David Aikman: Empathy as a Condition for Mutual Understanding and Collaboration

One of the great things that we’ve seen in this crisis is how companies and individuals have developed more compassion and more empathy.

Editor’s Note: The pandemic of Covid-19 not only hits global economy but also affects mutual trust between different countries. Under such circumstance, rebuilding mutual trust and reaching cooperation remain a global agenda. David Gosset, the founder of Europe-China Forum, discussed with David Aikman, Chief Representative Officer in Greater China, and Managing Director of World Economic Forum.

A Time of Resilience, hosted by Mr. Gosset, is a high-level dialogue with international veteran diplomats, business elites and outstanding scholars. The serial interviews are presented by China Focus in association with DG2CI Limited.

David Gosset: Can I ask you what resilience means for you?

David Aikman: I think we can learn a lot from nature and how nature has this ability to absorb any disturbance and reorganize itself. Part of the secret of that is having the buffers, having the slack in the system where you can preserve your options if one part of the system is compromised. You don’t just have one function or one entity supporting a function. I think when we think about that as leaders or in our own personal resilience, it’s really about recovering and absorbing shock and recovering from that. So, it’s not just finding how to deal with change, but how to thrive and survive in change.

David Gosset: Indeed, at the end of the day, when we think about it, life is about resilience. Now you spoke about the context. Very clear, we are going through a multi-dimensional crisis. But a crisis, as we can hear very very clearly when we speak Chinese weiji (crisis) is also about opportunity, opportunities. David, how do we turn this crisis into an opportunity?

David Aikman: One of the great things that we’ve seen in this crisis is how companies and individuals have developed more compassion and more empathy. There’s been putting the health and safety of staff as the number one priority.

We know that many of our organizations are not fit for purpose in the 21st century. They were designed for a global context which doesn’t exist anymore. During this crisis, for example, the World Health Organization came to the World Economic Forum and said, we don’t know how to work with business, we don’t know how to mobilize the private sector response. We work very well with the health authorities in respective countries but dealing with companies is a completely different context. I think the last part, the innovation dimension, is really something we’ve seen here in incredible amounts.

David Gosset: I think what you say, David, is very important. I think many outside China did not notice these aspects of the crisis from a Chinese perspective, how it did foster innovation in China at the national level, but also at the company level. David, you spoke about innovation and the importance of innovation. Your forum is also a place where you educate, create, and disseminate knowledge. I would like to ask you what are your thoughts about how we foster collaborative mindsets, not innovative mindsets, but collaborative mindsets, collaboration being very important at the moment?

David Aikman: Absolutely, David. I think the first thing to admit is that we have a problem. It’s very easy to collaborate with like-minded individuals. But it’s much harder to collaborate with people from different views, different backgrounds, and different cultures. But the problem with collaborating with people who just think and act and work like you is you end up in this kind of groupthink and these kind of filter bubbles and echo chambers, which we see as a real problem today.

When I think about what could be the kind of collaborative structures that could be put in place to foster those collaborative mindsets, because it’s only by actually working together that you develop the understanding and appreciation for each other. One of the areas where China could really take the lead is in protecting nature and environmental action.

David Gosset: You know China very well. In your position, you are seeing many things that many people cannot see. It seems to me that one needs also to work for the world, for the West, for the US, to know better China. So, I wanted to ask you and I know this is a very difficult question, if you had, three things to say about China in order for someone in Paris or in New York, to have a more accurate China in mind, what these three things would be, David?

David Aikman: That is a difficult one, but I do find myself in that position quite a lot of trying to help colleagues outside of China really understand China. The first thing that I try to help people understand is that China is not monolithic.

The second thing I would think of is probably around leadership and I think leadership in China and leadership in the West do not mean the same thing. When China says it wants to be a leader, I think it means something very different than maybe what people think in the West. I think that people in the West tend to think of the leader is the top of the pyramid, or the apex predator, or something like that. In China, it means something very different. It means to be central, to be indispensable, to be respected, to showcase your capabilities and your contribution to the system and to society.

I think that sort of leads me to the third thing, which is, for me in dealing with China, there’s an inherent rationality. Oftentimes actions or regulations or the behavior of companies or individuals is kind of misunderstood or misinterpreted. I think it’s really important to step into each other’s shoes and to try and see from each other’s perspectives.

David Gosset: Thank you, David. I hope the viewers think carefully about what you have said because at least you and I we would converge very much to say that when you think about China, you need to think about a very beautiful, actually, balance between diversity and unity. Then, of course, what you have said about the content of leadership in the West and in China, I think it is very true. I think we discussed in the past you and myself about the importance of centrality in the Chinese mindset. You spoke about the necessity to be central and indispensable or the connector country. So, I would converge very much with you. And your last point is extremely important. Yes, we are not the same, differences are at work, but not absolute differences. So, translation is possible, if I may say, it’s difficult, but translation is always possible. The key word, and I would like to finish with that if you allow me, David, is in this context, in order to understand each other better, in order to collaborate better, the capacity to empathize and put oneself in the others’ shoes. I think this is very important. It takes a lot of patience, strategic patience, dialogue, and a lot of activities as you do, David. So, thank you very much for your wonderful work, which has never been, in my opinion, so necessary.