“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Empathy. Do you have it? Do you live it? Do you experience it? Does it guide you? Many may reflexively say “yes, of course”. But think carefully. I’m not talking about sympathy. I’m not talking about pity. Empathy is what seems to be the most profound of emotions in that it actually leads, I would like to argue, to much better workplaces, and to a much better world in general. Or at least it can, although just like everything else it can be a double-edged sword. The news media is saturated this past year, this past week, in some shape or form with stories of empathy. Empathy, even lack thereof, is all around us.
Recently, Ohio Senator Portman reversed his anti-gay marriage stance once his son came out to him as gay (http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/15/politics/portman-gay-marriage). Once he realized that someone he loved was gay, he could empathize with the gay movement. Once it touched him personally. Once he could put his own flesh and blood “human” face on the issue of gay marriage, he couldn’t support the cause. It had been too far removed from his everyday life. It had been an “other.” But, as the Senator noted, he had a change of heart based on personal experience. And, you know what? That’s usually how opinions and feelings “evolve.”
I was absolutely heartbroken by the Boston Marathon bombing, but does there seem to be this weird “now we really get you New York” tone to it? The media coverage was extraordinarily focused on the marathon tragedy while west Texas suffered a horrific ordeal of its own and there was someone out there mailing ricin-laced letters. What gives? Obviously, fear mongering on the part of the media has propelled that story further. But there is also the “now we are in your shoes” mentality. What can we take away from this all? Part of my empathy for Boston, besides being a New Yorker who has seen the effects of terrorism on a city, I’m also a mom. For many years I believed I didn’t want to be a mom. I didn’t want a kid. Their short and they smell. When I told my mom that I was pregnant, she asked me if i was punking her. Bless her soul. It’s still one of the memories of her I hold dear and chuckle about. But now that I’m fully immersed in motherhood, I cannot imagine life without my son. I cannot imagine having gone through life not having experienced the joy and awe of raising another human being. It also led to my feeling more disturbed at such tragic events. For a while I actually stopped watching the news as it weighed on my heart to heavily. Stories about children dying just jar me tremendously. It’s not that I didn’t care at all before, simply that I viewed tragic events with a certain level of detachment. So, watching that image over and over again of Martin dying at the Boston Marathon was just too emotionally intense. Empathy got the best of me and probably the rest of the country. But why did the horrific destruction of an entire town in west Texas get the same coverage, or engender similar feelings?
Strangely, in two recently released studies looking at how humans feel towards robots, researchers found that humans demonstrate feelings of empathy towards robots. Specifically, they became somewhat distressed at watching a dinosaur robot being treated violently. (http://www.livescience.com/28928-humans-show-empathy-for-robots-video.html). This finding is nothing new as soldiers have been found to form bonds with robots on the battlefield. This makes total sense in that if “someone” is in the trenches with you, you are bonded and will do all to help your fellow soldier; leave no man (or robot) behind, right? Interestingly, other research suggests that humans feel more empathy for robots the more human they appear, but not if they appear too humanlike. At that point, it is plain old creepy (my interpretation). But if we can feel empathy for a robot, why is it that, to quote Jennifer Anniston (although I’m team Jolie), some people may be missing a “sensitivity chip?” I’m not talking about hardcore psychopaths. Research does show psychopaths have a marked lack of empathy due to not being “neurally equipped” (Decety, et al., 2013). Is there a scanner we can use in the workplace or at bars to detect that? It would be a handy human resources tool. Just saying. But going back to general empathy, there are many individuals, besides psychopaths that oftentimes have a hard time with it. Perhaps they are just too self-focused or they get overwhelmed by floods of emotion. Or they just don’t want to be bothered living someone else’s emotional experience. See, empathy has many different definitions. These definitions encompass a broad range, from caring for other people and having a desire to help them, to experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, to knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective, while sympathy is compassion and concern. Often we cannot experience sympathy, precisely because we cannot empathize. Not being able to understand a situation from someone else’s perspective can hinder one from moving forward in a meaningful way. In particular, this state of sympathy stasis is commonly evidenced in the workplace.
How many times have you led a meeting where people just cannot get your point of view, or they like to say “where you are coming from?” When people don’t get your point of view, they will claim you are not “keeping it real”, because they just cannot see things through your eyes. How many times have you advised a work colleague that so and so (or as us Puerto Ricans like to say “fulana o fulano”) was a certain way or that a certain employee is actually not the productive front-man she poses as? But upon said advice you felt you weren’t quite believed, or that you even half-jokingly stated “you think I’m lying don’t you!?!” Do you often hear “it’s just not my experience” or “I would rather form my own opinion.” This is actually a very American phenomenon in which there is the belief that one’s opinion is so highly valuable and emanates from such a self-centered approach (meaning from one’s own experience). Of course, soon after you hear back “oh my god you were so right…”) after which they can now understand and empathize with you and your workplace situation.
I have often joked that one of these days, I am going to have team members swap jobs with a colleague for a day or maybe even a week. If you walk in someone else’s shoes, do their work for a day, perhaps you can view life from their perspective. Have you seen the television show The Boss or the now classic movie Trading Places? I’m joking on the classic part (or maybe just feeling my age). The Boss involves having a boss come work the assembly line, let’s say, and be one of the team without employees knowing that he/she is actually the boss. First off, obviously that can only happen in a large company where the boss is the unseen Wizard of Oz. Well, on a side note. I recently visited an organization where the boss was introducing himself to us visitors and shook the hand of one of his employees not realizing that person was his employee. Oops. They are only 45 staff. Woops. Anyway, the boss working the assembly line is actually more of a shaming exercise, I believe, than an empathy scenario. For one, it often incorrectly assumes that the boss hasn’t ever been in the position of being an employee. Oftentimes, when we want to enhance empathy on the part of another towards our own situation it really becomes a shaming, justice-seeking enterprise. The show should more appropriately be titled “When Empathy Attacks.”
Apparently, a 2012 study found that meditation can make us more empathic. What does that mean for those of us that have restless legs and souls and can’t sit and mediate for even ten seconds? I mean, my moment of Zen, is my venti dirty-chai latte with a banana pudding. Sugar and spice can also lead to nice, no? We could install a mediation room or ask team members to meditate before a team meeting, but considering that I have witnessed yoga mat-carrying women completely lose their cool on the subway, I’m just not convinced about this meditation and empathy thing. Perhaps at the next team meeting do the following exercise. Have staff draw the letter “e” on their forehead. Is the letter “e” written so that you can read it or that they themselves can read it? Such a simple exercise will tell you their inward or outward orientation. It can also give you a hint towards their empathy disposition. What you do with that information is entirely up to you. Do you spend more time explaining things to those with the inverted “e”? Do you have them wear it like a Scarlett letter? You will definitely get points on that one. But probably not the points you desire. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to know how empathically oriented your staff, colleagues, friends or family members are.
Many have argued that without love life has no meaning. However, it is empathy and not love that makes the world go around. Or at least the workplace world. But note that researchers and academics have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. Everyone seems to agree that the Buddha was a pretty empathic guy, so perhaps we should take to heart his words, particularly when he suggested, “Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and wrong. Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.” Rumor is he was on to something.