• Opinion
  • April 4, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Six ways that public servants can develop their empathy

Opinion: One surprising answer? Try playing Dungeons & Dragons

This piece was written by Joe Maltby, a change management specialist in the U.S. federal government and a member of Young Government Leaders. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


Empathy is hot right now. But why should a public servant care about it? It might be tempting to think about it as something fuzzy that’s nice to have if you can get it, but empathy will make you better at understanding the people you serve, plus more effective at it. How can you serve someone you don’t understand?

Often our jobs involve getting many others, whether they’re other public servants, members of stakeholder groups, or everyday citizens, to accept a change or a burden that will benefit them in the long run. Reaching them on an emotional level is a far better and more lasting mechanism than arguments and authority alone.

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So what can we do to develop empathy in ourselves so we are better public servants and better people? A quick survey of some of the English-language research and best practices out there can give busy public servants like you a place to start. These tips may surprise you.

  1. Practice active listening. This means actively trying to understand what the other person is saying and mirroring it back to them to be sure you heard it correctly, rather than focusing part of your attention on what your next point will be. It also means giving up on the illusion that you can listen and multitask at the same time. Make the person in front of you the most important thing in your world while they speak, just as you would want to be if you were them.
  2. Understand yourself. Don’t pretend your feelings don’t affect you. How you feel will affect how well you can hear someone or put yourself in their shoes. It takes energy and emotional strength to do that, so monitor and manage those reserves. Also, no one comes to the table without biases. Know your own so you can be sure you are controlling them and they’re not controlling you.
  3. Be patient. Showing empathy takes time, so you won’t be able to move as quickly through meetings, conversations and tasks as you might have done before. The extra time now will be balanced by having more satisfied customers, better relationships and better results. And be patient with yourself as you learn how to do this. Empathy is a skill and a habit like any other that takes time to master. These tips can be found in wisdom that’s been passed down for ages, but if it was easy to do and to keep doing, we’d live in a different world. Consider using tools like compassion meditation to support yourself.
  4. Track your progress. Measuring how you and your team are growing your skills will keep you grounded. There are tools to do this, like one developed for government by HMRC or a more general one developed at Arizona State University. There may also be lessons to learn from tools developed for other disciplines, like the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, used by doctors in 85 countries.
  5. Step into their shoes. Find ways to see things from the perspective of others, especially the citizens you serve. A key principle of human-centred design is to approach the system or product being created from the standpoint of the person who will use it. One way to do this is to form connections with the people you serve as equals by reaching out to them and their communities, which has the added benefit of helping to address the loneliness crisis. Some governments have also developed tools to accomplish this, such as Bangladesh, which trains civil servants in empathy methodology. Others to help you systematically capture this perspective include user research, a formal impact assessment, or an empathy map.
  6. Use art. Researchers are still studying the ways in which art can affect us, including building our capacity to feel empathy. Using your left and your right brain to grow this trait has the benefit of being something you will enjoy too. Even something as simple as reading fiction can help, because it has the unique ability to fully place us inside someone else’s thoughts and feelings. If you want to stretch yourself, try a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons or perform in some type of theatre. Trying to convincingly inhabit a whole new person is incredible practice for learning how to connect with someone else on an empathic level. It’s also fun. You’ll feel a little silly at first, but vulnerability is a key ingredient to openness and avoiding mental stagnation.

There are more successes and great ideas out there, so if you know of something successful, spread the word and help make government a little more compassionate. Most of these are practices you could implement on your own, tomorrow, if you wanted, without needing permission from anyone. Start your journey to a better you. — Joe Maltby

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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