Give and take


The Em­pa­thy Mu­seum—es­tab­lished in late 2015—seeks to ex­plore how em­pa­thy can not only trans­form our per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, but also help tackle global chal­lenges such as prej­u­dice, con­flict, and in­equal­ity.* Ini­tia­tives such as these high­light the em­pa­thy deficit in people to­day and the need to build a more em­pa­thetic so­ci­ety. But is it a fac­tor of our genes, or can we be taught to be more em­pa­thetic?

We are of­ten told that when it comes to com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, lis­ten­ing is ev­ery bit as im­por­tant as talk­ing. The abil­ity to lis­ten, process, and re­spond to what other people are say­ing is one of the pri­mary ways in which we learn and ac­quire knowl­edge, and it is also highly im­por­tant in terms of build­ing trust and es­tab­lish­ing re­la­tion­ships. Both of these are cru­cial skills sets for a man­ager or a leader.

But lis­ten­ing in­volves much more than just hear­ing the words. We also have to be able to un­der­stand the in­ten­tion and mean­ing of those words. ‘How’ things are said is of­ten more im­por­tant than ‘what’ is said, and that ex­tends to non-ver­bal cues such as body lan­guage as well. I once sat in on a meet­ing where a man­ager was asked about the fi­nan­cial per­for­mance of a project he was run­ning. He spoke con­fi­dently and clearly, giv­ing us all as­sur­ance that the project was on track and run­ning within bud­getary

lim­its. The only prob­lem was that the mo­ment he be­gan to speak, his face flushed bright red. He was of course ly­ing.

Those kinds of cues are easy to spot. Harder to in­ter­pret and un­der­stand are signs of dis­com­fort or dis­tress, per­haps un­re­lated to the sub­ject of the con­ver­sa­tion, which may be af­fect­ing the other per­son’s cog­ni­tive judge­ment. Then there are a whole range of other is­sues around cul­ture, per­sonal back­ground, ed­u­ca­tion, and so on that af­fect a per­son’s world­view. No two of us see the world in quite the same way, and some­times those dif­fer­ences in un­der­stand­ing lead to con­fu­sion. We think a per­son is say­ing one thing, when in fact they mean an­other.

One way of get­ting over these dif­fer­ences is to use em­pa­thy, the abil­ity to see and hear things from the per­spec­tive of the other per­son. What is go­ing on in their mind when they are speak­ing to you? What is their men­tal frame­work, and how does it dif­fer from your own? What is the real mes­sage they are try­ing to get across?

the na­ture of em­pa­thy

Most people have some abil­ity to em­pathize with oth­ers, al­though re­search has shown that people with con­di­tions re­lated to autism tend to score lower on tests of em­pathic un­der­stand­ing. (There is also some ev­i­dence that women are more nat­u­rally in­clined to em­pa­thy than men, who are more likely to take a process-ori­ented view of the world.) Em­pa­thy it­self prob­a­bly stems from our nat­u­ral de­sire for ‘be­long­ing­ness’, to feel part of a peer group or kin­ship group, which in turn feeds into our own sense of self-worth. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have es­tab­lished sev­eral points in the brain that seem to be the sources of em­pathic un­der­stand­ing, and there is a close neu­ral re­la­tion­ship be­tween em­pa­thy and trust. Our brains are hard­wired to un­der­stand other people, be­cause it is only through un­der­stand­ing them that we can trust them and build the so­cial and pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships we need.

Em­pa­thy ex­ists on sev­eral lev­els. The two most im­por­tant are emo­tional em­pa­thy and cog­ni­tive em­pa­thy. In the first, also known as af­fec­tive em­pa­thy, we re­spond to cues about other peo­ples’ emo­tional states. If they are sad, we are sad for them; if they are happy, we share in their hap­pi­ness. This hap­pens at a largely un­con­scious level, and in­deed, par­tic­u­larly in the case of sad­ness, we may even em­pathize against our will; we may not ‘want’ to feel sad, but if we are in the pres­ence of some­one who is sad, we can­not help but be af­fected by this. Emo­tional em­pa­thy ap­pears to de­velop when we are very young; stud­ies have shown that chil­dren as young as two years old will be come dis­tressed if other chil­dren are dis­tressed around them.

