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  • Dammy Olatoye

Empathy: The Hard Work of Diversity & Inclusion

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives – most well-meaning and some poorly constructed. Thanks to the sacrifice, activism and grit of many, equality, diversity, and inclusion is firmly on the agenda, with robust evidence of the link between inclusive practices and improved team/organisational performance.


Organisations and individuals are now caught up in the frenzy of doing – releasing/refreshing D&I strategies, hiring D&I ‘tsars’, introducing quotas, rolling out trainings, etc. (feel like there can be a comment on the effect of this in reality)


In October 2020, the Confederation of British Industry called for FTSE 100 companies to have at least one racially and ethnically diverse board member by the end of 2021 after it was revealed that the total number of BAME board members (executive and non-executive) decreased from 9% to 7.4% in 2018. There has been talk of potentially linking City of London bosses’ pay to staff diversity in a bid to accelerate the pace of change.


Whilst the whirlwind of attention is much-welcomed and highly needed, it is imperative that programmes, schemes and policies contain the right mix of hard and soft skills required to create lasting impact. (yes!)


If we are to achieve real and enduring diversity and inclusion across the board, from FTSE 100/250 companies to SMEs, media organisations, charities and schools, empathy needs to be a foundational ingredient alongside the plethora of other skills that must be developed to ensure the success of said strategies.

Brené Brown, professor, lecturer, and author, defines empathy as “feeling with people.” It is the ability to move from being a spectator to someone’s feelings to stepping into their shoes and feeling their emotions.


Brown makes a very important distinction between empathy and sympathy. Empathy says, “I am feeling with you.” Sympathy says, “I am feeling for you.” In other words, implicit in sympathy is a sense of disconnection and distance whereas empathy is us making the effort to be present and take on the perspective/feeling of others.


In their blog ‘Empathy – The Missing Link to Inclusion’, the ECC demonstrate that “empathy is an important intersection between the rational and the emotive; to not only intellectually see someone’s perspective, but to feel it too…”


There is no empathy genetic-pool lottery. As Brown puts it, “empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It's simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of 'You're not alone. '”


Empathy is a soft skill that can be learned and must be prioritised in leadership, D&I programmes to achieve authentic and sustained behavioural change.


Here are 3 ways to cultivate a culture of empathy:


1. Listen without judgment. Learn to give people your undivided attention and ask questions to clarify, not to challenge. Be present and don’t be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings, or biases.


2. Don’t minimise people’s feelings/concerns. Avoid trite comments or remarks in an attempt to find a silver lining to the person’s problems. As Brené Brown puts it, “rarely does an empathic response begin with ‘at least’.” Sometimes all people need is for you to stand in solidarity with them in acknowledging that the glass is half empty.


3. Prioritise connecting rather than responding. Part of the reason why empathy is hard work is because it can look like inertia, and it requires vulnerability. We can become tempted to swing into action – redrafting policies, suggesting solutions – and in so doing rush the process of deeply connecting with the feelings being presented. We are quick to bypass empathy and race to sympathy to avoid being vulnerable to feeling the full weight of other people’s pain and emotions.


Little wonder that the stillness of a world in lockdown gave ample space for individual and institutional pause and reflection on how many continue to be left behind in a global economy.


The forced silence imposed by a global pandemic finally created enough margin for our social consciences to tune in to the frequency of the voice of the marginalised and underrepresented.


Holding space and being present (for as long as it takes) without necessarily proposing a solution, is hard work.


This is the hard work we at She Leads for Legacy and our allies do in standing in solidarity with Black women looking to blaze trails and lead with impact.

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