Roman Krznaric

Five takeaways from Roman Krznaric’s talk at Mia on empathy and art

Since publishing his “Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People” in 2012, and elaborating on them soon after in Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, Roman Krznaric has become a kind of empathy whisperer. The social philosopher, a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, has been an empathy advisor to organizations like OXFAM and the United Nations and, more recently, museums such as Mia.

Mia’s new Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts recently hosted Krznaric for a series of events with staff and the public, including a talk on Empathy, Art, and the Revolution of Human Relationships. Here are some of the top takeaways.

1) Empathy is a route to creativity. Krznaric offered the example of Patricia Moore, an industrial designer who, in her 20s, asked a room of male colleagues if they shouldn’t be thinking of people with arthritis when designing a refrigerator door. They demurred, with one senior colleague saying they don’t design for “those people.” So Moore did her own research, disguising herself as a much older person and attempting to navigate various cities in order to understand the experience of older people. The empathic undertaking informed the rest of her celebrated career in inclusive design, including the original look of the popular OXO Good Grips kitchen tools—an early foray into “universal design” for all ages and abilities.

2) Art can make empathy easier. One of Krznaric’s six habits for developing empathy is “travel in your armchair,” and art can enable that. Books, plays, movies, paintings—all of it can be used to share an unfamiliar perspective, as the classic book and film All Quiet on the Western Front does in describing World War I from the point of view of a German soldier. (Krznaric collected many such books in the Empathy Library.) Not all empathy work is hard.

3) Get out there. Krznaric encourages a balance between “introspection and outrospection.” He’s particularly big on conversation—serious, not superficial conversation. This takes practice, especially since “serious” conversation is often understood to mean debate. On the contrary, Krznaric advises talking about things in common, not what divides us.

4) Extend empathy to everyone—even people you don’t agree with. Empathy is an answer to our digital echo chambers, Krznaric says, if it’s offered universally. “Empathy doesn’t mean you agree,” he says. “It offers an understanding but does not remove judgement.” In other words, considering someone else’s perspective more fully doesn’t mean you have to support it. “An act of empathy is not an act of endorsement,” he says.

5) Be a good ancestor. We tend to push our problems into the future, when someone else will have to deal with them. Instead, we should step into the shoes of “future people,” Krznaric says, projecting our lives forward. “Empathy is about humanizing the other,” he says. “And that shouldn’t be trapped in this time.”

Watch Roman Krznaric’s TEDx talk about empathy, and learn more about Mia’s Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts.  

Thanks to Jeanine Pollard, of the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, whose notes formed the basis of this story.