Cog­ni­tive em­pa­thy, on the other hand, is a con­scious process whereby we de­lib­er­ately put our­selves into some­one else’s frame of ref­er­ence and try to un­der­stand what they are feel­ing or think­ing. This form of em­pa­thy has been un­der­stood and dis­cussed for a long time. In his book The The­ory of Moral Sen­ti­ments, Adam Smith (more fa­mous as the au­thor of The Wealth of Na­tions) stated that ‘to feel much for oth­ers and lit­tle for our­selves, that to re­strain our self­ish ac­tions…and in­dulge our benev­o­lent af­fec­tions, con­sti­tutes the per­fec­tion of hu­man na­ture.’ Smith’s con­tem­po­rary, philoso­pher David Hume, agrees with this and noted fur­ther that we are more likely to be able to em­pathize with people who are sim­i­lar to our­selves and also in close phys­i­cal prox­im­ity. We can un­der­stand how our neigh­bors think and feel, but when it comes to people from an­other cul­ture on the far side of the world, many of us will strug­gle.

Our brains are hard­wired to un­der­stand other people, be­cause it is only through un­der­stand­ing them that we can trust them and build the so­cial and pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships we need.

bar­ri­ers to em­pa­thy

What hin­ders us from em­pathiz­ing with other people? The prin­ci­pal bar­rier is lack of knowl­edge. If we do not know who the other per­son is, what their back­ground is, where they come from, how they were reared and ed­u­cated and so on, we will find it more dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand their

mind­set. As a con­se­quence, we can­not ex­pect to meet some­one for the first time and im­me­di­ately em­pathize with them, at least, not un­less we have first done a great deal of back­ground re­search on that per­son. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, em­pa­thy takes time to de­velop, and re­quires us to in­vest in build­ing a re­la­tion­ship so that we can learn more about people. That is ev­ery bit as true in the busi­ness and pro­fes­sional world as it is in per­sonal life.

Cul­tural dif­fer­ences, as Hume in­di­cated, can form an im­por­tant bar­rier to em­pa­thy. Be­cause people from other cul­tures do not do things they way we do them, or do not think the way we think, we strug­gle to un­der­stand who they are. We be­come con­fused by small vis­ual cues. In An­glo-Saxon cul­tures, smil­ing is seen as an im­por­tant way of es­tab­lish­ing trust, but in some Slavic cul­tures, the op­po­site is true; people who smile too much are dis­trusted, as ex­ces­sive smil­ing is seen as a way of in­gra­ti­at­ing one­self with oth­ers. Body lan­guage means dif­fer­ent things, as do words. Take the case of a for­eign busi­ness man­ager, ar­riv­ing in Bri­tain for the first time and hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with their lo­cal coun­ter­part. At the end of the con­ver­sa­tion the Bri­tish man­ager says, ‘We must have lunch some time.’ The for­eigner could be for­given for think­ing this is an in­vi­ta­tion to lunch. In fact, it is the op­po­site; it is a form of dis­missal. ‘We must have lunch’ re­ally means, ‘We will never have lunch.’

Cul­tural dif­fer­ences lead to un­cer­tainty about other people and what their be­hav­ior re­ally means. The same is true of dif­fer­ent so­cial and ed­u­ca­tional back­grounds, which them­selves lead to forms of sub-cul­ture within cul­tures. Chil­dren who re­ceive ed­u­ca­tion from ex­pen­sive pri­vate schools will be able to em­pathize eas­ily with each other, but might strug­gle to em­pathize suc­cess­fully with pupils from poor state schools. Again, un­cer­tainty about who the other per­son is and how they think be­comes a bar­rier to un­der­stand­ing, and hence of em­pa­thy.

Some­times, these bar­ri­ers to un­der­stand­ing are de­lib­er­ately erected. People may refuse to em­pathize or un­der­stand other people, very of­ten for rea­sons based in fear. The refugee or ‘mi­grant’ cri­sis in Europe over the last few years has led to a great deal of bar­rier-set­ting. Rather than try­ing to un­der­stand why refugees from war, poverty, and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion are try­ing to get to Europe, many people choose in­stead to ig­nore the rea­sons for their flight and con­cen­trate in­stead on keep­ing them out. So­ci­ol­o­gists re­fer to this as the fear of the ‘other’. People who do not look like us or think like us or share our be­liefs are a threat to the sta­tus quo, and must be kept out. From this per­spec­tive, em­pa­thy is danger­ous; if we stop and try to un­der­stand the mind­set of the refugees, we might be­gin to sym­pa­thize with them, and then weaken our re­solve and let them in.

prac­tis­ing em­pa­thy

As noted, em­pa­thy is very valu­able when es­tab­lish­ing trust and build­ing re­la­tion­ships, so how can we be­come more em­pa­thetic? How we can im­prove our abil­ity to em­pathize?

