“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person” – Walt Whitman, in the poem ‘Song of Myself’
There is a beautiful story of an eight year old child who enters a pet shop to buy a puppy. The child is shown a litter of puppies but his gaze fixes on one of them and his eyes light up. He points to that puppy, and says that he would like to take it home. The shopkeeper informs the child that the puppy he has chosen is deformed by birth, and would always limp around, unable to jump and play like a normal dog. The child smiles up at the shopkeeper with moist eyes, and shows his own deformed leg saying “He will need an owner who understands his pain”…
This story highlights the emotion of empathy which resides in all of us.
In the book “Humans are underrated”, Geoff Colvin has painted a picture of the near future (10-15 years away) when computers will rob us of most of the left brain jobs we are doing today (lawyers, doctors, teachers, managers et al). In that scenario, right brain qualities of humans will be very important for our success and survival. He has rated empathy as the most critical skill that we need to have.
Ironically, multiple researches seem to show that we are rapidly losing our ability to empathize with others. A few years back President Barack Obama openly lamented about the ‘empathy deficit’ the world is facing while spiritual sages like the Dalai Lama have been stressing on the critical need to “ignite our compassion for fellow humans and other living beings”.
Various reasons have been attributed to this loss of empathy. A significant one being the reduced face to face interactions for most of us, who are deeply absorbed in our phones, laptops and other devices. Another reason seems to be the all pervasive ‘Scarcity mindset’, which makes us fear others success (thus their happiness) or feel strangely apathetic when others are pained.
So what is Empathy? In simple terms, it is the ability to feel the emotions and mental state of another person.
Empathy is very different from sympathy. As a coach, I am realizing that empathy is significantly more powerful then sympathy, both for myself and the coachee.
To give an example, if a friend (who is depressed, sad or shamed etc) is ‘in a hole’ and unable to come out, an empathetic response would be to ‘go into that hole’ and stand along with him.
In a state of Empathy (unlike Sympathy) there are no suggestions of ‘silver linings’, ‘actions that could be taken’, ‘different perspective’ or general advice. Empathy is an effort to ‘mirror’ the true feelings of that person in ourselves and feel what that person is going through.
Amazingly, just being in an ‘empathic state’ with a pained person helps them to manage the pain and think through the best solutions for it. There is a mysterious ‘deep connect’ which is healing and positive. Usually, few people need (or seek) the “prompt advice” that comes from a sympathetic state.
Some interesting facets of empathy, which have emerged are:
- Empathy is a natural instinct: Babies start crying when they hear another baby of similar age crying out loud. Every mother has an instinctive ‘empathy’ with her child, even when they are physically far apart. Interestingly, empathy has been observed even in rats and monkeys. As per neuroscience, a state of empathy lights up the frontal lobe, exercising the part of the brain using imagination and creativity. But then, is there any benefit in empathizing with others?
- Being in an ‘empathic state’ is a human need: Seems that like food, water, exercise or having friends, being in a state of empathy is a human need. As we deprive ourselves of this state, it diminishes our happiness and feeling of ‘well being’. Music, fictional literature, paintings, movies and games are vicarious ways for us to experience this state and no wonder, millions of us indulge in these ‘tools’ every day, where we allow ourselves to be transported into somebody else’s life and deeply mirror what they are supposedly feeling in those stories. But then why do we need such artificial means to be in an empathizing state?
- ‘Real life empathy is avoidable as it makes us vulnerable’: As we grow, experience teaches us that empathizing with real people makes us vulnerable and we could be cheated or harmed. We contain our instinct to empathize and ‘learn’ to disassociate while interacting with others.Also, truly empathizing with others makes us look at their point of view and robs us of all the ‘villains’ in our lives. We cannot really play the ‘blame game’ and the lines between ‘good and bad people’ start blurring.It’s a difficult place, as most people around us hold sharper perceptions/ judgment of right or wrong. I remember having a friend who would naturally ease into an ‘empathic state’ and would be scorned by our friends as ‘seeing the human behind every face’.
- Empathy is a skill : Paul Ekman, a researcher, found that the human face has 40 muscles and can have over 3000 various combinations to depict how a person is feeling, which he termed as ‘micro expressions’. It’s impossible for a person to hide her emotions and if we have the skill, we could read a face within seconds to identify them. Some people learn to read faces and hear tone variations. On the other hand, many of us usually have no clue what’s going on and wonder ‘what did I say wrong to mess up that interaction’!
The good news is that Empathy can be learnt by demonstrating curiosity, deep listening, holding back judgment and the urge to respond with solutions.
Various experiments and research seem to show that good relationships (at home or work), effective group dynamics and convivial work environment are positively impacted by the level of empathy demonstrated during daily interactions. Leaders who display empathy usually have much higher levels of trust and commitment in their teams.
As per Geoff Colvin, the next age (which is emerging in a decade or so) will be led by the ‘relationship worker’ who will show distinctly superior empathic skills.
So what is a practical approach to Empathy in a work environment?
In a work environment, it might be important to calibrate our empathy to ensure that we ‘deepen the engagement’ while we don’t get swayed away from logical decision making by our emotions. In that state, a leader would have a high “empathy quotient”, as she displays genuine curiosity, asks questions and listens deeply to a colleague, allowing herself to truly feel the emotions. But then, she withdraws herself timely, to rationalize the situation and respond appropriately, respecting the larger view of the group or the organization.
In the future, as we manage more complex relationships, group dynamics and organizational culture, the need to develop empathizing skills will take center stage, and this could be a critical competency for all successful managers. What will differentiate true leaders would be the fine art of balancing empathy with logical decision making.
Any feedback or thoughts are welcome !