politics

"Like being an ice cube in boiling water": The issue with sending Andrew Laming to empathy training.

The Federal Government is in clean-up mode, working to erase the stain of recent allegations of sexual assault, harassment and sexual misconduct made against multiple male MPs and staffers.

Among those responsible for the mess is Queensland backbencher Dr Andrew Laming, who was last month accused of hounding two prominent women in his electorate via social media. 

9News broadcast snapshots of Facebook comments in which the former ophthalmologist made allegations that one of the women misappropriated charity funds — a claim the woman firmly denies and said left her feeling suicidal. 

The other reported that Dr Laming subjected her and her husband, a local councillor, to a sustained campaign of harassment that spanned several years and included the MP taking covert pictures of her walking through a park which he shared on Facebook.

The reports drew condemnation from Dr Laming's colleagues, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison. But with a one-seat majority at stake, it came as little surprise that the government ignored calls for Dr Laming to be stood down.

What to do with him, then? 

Prime Minister Morrison ultimately settled on a punishment of 30 days' leave at full pay, plus an order to attend a private empathy-training course at his own expense.

"Starting tomorrow, I will get assistance with courses in empathy and appropriate communication, not just to be a better MP, but to be a deeper and more empathetic person than what the recent events have demonstrated," Dr Laming said in a statement on Sunday.

Prime Minister Morrison is hoping to see a "very significant change" in Dr Laming's behaviour when the MP returns to complete his final term in office (he's pledged not to contest the next election). 

So what is this empathy training? And could it be as effective as the PM seems to think? But first...

What is empathy?

Empathy — the ability to understand another person's emotions — is broadly understood to be a learned behaviour, something that is developed in our early relationships with our parents or caregivers and then shaped by culture.

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A complicated interaction of all those factors means that some people have greater capacity for empathy than others.

And that's where the market for empathy training exists.

Katherine Teh is the CEO of Futureye, a company that has provided empathy training to a range of organisations, including government departments. 

Her company provides tools to improve what it sees as the key components of empathy: actively listening; understanding what triggers a person's emotional reactions; and genuinely being able to solve problems from their perspective.

Among the reasons a person may struggle with that process, she said, are privilege and power.

"If you're powerful, it's possible that you've bought into the notion that you have advantages that are either your natural, God-given right, or that you have advantages that demonstrate that you are better than others," Katherine said. "Everything around you is set up so that you get less and less access to the average person's responsiveness to their concerns."

Katherine Teh, CEO of Futureye. Image: Supplied.


It's particularly stark when the individual is a politician — a person whose job is to and act in the interests of the community.

Take Dr Laming as an example. 

Katherine notes that he's likely sat in multiple meetings and parliamentary sessions featuring women talking about issues of gender equality, harassment, and so on. 

Yet not only did he allegedly hound two women, he later conceded that his subsequent public apology was only because he felt it necessary in the current "climate": "I didn't even know what [I was apologising] for when I did it," he said.

In fact, last Saturday evening after the announcement of his punishment, new allegations surfaced that Dr Laming took an inappropriate photo up the skirt of a colleague. (An investigation by Queensland Police this week found no basis for criminal charges.)

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So why does it appear that, despite listening to people, Dr Laming hasn't truly heard them?

Listen: Could gender quotas be the answer to bursting Parliament's misogynistic bubble? The Quicky investigates.

"The answer is because these values weren't important to him, or they weren't important enough to him to really think about why they were important to other people," Katherine said.

"And that's step one of empathy."

How does empathy training work?

Empathy training is designed to provide the tools to bridge that gap between disconnected values, to highlight alternative perspectives and improve understanding of them. It usually involves workshops featuring a mix of theory, practical examples and exercises.

But Katherine argues that there are flaws with the ways the government is using empathy training to clean up its mess.

As a sexual harassment victim herself, Katherine is eager to stress that empathy training shouldn't be used in place of meaningful consequences. In fact, it's not meant to be punitive at all.

Instead, she said, it's designed to serve as one of many proactive measures to help organisations looking to interact better with the community. 

Katherine also argued that sending a single team member along to a course is not likely to be effective. That's why her company's programs aren't targeted to individuals.

For one, there's a risk they'll approach the material with defensiveness, which Katherine notes is one of the biggest barriers to empathy. But also, it won't fix the cultural issues that likely contributed to their behaviour.

"As if one individual being empathetic is going to change Parliament. It just won't," she said.

"It's like being an ice cube in boiling water. You can maintain your form for a moment, but then you'll be overwhelmed."

Instead, she would welcome the entire House of Representatives and the Senate investing in an empathy-building program.

"There's so much more to creating an empathetic institution than sending its bad boy out for a bit of training," she said.

"Unless the institution itself makes the commitment and then puts in place the systems, the structure, the leadership, the support for those changes, becoming an empathetic institution is a pretty difficult thing to do."

Of course, even if they manage it, the mess of their toxic employee culture won't shift overnight. But as the central institution of this country, and the most visible, it's important others see them make a start.

"Empathy, I would say, is just the first step on the pathway to get to a point where women aren't discriminated against," Katherine said, "let alone where women have equality in the workplace and in Parliament."

Feature Image: AAP/Mamamia