To Kill a Mockingbird – life lessons on Empathy!

June 2, 2015

As many of you may be aware, empathy is a prominent theme for us here at The Beech Centre and one which we are looking to focus on within the organisation through our personal and team development this year. Personally, I find empathy fascinating and the exploration around this that we have completed as a team so far (nods to which have been made by myself and some of colleagues in previous posts) has whetted my appetite to do some reading around the theme.

I found myself doing just that during my lunch break today and upon perusing various different websites, I was reminded of a quote from one of the most personally influential and inspirational books I have ever read: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

I am sure most, if not all of you will be familiar with the story, so I will spare you the monotony of me recounting the whole tale (needless to say I could not do justice to the sheer impact of the novel in an explanation!). The quote I am referring to can be found in Chapter Three of the novel, where the protagonist, Atticus Finch is talking to his daughter, Scout, following her first day at school. For anyone who has not read the book or has but needs a quick reminder of the scene, click this link to watch this scene in the 1962 film adaptation.

There are many quotes throughout the book which resonate with me, but the one that really struck a chord for me here in terms of empathy was when Atticus says:

“…You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it…” (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee Chapter 3)

To me, in this quote, Lee summarises what Empathy is. As the Oxford English Dictionary states, Empathy is defined as “…The ability to understand and share the feelings of another…” . Through Atticus Finch, Lee is showing us that in order to understand someone else’s feelings, you have to stand in their shoes with them as opposed to make a judgement on how you assume they will be feeling, formulated from your own feelings, experiences and conclusions.

The imagery created by the phrases “climb inside” and “walk around” really spoke to me, I think epitomising the behaviour we all individually must display if practising true empathy. To be empathic, we as individuals have a responsibility to be proactive, ensuring the accumulation of our knowledge and understanding of the other person’s situation, perspective and feelings. This is achieved through genuine and authentic inquiry into how things are for another and being in their world, as supposed to merely waiting for the information to reach us reactively or for us to make an assumption based upon the typically small amount of data we have at our disposal, which more often that not turns out to be wrong (see my colleague Lynn Boulonois’ post about this here). To me, Harper Lee’s quote shows that standing alongside someone is not enough; we have to “climb inside” them in order to understand cognitively the world through their eyes and “walk around” to truly feel affectively how it is for them. Only then can we truly understand someone and empathise with them.

The fact that this book has resonated with me today in the same way it did when my 14 year old self picked it up for the first time, and as it has done for millions across the world since its release 55 years ago, demonstrates to me the magnitude of both Lee’s writing and the message that the novel portrays.

Empathy is not a business tool or technique, it is a basic life skill that everyone should develop, but one which I personally feel doesn’t get talked about enough. Being empathetic allows us all to make ethical and authentic decisions, build deeper relationships and ultimately both live a more meaningful and fulfilled life and enable others to do the same. If we develop this quality, it is undoubtedly going to feature habitually within our working lives too; empathy is not something we simply turn on and off. As organisations and business should always be about the people within them, why then would empathy not feature on every organisation’s list of essential values, competencies and most importantly behaviours?

I would love to know what you think about this. Is empathy a prevalent topic in your organisation? As directors, managers and people responsible for recruitment in your organisations, is empathy a key behaviour that you look for in your workforce? Please let me know, either via the comments or email me.

Elen Benfield
OD Practice- Research Assistant


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