The Empathy Question

On 7th September Hard Edges: Lives Behind the Numbers will be hosting a storytelling workshop bringing together service providers, frontline workers, commissioners and people with lived experience to share insights about how services can be designed in a way that better supports people facing severe and multiple disadvantage.

Prior to this, Lou Thomas shares her thoughts around empathy and how the project is unearthing commonalities, themes and factors that contribute to the 12 different life stories. 


Any life is perhaps easy to understand on paper. From case studies to autobiographies, we can release details about our lives for all the world to see, in any way we wish. Matter-of-fact, laid bare with emotions or mysterious – the choice is ours. But when it comes to engaging with public services, are these words enough?

What if that life involved chaos, hardship and utter unfairness? Do we as readers simply link details of a childhood trauma to a stint in prison and feel a pinch of inevitability when one leads to the other? It is not difficult to feel sympathy, but how often do we really feel empathy?

Take Natasha’s story for example. She was born in prison. She cried for her foster family when she was return to her mother after the first 18 months apart – she says she missed out on those first few crucial attachment months. She grew up facing racial abuse, and only felt comfortable when visiting her stepdad in Moss Side where she was exposed to gangs and violence. She didn’t care, her stepdad was the only person to tell her he loved her. She witnessed her brother commit a murder in her teens and decided to testify against him. She felt it was the right thing to do. Her brother escaped, and she was placed in a witness protection scheme – away from any family, away from any world she knew. She felt alone, and bereft, and she didn’t deal with her emotions. Slowly but surely, she began lashing out. She would drink and get in trouble with the police, and her children were taken away by social services. She calls this ‘the curse of nine months’ – after nine months, she would spiral and her children would be taken away. She always associated services with bad situations in her life, and it wasn’t until she began to engage with them positively that she saw life in a different way; ‘I’m just starting to realise it wasn’t all me.’

natasha2Natasha now has the life she always wanted, but never thought she’d have. She volunteers. She has a loving partner and a son (who is now 18 months – successfully breaking ‘the curse’). Her eldest daughter, still in foster care, is allowed to come over every weekend and stays in the spare bedroom. Despite this turnaround, her housing situation is facing threat at the moment due to the bedroom tax.

How does Natasha’s story make you feel? Sympathy? Now what if you were to hear Natasha tell her story in her own words, if you were able to spend time talking to her and finding all the different nuances of her understanding of life that are perhaps completely different to your own? Exploring a person’s real insights and experiences of public services takes much more than what you see before you. Insights cannot be unearthed simply by detailing a life – a case for change comes only through real understanding, and through the organic and curious nature of storytelling.

All too often a person’s life is detailed through the lens of a single issue (housing or abuse or addiction etc.) and we do not ask ‘what is it that makes life worth living?’ or ‘what would help you live the life you want to live?’


Throughout the course of Hard Edges: Lives Behind the Numbers, we will be looking at these questions in depth whilst exploring commonalities, themes and factors that contribute to each life story. In the research so far, we have unearthed a set of interesting headlines that link to each participant on different levels. These are:

  1. Coping with love, coping with rejection
  2. What is normal?
  3. Mindsets of chaos
  4. A “system” of missed opportunities
  5. Taking responsibility for your own life
  6. Accidental recovery
  7. Change is scary
  8. Turning negatives into positives
  9. New environments, new norms
  10. Building “a new me”
  11. The system punishes you for doing well

Throughout the project, we will explore how each headline relates to public services.

Be sure to check the blog after our next workshop on 7th September to find out more. You’ll see what service providers, frontline workers, commissioners and people with lived experience have shared with each other about services, and how they can be designed in a way that better supports people facing severe and multiple disadvantage.

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