• Hebe Foster

Empathy & policymaking: interview with Claire Yorke

“If we start to develop humility about our own lived experiences and understand other people more, we will find far greater ties of humanity between us. We all share similar struggles & aspirations - so it will help us to connect more."

Claire Yorke is a writer & researcher, until recently a Kissinger postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. After a 3-year stint in the UK parliament, Claire moved to Chatham House, where she became very interested in how policymakers design and communicate their ideas.

In 2019, during her postdoc at Yale, she was invited to take part in the Global Relations Forum’s Young Academics Program, an expanding network of young academics working to contribute to policy discussions in both the national and international spheres. Through this, she authored a paper entitled “Making the Connection: The Role of Empathy in Communicating Policy”.

One of our core beliefs at Telescope is that meaningful social change can and must start with tapping into our most basic human ability to empathise with one another. We were delighted to chat with Claire in September, to really dig deep into the role and potential of empathy within the policymaking sphere.


What are your key ideas around empathy in policymaking?

Empathy is integral to fostering connection between people. And politics is fundamentally about people. But we’ve lost sight of that fact. If we tie these two together, we see that to make better policy we have to be able to better understand the diverse experiences of people across our society.

This is relevant for leadership and foreign policy too. Good policy ideas aren’t always leading to better practice, and when used as part of policy-making processes, empathy can help policymakers to explore different ideas, revise assumptions, and find more responsive and sensitive solutions to address the issues at hand.

But we mustn’t just talk about empathy as a panacea.

It’s an uncomfortable process because you’re asking people to hold space for ideas that may be at odds with their own. With empathy, although you may not like what you’ll find initially, and it may take concerted effort and dialogue to understand other perspectives, you enter into a process of trying to find common ground and shared humanity.

The same holds true whether dealing with different political parties, in negotiations, or between people with vastly different backgrounds.

How does this play out in today’s environment?

Today we operate in a very difficult media environment, where attempts at understanding different points of view risks you being heavily criticised by the media or opponents across the political spectrum.

This has strong implications for how we think about leadership. What makes a good leader? There is a need for leaders to have courage to lead in ways that model empathy and compassion and tolerance, yet also match that with strength and decisive action. That doesn’t mean leaders always get it right, and, people don’t want to commit errors or acknowledge them, but we need to learn that there’s strength in humility.

That’s why it’s very interesting to look at leaders like [Jacinda] Ardern, who can demonstrate contrition and humility while also bringing concrete next steps for action. We have to create the space for politicians to do this in the UK. There have been errors in how the pandemic has been handled, for example, and any acknowledgement of error has to be seen to be sincere and matched by steps to repair it.

In policy-making empathy can help at various points with the process. To offer just two examples to change things for the better:

Firstly, there’s the internal dimension. When we’re testing an idea, what are the processes? Whose experiences are incorporated and taking it account? Are we aware of the diverse implications of a policy on different communities? How do we keep testing properly until we roll a policy out and implement it? How do we acknowledge and communicate with fairness, honesty and transparency when a team might not have got it right?

Next, there’s the reaction when a policy is rolled out and doesn’t have the intended impact. How do we have that conversation about where it went wrong, with whom, and what are the next steps? Policy should be an iterative process, and that’s ok, that suggests an ability to learn from mistakes and refine and focus policy to have a better impact.

At the moment, policymaking is seen as quite an intellectual process.

But if policymakers did more shadowing, and gained more understanding from people on the ground about their roles and observations, they’d start to understand what the unseen implications of a given policy might be.

With COVID for example, what are the implications of the university policy on students’ mental health? What are the mental and emotional burdens of this policy? How can we mitigate that?

How does this kind of insight-based work fit in with data-driven policy?

The policy world is becoming much more data-driven, and we rely on data to give hard facts and evidence based solutions - but we’ve seen that data can’t help with everything. It is still not able to fully explain how people feel, or how they experience the world, and why that is so important. So we have to start blending data with less tangible but important human insights.

A focus on empathy means going beyond the data to understand the stories and experiences behind the perceptions data generates, to yield new insights. Sometimes, sitting down with a teacher, a prison officer, or a service user at a visa application centre can help policymakers understand exactly which questions they should be asking, and how policy is experienced in the practical and not just the abstract sense. By employing empathy, new insights can be revealed about unintended consequences, and policy makers can see where something is landing positively or negatively and ask why - which in itself is a new form of data.

This will help us to stop imagining the citizen as a generic human. People are different, and we need to understand how better to navigate these diverse experiences.

A good example of this is the Brexit vote. The data, showing how many subsidies Welsh farmers get from the EU, suggested there would be a clear Remain vote. But this purely logical perspective is incorrect - their lived experiences speak to a different reality, and the Remain campaign failed to recognise this.

What do you think is the future of empathy in policymaking?

Honestly, it’s needed now more than ever.

