To develop empathy for someone very different from yourself.
To develop some skill in establishing a relationship across a significant boundary.
Otto Scharmer, Theory U.
My Empathy Walk
This is a real story that took place in September 2015 while I was taking the MITx course u.lab. Leading from the Emerging Future. That program requires that the participant opens his/her mind, heart, and will, in order to develop internal coherence. Within the course requirements, there are specific activities to build those capacities.
One of them is the “ Empathy Walk,” which helps you open your heart. You are asked to take an “Empathy Walk” with a person who is at the margin of your system, or with someone with whom you have a problematic relationship.
Walking To Nowhere with a One-Legged Man
After a dentist appointment, I was at a mall looking at the store windows and contemplating the empathy walk that I was to complete that week. Somebody approached me from behind and said to me: “Excuse me, sir, could you help me? I am in need of some money.” I automatically dismissed him with a gesture of my hand without even looking at him. The man just walked away.
I stared at my reflection in the glass and a thought came to my mind: “What have you done? Your empathy walk came right to you, and you turned it away! Where is your empathy now?” I turned my head around and saw a man who had lost his leg, walking with crutches, going out of the mall. “Follow him,” I thought. At this moment I felt both remorseful and fearful. Fearful of what? I could not believe the thoughts that I was thinking and the feelings that I had.
I decided that if I let him go, I would feel not only awful, but I would also lose my self-respect. I felt that I had to go and catch up with him. One block away from the mall I managed to catch up with him. I stood before him and apologized for my rude behavior. He was so surprised that he didn’t say anything at first. I introduced myself and began to walk with him to nowhere in particular.
He told me a heartbreaking story when I asked him what had happened to his leg. Javier is 38 years old, single man who lives with his mother. He lost his leg ten years ago when he was hit by a car. Before that accident, he was an athlete who practised swimming and basketball. Now he is unemployed and penniless because, according to him, no one would hire him because of his physical condition.
Nevertheless, a company had offered to hire him on one condition: that he walk without crutches. He looked for and found a foundation that offered to buy him a prosthetic leg, but they required that he provide them with a quota. That was the reason why he was in the city, but he had spent the little cash that he had on the bus ticket. I invited him to breakfast and gave him the money that I had with me. When we were saying goodbye, he confessed that he never expected the day to end that way. To tell you the truth, neither did I.
Going Out of My Comfort Zone
That Empathy Walk took me out of my comfort zone. Inside that zone, I am usually empathetic, caring, a good listener, attentive with my family, friends, my peers at work, and with like-minded people like the ones I have met at u.lab. But, when I took that walk into the unknown with a person that was totally out of my system, I felt that my emotional defences came down, leaving my heart open and vulnerable. When I was walking back to my car, my thought was that somehow, without even realizing it, I had been thrown down to the bottom of the U.
The man that is walking in my shoes after that Empathy Walk is not the same man that stepped into the u.lab course two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I thought that, in order to get the program certificate, all I had to do was to study Dr. Scharmer’s book and to practice its methodology and tools. After the Empathy Walk, I wondered what other surprises like this one had been prepared for us by Otto Scharmer and his team of collaborators. It turns out that every stage of the program has profoundly transformative experiences like the Empathy Walk.
Taking an empathy walk with a man who had lost his leg was a turning point in my personal and professional life because it took me out of my comfort zone for good. Leaving the comfort zone seems to be a habitual way of life when you are a Theory U practitioner.
A Life-Changing Experience
Now, I look back on my journey, and I can safely say that participating in u.lab was a life-changing experience for me. And it continues to be life changing! Today I am a co-host of the Caracas ULab Hub, the local center for the knowledge and teaching of Theory U in Venezuela. In that role, I serve as a mentor, accompanying the new participants of the u.lab. Leading From The Emerging Future program, which Otto Scharmer facilitates every year from MITx.
Additionally, I co-direct an NGO, Proyecto Hikola. Our ONG adapted the MITx program to the Spanish language in order to empower change agents with the Theory U competencies, enabling them to lead complex transformation processes in their organizations and communities.
I will be operating in the Greater Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area beginning in May 2020. I will continue to be very active in the co-creation of Theory U based projects through our NGO. I am part of the Core Team that is responsible for the Proyecto Hikola’s participation in a worldwide initiative led by the Presencing Institute. Otto Scharmer’s think tank created the five months u.lab 2x Societal Transformation Lab program, which takes 300 teams in 150 countries “from prototypes to eco-system impact.”
I have the opportunity to continuously interact with a very active worldwide community of more than 20,000 change agents who apply the tools and methods of Theory U in governments, organizations, and communities located in more than 180 countries.