Exploring the roots of and the routes to empathy

One reason for being in Toronto was to check in on Roots of Empathy http://rootsofempathy.org/ and attend the first day of their annual Research Symposium.

Roots, founded by Mary Gordon, is an evidence based intervention that enables children to develop deeper empathy for, and with, others, a greater ability to navigate and understand their own feelings and develop better pro-social skills. It has been able to show that its program has long lasting results in reducing negative behaviors, such as bullying, and promoting well-being and positive social interaction.

At its heart is an opportunity to engage with a young infant from four months (over a period of eight months) and their mother in ways that enable them to see and better intuit a child's developing range of responses and emotions and through that identification be helped to better understand their own and of the people around them. A process beautifully shown in this recent short BBC film https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05vpw3f . It was made with the same group I went to see on Tuesday. It is the baby that is the teacher - and baby Naomi was a fabulous one!

Roots is closing in on reaching its a millionth child and is now available in eleven countries and counting.

The Research Symposium was quite the most interesting event of its kind I had been to in a while. Partly no doubt because I was not in my well-trodden path of enterprise development, in which I am the expert (apparently a global thought leader, God help us), but a listening novice.

We had four excellent presentations:

The first from an emergency room doctor and broadcaster, Brian Goldman, on his journey to understand kindness and why empathy is essential and what drives it, now turned into a new book: "The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life." This ranged from a moving story of how he came to recognize his own empathetic failures in the emergency room , through how empathy, in habituating self protection, declines as you proceed through medical school to fascinating stories gleaned from around the globe of empathetic people and their sources of motivation. My favorite was the Tim Horton franchisee a quarter of whose staff had a learning challenge. This was rooted in the franchisee's own deafness and critically how it had given him a deep sense of exclusion.

The second was from Graham Allen, the former Labor MP in the UK, who helped found the Early Intervention Foundation to champion early intervention as a core public policy and to do so on the basis of the most robust available evidence (with the caveat that evidence ought to be 'good enough' rather than complete: what indeed does complete ever look like except as an excuse for doing nothing?) It was an astute account of how (and how not) to achieve credible public policy and included the sage advice to always collaborate with one's 'enemies' (as he has done with Iain Duncan Smith, his political adversary).

The third was the most nerdy (so its positioning immediately after lunch might have been a mistake). This was Christian Keyser from the Netherlands Institute for neuroscience discovering the root of empathy in mirror neurons and demonstrating eloquently that we are hard wired for empathy - even psychopaths can be encouraged to exercise their neglected 'muscles' - indeed working with criminal psychopaths had suggested a more complex view of empathy. It is both a propensity and an ability and both need to act together to realize an empathetic response. This reminded me of 'mindfulness' which is not simply a skill of attention but needs to be suffused with the right intention if an ethical, compassionate transformation is to be realized.

The fourth was from an Icelandic sociologist who explained how Iceland had gone from having the worst substance abuse figures from young people in the 1990s to now the best. Like Graham's talk it was a compelling account of how public policy within the right patterns of collaboration can work marvels, changing the dynamics of a whole culture where, in this case, parents spend more time with their children, where the country has invested in meaningful youth activities and services; and, where the new cool is engaged sociability rather than getting hammered (in one form or another)!

I came away happily and realistically optimistic - we genuinely know things, grounded in evidence, social and scientific, that enables us to address the challenge of how to live more effectively together. There is no magic pill or formula but there is a challenging invitation to build the interventions necessary to help us improve.

In 1990, 45% of Icelandic schoolchildren at the age of fifteen reported that they had been drunk in the preceding thirty days, now it is 5%. Change is possible.


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