Collective Empathy

I was asked to give a university commencement speech, and three days before I felt uneasy.  I was unprepared.  The feeling was not based on the lack of content.  Rather, my uneasiness was based on my awareness that I had not yet done the work of loving the audience, the work of collective empathy.  They people in the future audience were still strangers to me.

I had work to do.  When I prepare, I require myself to integrate the content with love for the audience.  I require myself to practice empathy for the whole, to understand the deepest needs and interests of the collective and formulate words that might appeal to those needs in such a way as to inspire positive change.

Early Saturday morning, I sat down and I began to visualize the audience including the graduates, families, friends, and faculty.  I imagined the needs of the graduates.  I felt their sense of achievement and their insecurities about moving into a new world.  I imagined the feelings of the families, rich and poor, coming from everywhere in the world.  I imagined the feelings of the faculty from indifference to great pride.  As I practiced this collective empathy, my orientation changed.

A multitude of imagined strangers became a multitude of imagined friends, real people whom I could serve.  With their deepest, common needs in mind, I worked to reconstruct my content to hold their attention and inspire positive change.  It was only when I completed this cognitive-emotional integration that I felt ready.  Suddenly I was confident because I believed my words were now a gift.

I gave the talk, and I felt connected with the audience.  Why?  First I was focused on their deepest needs.  Second, I had content that was relevant to those needs.  Third, as they listened to the content, they felt my confidence.  Fourth, they could also feel my concern; they knew my heart was in the work and that my words were a gift.

Love is reflected in acts of sacrifice for those we care about.  The acts can be small or great.  When we transcend the ego and do disciplined work for others, it invites unity between the giver and the receiver.  When the invitation is accepted, hearts open, logic is elevated by imagination, faith begins to drive out fear, an imagination of a better future gives rise to hope, and the elevating process can inspire positive change.  I am grateful for the work of collective empathy, for what it does for others, and for what it does for me.



  • When you listen, how do you know how much the speaker cares about you?
  • What role does ego and fear play in the preparation of most presentations?
  • If you were to experiment with practicing collective empathy, how would you start?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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