There are growing divides in our societies and to make meaningful progress, we are all going to have to speak to people we disagree with and work hard to find common ground.

It’s worth remembering that at the base of it, people want to be seen and recognised. They want dignity, stability, opportunity, and secure sources of income. We can use empathy to explore different experiences of why this isn’t happening. It will be hard. The flip side is that if we don’t undertake this work, empathy might be used to exacerbate those divisions instead. Why does Trump’s approach call so strongly to a voter base he doesn’t come from? Why does his politics resonate with so many people, what are their grievances and concerns? How do they view the ‘so-called’ political elite, and why? Interrogating the reasons behind this is really uncomfortable, but we need to understand how and why certain groups feel seen in order to support their lives to become better.

The Black Lives Matter movement seems to have helped awaken the public consciousness to racial inequalities in the UK. How would you frame this in the context of empathy, and how do you think this might impact on policymaking?

It’s often hard to look at our historical legacies, as they can reveal painful and violent sides to our national narratives. Yet it is so important that we have a more comprehensive and honest account of our past and learn how others have experienced policy and politics, and systems and structures of power, prejudice and oppression. Being able to question how different people and communities experience policy is going to be critical going forward.

Policy sometimes has sought to divide along race lines, and can appear to target certain communities - which isn’t helpful. Using empathy, we can have more dialogue about community and cohesion rather than “us and them”.

This ties into the future of empathy - we must learn to engage with respect and inclusive approaches when imagining how we want society to be, and we should avoid things that make people feel like they are tokens, and not truly seen, or heard, or recognised as equals. There is a willingness to learn right now, I think. It is very encouraging, for example, when you start to see NYT bookseller lists where all the top authors are people of colour.

Can we teach people to be more empathetic? Is it more of a muscle we need to strengthen? Or is it about structures in society?

It’s a combination of both - we need to change both the people and the structures.

People have varying degrees of innate empathy, but you can always teach it. Sometimes encouraging people to flex that muscle is about framing the value it brings to people’s engagement with the world in ways that feel relevant to them. As a first step, it can involve saying to people: “what if you took more time before you gave your opinion. What if you listened to really understand rather than to know how to respond?” What could you learn? How can you connect to it? What new insight might it yield? What new nugget of information have you found?

It’s about sitting in difference, being curious, and questioning our own assumptions.

This can be through first-hand experience, through literature, through asking questions of people you might not interact with often, and really listening to their answers. You can practice it - and it’s a constant process, like training a muscle.

Within government structures, it can vary a lot depending on department culture and style. Part of it is about the metrics of success, and what is rewarded within systems of government. Team leaders need to ask themselves: “what time is made for empathetic practice? For understanding and genuinely engaging with alternative points of view? How much do I allow my team to step outside of their policy area or brief to engage others and get a sense of their perspective?”. It could be as simple as people from across departments and sectors having coffee together every so often to discuss shared briefs. Building that connection at an organic level could help make change on a systemic level.

Also, empathy needs to be incorporated into metrics of measurement. How do existing hierarchies hinder empathy? If you’re a junior member of staff and you have knowledge or insights to share, what opportunities do you have to share that? Are your opinions valued and heard?

How would it change society (our relationships, politics, social structures) if empathy was valued and strengthened throughout the policymaking process?

If we start to develop humility about our own lived experiences and understand other people more, we will find far greater ties of humanity between us. We all share similar struggles & aspirations - so it will help us to connect more.

However, this idea faces challenges in terms of the information and social media environment we operate in. So let’s think about how we use technology and innovation for good, to connect with others, learn more and build something bigger than ourselves. We thrive through interpersonal connection and contact. The pandemic and isolation some have felt working from home has shown us that. So we need technology to work for us, not take our attention away from the fact that we’re better engaging with people.

What’s your vision for a more empathetic society?

I envision a politics that involves more compassion and tolerance for difference. This means there will be compromises, and admittedly that makes it hard to have one unified vision for the country. We need a politics that is more able to balance the concerns of different sides, and focuses more on fostering dialogue rather than relying on adversarial shouting or virtue signalling.

Then as a society we’d be more resilient, robust, and more able to challenge things that are detrimental to our overall well-being. This involves us rethinking our structures within society. The pandemic has given us a chance to reevaluate the essential components of our communities and how we bolster them, and to demonstrate the value of the fundamental sources of support, security & care within our society.

As part of that, policymakers could build in more periods of time on the frontline, to speak with those who are delivering policy solutions within communities. By doing this, policymakers can learn more about the impact of what they’re doing, and how ideas at the heart of government translate to the lives of people in that space.

This would help create a politics that was inclusive, collaborative, and resilient, with levels of transparency & conflict resolution built in.

It’s so critical that we do this work. We need to move away from the current status quo - it’s divisive, demoralising, and carries a danger that people become apathetic to politics - when in fact politics touches every part of our lives and has the potential to transform society for the better.

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