “It changes it completely,” Dr. Price said.
Attaching humanity to data points can be implemented throughout other industries such as health care, reinforcing the need for service providers to take a patient-centered approach. HR departments and other change agents can implement similar methods of building empathy to create a shift throughout the organization, regardless of industry. Faith-based institutions are especially strong partners in the Empathy Revolution simply because they help us decipher and navigate our moral compasses to begin with.
“What is beautiful about empathy is that it’s like a muscle,” Dr. Price said. “As you use it, it grows and becomes stronger. We can teach adults empathy.”
To kick off the Empathy Revolution she has created Daily Empathy 365. The daily exercises include reflective questions, prompts, and personal practices that can be implemented in day-to-day life to help people better understand others and respond appropriately.
“Our hearts are not these concrete, immovable objects that cannot be changed, shifted, molded, or improved,” she said. “Let’s take these hearts to the emergency room, to the Empathy Revolution, because you can learn empathy. As long as we’re still here, we have the ability to be the change we want to see, using the words of Mohandis Ghandi. If not us, then who?”
Dr. Price and Dr. Roberts have collaborated on several books covering these topics and more. To learn more, check out “Dangerous Indifference: Culturally Responsive Leadership” and pre-order “Radical Empathy in Leadership: Equity-Focused Testimonials, Trials, and Tools for School Leaders.”
As the Empathy Revolution continues to grow and develop, accessHealth will continue to add to this series and provide helpful resources to get involved and stay engaged.
To learn more about Dr. Price, radical empathy, and her goals for the Empathy Revolution, listen to the latest episode of the accessHealth podcast.