Being empathetic: increasingly difficult and more necessary

Recently I was sick and people would tell me “rest” “sleep” “do home office”, but they would continue to ask me for all the same pending tasks and giving me the same responsibilities as when I wasn´t sick. Can it be that people are cruel, or is it that they just can´t be empathetic?

Lately empathy has been mentioned frequently and it would seem to be one of the trending topics, but I´m afraid that it´s the typical case of “tell me what you talk about and I´ll tell you what you are lacking”. One of the characteristics of the modern era is selfishness. And I´m not saying this from a prejudiced or judgemental stand point. As far back as the 80´s sociologists have studied and found that one of the characteristics of this modern era is that more than ever before we are owners of our destiny. In the past it was common that if you were born into a family of doctors, you didn´t have to think about it that much; you were going to be a doctor. Whereas now, we can choose almost anything; to get married, to not get married, to not study, to have children first and then go to college… and anything goes. Or at least, if something goes wrong, it will be our fault and no one else´s; this is why, more than ever before we are much more concentrated on our own life situations and problems, leaving little space for thinking about others.

Furthermore, in the midst of the frenzy for technology, in which it would seem that it gives us everything we need at any moment, the gaps or emptiness that it leaves are also accentuated; technology cannot be empathetic. No matter how much it tries and regardless of big data or AI programming, it can´t walk in our shoes because this is a uniquely human task.

Why is it that only humans can carry out this task?

a) Because it is a task that requires imagination

Think about it, what do the best lecturers, teachers or salespersons have in common? It isn´t necessarily the gift of gab, nor charm, nor charisma. It has more to do with a secret weapon that few confess to; they have the ability of putting themselves in the other person´s shoes. For the teacher or lecturer to explain successfully what they have in mind, they carry out an imaginary exercise in which they see themselves as the audience, as the student.

That is why they are able to convey a story which is really easy to follow and understand; an interesting and appealing narrative. Does my audience have basic, intermediate or expert knowledge of this topic? Does my audience like numbers or do they prefer inspiration and videos? How much time do they have to listen to me? Are they really busy people ?

The same thing happens with a person that is able to have a successful “discussion” with their couple. They are not only angry thinking about the things they will say, but they are also imagining what their couple will answer and they prepare responses and arguments to face these answers (in other words, he or she puts herself/himself in the other´s place). In the end these arguments may or may not be used, but the person feels well prepared for all the scenarios that can derive from the conversation. (1)

b) Because it is based on the understanding that we don´t live life in the same way

This is accomplished thanks to another unique human quality; our ability to realize that whoever is in front of us does not experience life as you do. He or she has a series of experiences that are very different from yours, which will make him or her respond differently from the way you would. When we are aware of this, we are more open to said responses, we are less surprised by the other´s reactions and the dialogue flows better. (2)

It would seem then that in a hyper- technologized and hyper- individualistic era, those who are really able to imagine what it is like to be in the other´s place and sensitize that that others do not view the world through their eyes, will be more socially competent people..

Beyond speaking of the “moral” goodness of being empathetic, studies conducted by the social sciences have shown that putting yourself in the other´s place demonstrates greater adaptation to the environment, higher levels of emotional intelligence and above all a higher record of successful communications (3) (if you don´t believe me just take a look at at those senseless discussions on Twitter where no one is really listening to the other).

In the consulting field, the concept of empathy should not be foreign to us. We are constantly talking about consumer centric, design thinking, about putting the consumer in the center, but even before this, we fail to think of our clients and colleagues as receptors of what we say, and furthermore, they have an experience of the world that we should better understand.

We need to address them in an inspiring way, and this will only be achieved through an imaginary exercise in which we put ourselves in their place and we tell them not what we would want to be told, but what we know will “click with them”, will move them or will be related to their vision of the world. It may be much more difficult to be empathetic than ever before, but at the same time it has never been as necessary as it is today in order to initiate conversations with open minds from more human places.

References

  • George Mead (1934) Mind, Self and Society
  • Devdutt Pattanaik (2015) My Gita
  • Ann Rumble (2009) The benefits of empathy: When empathy may sustain cooperation in social dilemas