The nature of work is changing before our eyes. Cars can now drive themselves, drones can deliver medical supplies to previously unreachable areas, and robots can perform surgical procedures with 3D printed body parts. It’s mind-blowing and terrifying all at the same time.

As more and more jobs become automated by advancing technology, skills that relate to effective human interaction are going to become increasingly valuable and vital. Often referred to as “soft skills” (although we quite agree with Seth Godin, let’s stop calling them ‘soft’), they are skills that computers cannot learn (at least not yet), such as the ability to work in a team, build relationships and collaborate with others.

Author of Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin, argues that just as computers are hardwired to make calculations, the human brain is hardwired for social interaction. And the key to successful human interaction, he argues, lies in one particular skill: empathy.

Empathy – the art of shoe-shifting

Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another. Psychotherapist and author, Erin Leonard, describes empathy as “feeling someone else’s specific feeling to achieve greater understanding and to help them feel less alone.”

Thom Markham highlights the profound implication of what “being able to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions” actually means. He points out that, perforce, empathy emerges from “a complex of other meaningful emotions and attitudes that fuel human personality, such as openness, curiosity, self-restraint, vulnerability, sensitivity, awareness, respect, appreciation, and even love.  Empathy has the potential to open [us] to deeper learning, drive clarity of thinking, and inspire engagement with the world—in other words, provide the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance”.

Not only does empathy help foster strong relationships, author and entrepreneur, Seth Godin, believes that radical empathy is central to growing and thriving business. Why? Because it helps us “see” others and so contribute positively to their lives. Godin echoes the thoughts of Henry Ford, who defined the secret of success as the ability to understand another’s point of view and see things from their perspective.  Not hard, then, to understand why Colvin argues that empathy is critical in the movement towards a more relational economy.

Two sides of the empathy coin

Empathy, like love and leadership, is a term that is used a lot, but perhaps not fully understood. For example, not many appreciate that there are two dimensions of empathy at work when we empathise. Chris Thomas of Teleos Leadership Institute provides a helpful distinction, saying that:

  • Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy or primitive empathy, is the subjective state resulting from emotional contagion. It is our automatic drive to respond appropriately to another’s emotions. This kind of empathy happens automatically, and often unconsciously. It has also been referred to as the vicarious sharing of emotions.
  • Cognitive empathy on the other hand, is the largely conscious drive to recognise accurately and understand another’s emotional state. Sometimes we call this kind of empathy “perspective taking.”

Brand Genetics describes how the two types of empathy work together:

“The two facets of empathy – cognitive and affective – work together and are like two halves of an archway, each supporting each other to see the world through an arched doorway from the perspective of the other; without both sides of the arch, the doorway collapses and there is nothing to see.”

Whilst emotional empathy is more of a knee-jerk response, something that happens to us when we feel for or with another, cognitive empathy is linked to self- and social-awareness and is argued to be the pre-requisite of collaboration and cooperation. Cognitive empathy is a skill that everyone can learn and use. In contrast, emotional empathy is not something that can be taught; although we can become more mindful and deliberate in how we process emotional empathy through self-awareness, and learning how to manage our emotional responses to people and situations.

Is there a dark side to empathy?

There is no denying that empathy is a powerful force and a crucial skill. It increases our life satisfaction, helps to build our social networks, and is frequently the motivation for taking action to help others in need.

Amid the high praises for empathy, however, there is a camp that sings quite a different tune. Enter Paul Bloom, professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy. In his book, Bloom argues that empathy doesn’t make for the best or most effective moral response. In fact, his research suggests that empathy can often distort our judgment, so much so that acts of kindness, motivated by empathy, often have bad effects.

The plight of one over the many

Bloom believes that empathy causes us to have a narrow focus, prioritizing the individual – and most especially the individual with whom we can best identify – over the greater good of the whole. When we empathise with someone, we put ourselves into their shoes, which is precisely where Bloom has an issue. It’s difficult to empathise with multiple people at the same time. We hone in on the individual we identify with and their plight and are moved to allocate resources and time to alleviate their struggle, even if it’s not the most efficient allocation of our resources. On the flip side, we struggle to have the same empathy for thousands of others whose plight may be preventable.

Short-Sighted Empathy

Empathy, by nature, is present-focused – we empathise with those around us but struggle to do the same for future generations who don’t yet exist. What’s more is that we generally overestimate the benefits of taking action on our empathy today, and underrate the costs of today’s empathic actions towards future generations.

The Empathy Bias

Bloom highlights that most often, it’s easier to empathise with those who are similar to us. In fact, our empathy tends to reflect our own biases, prejudices, and limited worldviews.

Manipulated Empathy

Our ability to empathise with others can also be easily manipulated and exploited to drive an overly emotional, even irrational and violent, response. We see this play out in a number of arenas, particularly in politics where an individual’s story is used to drive a certain political agenda.

An ineffective response

Lastly, Bloom argues that most often empathy can lead to ineffective action because our actions are driven by emotional impact rather than by our discerning and implementing long-term solutions or considering the material impact of our actions. Bloom suggests that empathy may be motivated more out of selfishness than conviction. In all, he concludes that empathy makes for a terrible moral compass and that it must give way to reason and deliberation. He prefers what he terms “rational compassion”, a detached, dispassionate version of sympathy combined with a heavy dose of reason that allows one to make objective and logical decisions.

Bloom makes a compelling case against empathy and highlights some very real weaknesses in our human ability to empathise effectively or without agenda – to our own or another’s agenda. However, while Bloom hones in on the emotional (affective) facet of empathy, he seems to miss – or underplay – the cognitive dimension, which is the insight and perspective we gain by “stepping into” someone else’s shoes.

If we are to side-step the very real pitfalls of emotional empathy that Bloom highlights, we need to develop emotional and cultural literacy and the ability to bring both facets of empathy to bear in balance together with greater sensitivity and awareness of those who are other than ourselves. Developing emotional intelligence will also address innate bias and prejudice that can cloud empathy.  In our work, we’ve found shared experience to be a profound tool for building social and cultural literacy and enhancing empathy. Students immersed in different natural and cultural contexts during our immersive Learning Journeys are challenged to think beyond their blinkers or prejudice. Through the power of experience, they gain insight into the lives of others. The end result – students from very different walks of life are able to connect and empathise with others based upon their shared humanity.

Empathy is what makes us human

Our ability to empathise with others is part of what makes us truly human and different from machines. It is empathy that connects us to the tangible experience and emotional reality of our fellow human beings. It’s what enables us to relate to another, to explore our own humanity and that of the other person. And it’s cognitive and emotional empathy that propels us to act. Because of these very reasons, it’s arguably the greatest tool to heal relationships and the world.

There are many who share the sentiment so eloquently expressed by former US President Barack Obama who said “the biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes”.

Whilst empathy may not be a 21st Century skill per se (surely empathy was also needed in the 1st Century?), it is a skill that is arguably needed today more than ever before. But we would agree with Bloom in the sense that empathy is needed alongside thoughtfulness, alongside rational compassion and the ability to consider and feel what the moral consequences of our actions may be. And in feeling more deeply about the consequences of our actions, and what they may mean for others beyond ourselves, be the change.

If you are interested in reading more on the subject, read this great article by Thom Markham on Why Empathy holds the key to transforming learning.  His seven dots build the case for empathy as the foundation of the learning pyramid.

And this great video by Brene Brown highlights the four qualities of empathy


This article was originally published on Routes to Resilience, a project of the Impact Trust. 

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