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We took five politicians to empathy training – here’s what happened

The MPs were shown a slide defining empathy. “When a person is empathetic, they perceive what others feel, interpret the information accurately, respond to it effectively and check with the person for accuracy, if there is any doubt,” it explained.

The slide also listed nine core competencies of empathy: emotional literacy, moral identity, taking perspective, moral imagination, self-regulation, practising kindness, collaboration, moral courage and “growing changemakers”.

There was significant discussion about whether empathy was purely an individual characteristic or could be applied to a whole institution, and to what extent Parliament might make people more or less empathetic.

Joyce argued MPs became more respectful and empathetic the longer they stayed in Parliament, perhaps necessitating some sort of mentoring system between older and younger members.

“When they first arrive they’re tribal: rah rah, my tribe’s the best and your tribe’s terrible,” he said. “After a while you actually become mates with people on the other side of the political fence. And that’s empathy.”

“You’re arguing it’s an empathetic institution,” Teh said. “It develops into one, it doesn’t start as one,” said Joyce. “Maybe at the start of the process you’d make people more aware of people who have been there for a long time.”

Views differed over whether the workplace culture at Parliament needed more empathy. Hughes stressed it was a very different environment to a bank or mining company, where everyone was nominally on the same team.

“Parliament and politics by its nature is actually not about compromise,” Hughes said. “This isn’t necessarily an outcome-oriented workplace. It’s a political workplace that has quite an adversarial nature at times.”

At the same time, Hughes said a lot of co-operative bipartisanship took place behind closed doors that wasn’t exciting or dramatic enough to be covered by the media, so nobody knew about it.

Steggall said it didn’t have to be this way. “One of the things that’s wrong with our politics is the concept that it has to be so polarised and focused on the purpose of winning as opposed to the purpose of good,” she said.

Some MPs were concerned empathy training was geared toward stifling, limiting or watering down free speech and robust debate, or enforcing the majority’s morality on everyone.

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“The morals of someone at Nimbin are going to be entirely different to the morals of someone at St Mary’s Cathedral, but neither of them would think they are personally doing something immoral,” Joyce said. He was troubled by people using morality to “manipulate” rather than “re-calibrate”.

Teh said the point of empathy training was not to impose beliefs or imply the existence of a right and wrong set of values. When MPs encountered different points of view, the aim was to “engage with them, not necessarily adopt them”.

“We’re not arguing for everyone to become a people-pleaser,” she told the MPs.

After the session, Teh said one of the key features of her regular workshops was trying to shift attitudes to problem solving away from a DAD approach (Decide, Announce, Defend) to a DAVE approach: declaring the dilemma (D), acknowledging the issues involved (A), developing a shared vision of success (V) and evaluating how to progress toward that goal (E).

In the normal workshop, participants would spend two days covering all nine modules, learning about “what makes people outraged” and how to balance co-operation with assertiveness. Most people’s empathy skills varied, Teh said. A lot of her course was about how to listen properly.

“You don’t get taught how to listen,” Teh said. “When you teach people and they feel heard and they can reflect on what the implications are for that, it really changes how they interact with others.

“That’s what we all want as human beings; genuine connections. Yet we don’t get taught how to.”

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