Empathy Can Change the World

Updated: Mar 28, 2020

Empathy has become my favourite word and what a powerful word it is. Empathy is a bit of a buzz word, but if we really understood it and how to use it effectively, I truly believe we could make the world a better place?

It seems as if the natural empathy that we are born with and develop in the early years of our lives is driven out of us through “superficial” social networking, social labelling, information overload and political polarisation and cultural stereo typing; just look at the world’s reaction to Corona Virus and the on-line vitriol towards the Chinese.

If only schools, colleges, universities and workplaces dedicated more time to teaching empathy, the world would be a better place. Canada has taken the lead, pioneering Roots of Empathy (https://rootsofempathy.org/), considered the world’s most effective teaching programme. It focused on the infant and teaching emotional intelligence and has resulted in reductions in bullying and increased levels of academic achievement.

We all think we know the difference between sympathy and empathy, but I for one only really truly understood how huge the difference was, when I started my training as a mental health counsellor. I read and talked about empathy throughout my life and I believe at times I have even managed to practice it. During my management and sales career, I was taught to use a form of empathy to get into the customers shoes to understand their needs. This is often referred to as “cognitive empathy” which is basically being able to put yourself into someone else’s place and see their perspective, but without necessarily engaging with their emotions. It does not, however, really fit with the definition of empathy as ‘feeling with’, being a much more rational and logical process. “Emotional empathy” takes that one step further and is when you quite literally feel the other person’s emotions, with them, as if you had experienced the emotions. The last form is “compassionate empathy” which is feeling someone’s pain and taking action to help. (Read more at: https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/empathy-types.html)

What I have come to realise is that what I thought was empathy was clouded in judgement, pre-conceptions and prejudice and was more akin to sympathy. To remove my opinions, my own ego and views, whilst understanding someone’s viewpoint is a lot harder than it seems. Whilst it comes naturally to some people for most it takes training and practice.

To put this into perspective think of a person who holds different political, religious and cultural beliefs and try to understand their viewpoint without introducing your own. When dealing with someone going through a hard time, we often never quite understand them, we often say we feel sorry for them, and talk to them about our own, what we consider similar experiences. How often do we spend the time to really understand what they are emotionally going through?

I recently read a quote that by Rebecca O’Donnell that succinctly describes the difference between empathy and sympathy: “Empathy is walking a mile in somebody else’s moccasins. Sympathy is being sorry their feet hurt”, (“Freak: The True Story of an Insecurity Addict”). It is well worth looking at the video by Brené Brown on Empathy which I have returned to many times as it really brings home the power of empathy vs sympathy. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw / https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/roman-krznaric-how-empathy-can-change-the-world/),

George Orwell, who is someone I admire and one of my favourite writers, demonstrated in “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933) that he could experience extreme empathy and use it as a skill for living. In the second half of the book he describes how he would dress up as a tramp and go into the streets of London, fraternising with beggars and people living on the streets. Coming from a very privileged background and having been schooled at Wellington and Eton, he was trying to empathise with people who lived on the social margins.

I remember when I was feeling down when my mum died. I had also just lost my job and my daughter had been sectioned under the mental health act. One of my friends did the simple act of taking me out for coffee, and just listened to me. He showed true empathy as he curbed his urge for storytelling and put himself in my shoes, leaving me feeling that he cared. I felt a lot better and clearer in what I needed to do. What he demonstrated was how to share the visceral experience of my thoughts and feelings from my point of view, rather than from his own.

My friend was practicing emotional empathy, which is often experienced with a close loved one, such as your child, sibling, or close friend as he begins to cry. What he is experiencing likely has an impact on us and we move to a shared emotional experience. I experienced this with a friend who had experienced sexism in the workplace. Whilst I hadn’t been in her situation I still “caught” her experience of a deep sense of sadness and shame. This form of empathy can be draining as I’ve experienced when supporting family members with emotional trauma. In fact, there have been cases where I have had empathy overload and I became cold and lost all compassion. Read more at: https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/empathy-types.html

There are many skills in the art of developing an empathic viewpoint, as psychologist Marcia Reynolds outlines in her five ways to develop empathy, (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wander-woman/201911/5-steps-developing-real-empathy) which I have listed below:

  1. Don’t assume you understand.

  2. Stay present.

  3. Manage your filters.

  4. Don’t commiserate.

  5. Remember the goal is to understand their perspective, not fix their problem.

Roman Krznaric outlines some great guidance in how to develop empathy in his article “Six Habits of Highly Empathetic Peoples” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9jC1ThqTNo), which I have summarized below:

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers – Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers.

Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities – HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.

Habit 3: Try another person’s life – HEPs expand their empathy by gaining a direct experience from other people’s lives.

Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up. – HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again.

Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change – We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.

Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination – A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects.

It seems logical that being empathic is the right thing to do, but empathy is not just good for our own sanity and for the world, it can also bring a competitive advantage in business. Our ability to see the world from the perspective of others is a crucial business tool.

If the best managers and team members express empathy it makes sense that companies with cultures that encourage empathy would attract the best and most highly engaged individuals. According to a Gallup poll, 60 percent of Millennials are open to new job opportunities, while only 29 percent of them report feeling engaged at work. Studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization show that this lack of connection can result in higher absenteeism and lower productivity.

Some people like Paul Bloom, a renowned psychologist, argues that empathy is a poor moral guide. I strongly disagree, but I do agree it can be miss-directed, exhausting, and lead to compassion fatigue. This is mainly found in jobs where empathy is core part of the role such as doctors, counsellors and health workers. There are some health warnings when it comes to empathy as pointed out by Adam Waytz in the “The Limits of Empathy” in the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-limits-of-empathy). Waytz describes the problems that occur with over exposure to the use of empathy. It can be a zero-sum activity which is in limited supply and can erode ethics through extreme loyalty toward outsiders. Waytz like others does describe how to rein in excessive empathy by splitting up the work and making it less of a sacrifice by finding a middle ground. His advice is also to give people breaks and allow them to focus on their own interests.

Empathy is an essential tool for a better society and should be taught as a core skill as part of life’s toolkit. More emotional education in schools and colleges and universities could greatly benefit us all. Managers should train employees appropriately in the context of their work ensuring that empathy is used effectively. By being more adventurous and by effectively using empathy to consider the perspectives of others, we could all understand more about the world and how to improve it for everyone.

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