On Empathy and the Call to Action it Implies

In his video for the company Sure People on his website http://www.devinsingh.com/blog/2015/8/16/empathy-leadership-and-tea...=, Social theorist and religious scholar Devin Singh stresses the importance of empathy in academia and in business, an important topic that is being emphasized more recently. Empathy has become such a topic of concern in this increasingly selfish, individualistic society that Roman Kzarnic, author of Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, has opened an Empathy Museum in London.  There, visitors can put on a person’s shoes and walk a mile in them while hearing all about their lives.  That’s what most people say empathy is, namely the ability to walk in other people’s shoes and see the world the way they do, that is, understand their experiences and emotions and how those have impact how they act, learn, relate, and overall approach the world.  In his book mentioned above, Kzarnic defines empathy as  “the art of imaginatively stepping into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives and using that understanding to guide your action.”   I guess empathy has become such a novelty that it is possible to make money off of it.


Brene Brown, well-known for her work on vulnerability, says that empathy “feels connection” and distinguishes it from sympathy, which she says “drives away connection.” Perspective taking of another’s truth, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating that are aspects of empathy, Brown says.  Empathy is “feeling with people.  In order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling,” she adds. 

“Empathy is about radical social change it is not a nice fluffy soft concept,” Kzarnic contends.  “Empathy can create a revolution of human relationships,” he adds.  We have discovered that we are empathetic beings, cooperative, etc. and that the self-interested paradigm is no longer the valid paradigm. Kzarnic, along with many other contemporary scholars argue.  They propose that an underlying cooperative paradigm of human nature replace the self-maximizing one so long undergirding capitalism and the profit motive.  Neuroscientists support this by pointing out the empathy circuitry in our brains…Homo empathic us…The opposite of introspection is outrospection, Kzarnic says.  "Discover who you are and what to do with your lives by stepping outside your selves, discovering other people."

After studying recognized empathetic people around the world, Kzarnic has identified 6 habits of empathetic people.  These include (1) turning on one’s empathetic brain and recognizing that empathy is a critical part of human experience; (2) take the imaginative leap of stepping in other’s shoes; (3) seek experiential adventures by exploring other lives and cultures; (4) practice the craft of conversation; (5) travel in your armchair by exploring the lives of others through art, literature, travel, etc.; and (6) start an empathy revolution and transform the world.

 Well known author of emotional intelligence Daniel Goleman argues that there are three types of empathy, namely cognitive empathy, or understanding how another person thinks and how they perceive the world, what their mental models are; emotional empathy, deriving from circuitry in the brain that allows us to resonate with another person and understand how they feel; and empathic concern which also derives from brain circuitry but includes the element of concern added to the resonance.   Goleman says that people want a leader with empathic concern.

 For a leader, to be empathetic is a huge requirement.  Does it only mean giving bad news empathetically, like the example that a businessman and business teacher said to Goleman?  Or does it mean changing the way we do business, putting people before profits finally?  Does it mean walking in the shoes of the working poor, those who are earning minimum wage and cannot support themselves on that and therefore raising their wages?  I find that most of the leadership literature that talks about empathetic leaders just talks about a leader who is a concerned listener and who acts in his or her “authentic” self, whatever this is   I suppose it means acting like a true human being with feelings rather than putting on the artificial mask.  But does this mean going around with a compassionate smile, a handshake, and an occasional hug, or does it mean transforming the workplace, and like, Kzarnic says, transforming the world?

 I frankly don’t think someone can be truly empathetic without trying to help to change the workplace, the society, and the world.  It comes right back to dream-making, helping each other achieve our dreams.    If I truly walk in another’s shoes and therefore truly understand their situation and how much they would like their situation to be different, then by definition, I should want to help them change their situation.  Hence empathy is an active emotion, connection, and commitment, not just a feeling and a concern.  To have empathy is to be willing to take a stand and do something as you walk in the shoes of another.


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