I came across the phrase “empathy in development” while reading an article by nonprofit leader Molly Melching entitled To change society, first change minds. Although the article is mainly about efforts to achieve sustainable development and social change in Africa, the author’s wise observations can be applied much more generally to the process of bringing about systemic change. She describes empathy in development as involving four key elements, as set out below:

First, begin with human rights — empower people to claim their rights to health and well-being with confidence. Two, start where people are — have empathy and respect while you understand their history, their language and culture and their priorities. Three, do not try to force change — lay the groundwork for dialogue, introduce people to ideas, identify shared values and allow them to decide what the change will be and when they will make it. If you start by just fighting what they are doing, you’re going to get resistance. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, remember the solutions already exist within the communities with which you work.

I believe these insights are equally valuable in the context of bringing about social change in one’s own country. It’s not just those working abroad who need to take a respectful approach when dealing with differences of culture and perspective. Especially in today’s rancorous political climate, it has become all too easy to dismiss other points of view. When we treat our own beliefs as obvious facts, then surely there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees. Maybe they’re ignorant, corrupt, lazy, immoral, or otherwise deficient in some way. Wholly oblivious to the irony, we may claim they lack empathy or suffer from black-and-white thinking. After all, there’s got to be some reason why they aren’t behaving like sensible people.

How we respond to others’ differences is itself culturally determined in many ways. Even when we see ourselves as respectful and open-minded, we may not be fully aware of the underlying narratives that frame our worldviews. In any society, the words commonly used to express an idea tend to shape how people think about that idea. I’m not just referring to political buzzwords aimed at provoking emotional responses. On a much more basic level, our vocabulary reflects the structure of our society, whether or not there is any conscious intent involved. As we go through life, we routinely make assumptions and take actions based on this familiar structure.

In modern-day Western culture, development connotes a distinction between the complete and the incomplete. Nations are either developed (suggesting a past-tense, finished process) or developing (they’re not yet like us, but they’re working on it). Although today’s development narrative avoids the obvious biases of language used in the past to describe other cultures, such as “backward” and “savage,” it still describes a linear scale that puts us at the top, with others striving to reach our level. It further suggests that development should proceed along the same trajectory, rather than having many possible paths.

A similar dichotomy can be found in the language our culture uses to describe individual development. People are seen as either normal (that is, fully and properly developed) or struggling to overcome their challenges (not like the normal folks, but trying to be). And of course, it goes much deeper than just choosing one word over another. Changing an occasional word or phrase doesn’t do much if the underlying narrative stays the same. Our language is full of terms that started out as politically correct euphemisms and ended up being used as insults, just like the words they replaced.

I believe this cultural framework is a large part of why empathy in development can be so hard to attain, whether we’re aiming to change other nations or to change the behavior of people within our own society. As soon as we decide they need to be changed, we subconsciously start to think of ourselves as superior. We’re developed, they’re not. We’re normal, they’re not. We’re enlightened, they’re not. So naturally we should tell them what to do, since we know and they don’t. Eventually they’ll come to understand it was for their own good…

This mindset has become so ingrained in our culture that sometimes we’re not even aware of it. Thoughtful reminders such as Molly Melching’s four principles of empathy in development are much needed. And I suggest another point on which reflection would be helpful: Remember that we, ourselves, are still developing. There is nothing shameful about acknowledging this simple fact. The opposite of development is not perfection—it is stagnation. As we interact with others and explore our world, we continue to learn, both on a collective and an individual level. This necessarily means that when we seek to change others, we are also being changed. So when we find our views in conflict with those of other people and cultures, it may be useful to consider not only how we can change their minds, but also what we can learn from the situation.

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