Bill Gates is a famously data-driven guy, but he is no doubt also aware that facts don't win many arguments. Science and everyday experience show that we often believe the things we do for emotional rather than rational reasons. Changing minds generally means digging into issues of identity and ego rather than logic.
Which may be why Gates lit up when basketball star Steph Curry asked him about empathy and persuasion during an interview for Curry's new interview series, "State of Inspiration" recently.
Facts don't win arguments--empathy does.
Facts can be powerful, of course, but Curry noted that before you can be swayed by statistics, you have to recognize there really is a problem. Whether the issue is climate change, systemic racism, or the disparate impacts of Covid-19, you can't start to solve a challenge until you get people to see it and care. How do you push people to have empathy, Curry asked Gates.
Gates kicked off his answer by acknowledging that well off folks like him are often isolated from the world's most pressing problems. The successful have to work to maintain their empathy, and Gates reeled off a handful of suggestions on how to do that.
"Oprah did a thing where she had kids from an inner city school go look at a suburban school and vice versa, and they were just stunned that the building and everything was so completely different. So I think, even for me, I have to go, whether it's the inner city in America, talking to people who live there, or outside the U.S," he says, "Hands on visits I think that is necessary."
But this being a Gates interview, the billionaire bookworm also suggested reading as a way for leaders to expand their circle or empathy and put themselves on a sounder footing for conversations with those from different backgrounds. He mentioned one book in particular.
"I was just reading The New Jim Crow, which was pretty forceful and eloquent," he tells Curry. The much praised book by a law professor digs into the timely topic of racial disparities in the American justice system.
Read your way to greater empathy.
This isn't the first time Gates has recommended reading as a way for the comfortable to step outside their own privilege and look at the world through the eyes of those who are struggling. He previously praised Evicted by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond for much the same reason.
Science backs Gates up that reading about those with lives very different than your own is a great way to exercise your empathy muscles.Studies also confirm that boosting empathy will make you a better leader.
So whether or not you pick up this particular book or plan a visit to see some of our problems up close and personal, the larger takeaway from the interview is that we should all actively work to expand the circle of our empathy. We can't talk to each other and come up with solutions if we can't even begin to empathize with each other.
Or as Gates puts it, "It takes a lot to push yourself to have empathy for other people, so I think we all have to push harder on this."