The last few months have been traumatic for the UK population. Terror, tragedy and a political process which is throwing into relief division upon division, has left us shaken and grief-stricken. ‘Look for the helpers’, we’re told, to console ourselves in the face of each new wave of grief. And there are many helpers. Like the widening ripple from a pebble thrown into water, the ‘survivors’, the emergency services, those in the vicinity, the wider community, the fundraisers, have sprung into action at each event to alleviate the suffering. If action comes first, as a response to adrenaline, to a job that needs to be done, to a feeling of helplessness, there are other, more ambivalently helpful, responses too. The creation of a narrative, mainly in the hands and the lenses of the media but now delegated to each of us who has a means to broadcast, ‘helps’ us, or coerces us, to find order and meaning from chaos: to identify the perpetrator, the motive, the victims, the root causes…. Into this narrative enter the public figures – the Prime Minister, the city mayors, the party leaders, even the Royal Family – as both spokespeople for the public, offering up ‘thoughts and prayers’, thanks and condolences, and as the agents, tasked to take action and to make things better for us.
The response in mainstream and social media to the fire at Grenfell Tower, with its terrible symbolism of inequality in our capital city, illustrates the purpose of such narratives, or the disservice they do, in relation to our communal grief. While the ‘helpers’ were in the midst of their first responses to the fire, interviewers and commentators were calling for answers and retribution; for atonement not just for the deaths, but for the lives which seem to have been overlooked before the fire. The early stages of grief seemed to tumble out at once: shock, anger, bargaining (‘if only…’). In the absence of ‘an attacker’, the political leaders were in the frame as perpetrators and they in turn responded with various degrees of speed to regain ground as helpers. In the early days after the fire, the measure of their helpfulness was not just practical support but the demonstration of an emotional response, in particular, of empathy.
After Grenfell Tower, Theresa May (already nicknamed ‘the Maybot’ after her rigid campaigning style) has been vilified for her lack of humanity and warmth, distilled into the idea that she lacks ‘empathy’. This view gained traction when May delayed meeting the victims, and then did so in the controlled circumstances of the hospital and later a church hall, away from cameras, while Jeremy Corbyn offered a comforting arm and a listening ear in the relief centre set up immediately after the disaster, in full view of the media. Sadiq Khan bore the brunt of the residents’ anger, an anger he said he shared, and quietly grimaced as a young child shouted ‘How many children died? What you gonna do about it?!’ The Queen seems to have learned the lesson of the aftermath of Diana’s death, when sticking too rigidly to protocol when ‘her people’ were suffering provoked the dismay of the media. She was on the scene relatively quickly with her grandson William, who seems to be working hard to bring emotional intelligence into the royal family’s repertoire.
So if May doesn’t ‘have’ empathy and the others do, what is it? Does it matter whether our leaders have it or not, as I’ve heard a number of commentators ask this week or could it, as I’ve also heard, be counterproductive to the job of political leadership? Empathy is, of course, at the heart of the humanistic counselling relationship. It is one of the ‘core conditions’ advocated by Carl Rogers for the person-centred counselling approach. The term came into the English language at the end of the nineteenth century, as a translation of a German psychological term, Einfühling, meaning ‘feeling-in’ or vicarious sensation. It was originally used as a physiological explanation for the pleasure we take in looking at inanimate object: aesthetic pleasure. Over time, it came to mean feeling as another person does. Whilst sympathy involves feeling compassion for another’s plight, empathy involves feeling as if you are in the situation of the other.
What we’re seeing in in these high profile appearances at scenes of tragedy is certainly sympathy but it may or may not be empathy. Empathy, at least in the counselling relationship, is not just a sensitive response, or a series of responses to another’s situation, nor a ‘communication skill’, be that listening or demonstrating that you have listened, important though those are. Empathy is a process of being with another as they, and as if they, experience their world. When a counsellor ‘feels as if’ another feels, clients can develop awareness and acceptance of their own feelings. This process of attunement can provide what clients sometimes lack when they come into the counselling relationship: a sense of agency, of being able to take action, on their own behalf, in their own world.
The anger after Grenfell Tower is a defence against trauma and grief; it is also a howl against the lack of agency that the residents had in life and death, at least in respect to their living conditions. While they certainly have been granted sympathy – a compassionate understanding of their plight – it is empathy that empowers lasting change. Empathy does not ‘get in the way’ of political leadership, as though it is antithetical to rational decision making, nor does it reduce politics to a competition between the feelings of individuals. Empathy in the public sphere is demanding. It demands that political leaders step out of their own way of experiencing the world, rather than impose their way of experiencing on the world. Empathy is not just an add-on to political process or a momentary performance in a crisis, but a giving away of power to those on whose behalf you speak. That’s how it helps. The test of whether Theresa May is responding with empathy is not how many people she hugs (she singularly fails on that measure) but whether she can feel and therefore act as if she were not Theresa May.