There are psy­chol­o­gists and con­sul­tants who of­fer em­pa­thy train­ing, which pur­ports to help us be­come more em­pathic, but there is no real ev­i­dence that such train­ing works. Stud­ies have shown that people who have un­der­taken em­pa­thy train­ing and then take em­pa­thy aware­ness tests score pretty much the same as they did be­fore train­ing.

Im­prov­ing our abil­ity to em­pathize has to come from within our­selves. Ex­pe­ri­ence is one im­por­tant fac­tor; the more we learn about the world and about other people, then gen­er­ally speak­ing, the eas­ier we find it is to em­pathize. Ex­po­sure to di­ver­sity is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant. Get­ting to know people from other back­grounds and walks of life and from other cul­tures helps us to bet­ter un­der­stand them, and that helps us to em­pathize with other people from sim­i­lar back­grounds and cul­tures. Look­ing at my own ex­pe­ri­ence, I am bet­ter able to

Un­cer­tainty about who the other per­son is and how they think be­comes a bar­rier to un­der­stand­ing, and hence of em­pa­thy.

em­pathize with people from In­dia than I was twenty years ago, sim­ply be­cause I have worked in In­dia, stud­ied In­dian cul­ture and his­tory, and had many In­dian col­leagues and clients. I am not an ex­pert by any means, but I am bet­ter able to un­der­stand and em­pathize than some­one who has never trav­elled in In­dia and whose only ex­po­sure to In­dian cul­ture is chicken tikka masala (which was in­vented in Bri­tain in any case).

Open-mind­ed­ness is also cru­cial, and that is an at­tribute that prob­a­bly most of us need to im­prove. By open-mind­ed­ness, in this case, I mean sim­ply open­ing up and be­ing will­ing to try to un­der­stand other people. The ar­ti­fi­cial bar­ri­ers we erect to keep out the ‘other’ need to be torn down; in­stead of walls, we need to build bridges. The first step in em­pa­thy is be­ing will­ing to em­pathize. Of course, this may not al­ways be easy. We need to over­come our fears, both real and imag­ined, and per­haps take a few risks in or­der to get to know other people. We have to keep re­mind­ing our­selves that the re­ward is worth the risk.

can there be too much em­pa­thy?

At first thought, the re­sponse to this ques­tion would seem to be known. Lack of em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing of other people is a crit­i­cal prob­lem in both busi­ness and so­ci­ety. In busi­ness in par­tic­u­lar, we are of­ten so fo­cused on our­selves, our ca­reers, our goals, our needs, that we give in­suf­fi­cient thought to other people.

But in try­ing to em­pathize with oth­ers, it is pos­si­ble to go too far. Cog­ni­tive em­pa­thy can lead us to for­get our own frame of ref­er­ence and world­view and start to adopt that of the other per­son. The most ex­treme ex­am­ple of this is Stock­holm syn­drome, whereby kid­nap vic­tims be­gin to iden­tify with their kid­nap­pers and share their val­ues. But again in busi­ness set­tings we can see how par­tic­u­larly charis­matic man­agers or lead­ers will per­suade oth­ers around them to change their per­spec­tive and adopt the views and ideas and val­ues of that charis­matic fig­ure. There are ob­vi­ous eth­i­cal is­sues here. So long as the in­flu­ence is ex­erted for be­nign ends, we could say that no harm is done, but all too of­ten the charis­matic fig­ure is en­gaged in projects that are harm­ful to the or­ga­ni­za­tion, such as cor­rup­tion.

When em­pathiz­ing, we al­ways need to re­serve a de­gree of ob­jec­tiv­ity. We must un­der­stand the other per­son’s po­si­tion and know why they are say­ing what they are say­ing if we are to truly un­der­stand them. But we must also re­serve judge­ment un­til we fully un­der­stand their mean­ing. Sense-mak­ing re­quires us to put what they are say­ing into the con­text of what we al­ready know and an­a­lyze it fully to see how valid it is. Fail­ure to do this can lead us to make er­rors of judge­ment that could be just as danger­ous as not lis­ten­ing at all.

Em­pa­thy is a pow­er­ful thing, and those who can mas­ter the skills of em­pa­thy can gain great in­sights and learn much about other people, and them­selves. But em­pa­thy, like com­mu­ni­ca­tion, also needs to go both ways. If you can em­pathize with oth­ers but they can­not em­pathize with you, then lack of un­der­stand­ing will per­sist. Be em­pa­thetic, but also be open and hon­est so oth­ers can em­pathize with you.

Em­pa­thy is a pow­er­ful thing, and those who can mas­ter the skills of em­pa­thy can gain great in­sights and learn much about other people, and them­selves.

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