Catching Empathy

Empathy is caught, not taught

Erin and David Walsh, How Children Develop Empathy

We need more empathy. However, empathy is not something that we develop with lists of 5-10 more ways to develop empathy. Empathy is not an intellectual project that one can learn from a text or a blogpost. Empathy is human and that means it is rich, multifaceted, social, emotional and experiential. Empathy is also a shared experience which makes it contagious.

Intellectual empathy

Lots of obvious practices can make us more receptive to empathy: being present and paying attention, active listening, putting ourselves in the shoes of others, investigating their situation, stories and experiences, respecting their views and so on. However, no matter how empathetic the concerned nodder has limited value at work and in society.

Messy (Human) Empathy – Emotional, Experiential and Active

Every been so upset about the situation of another that you cried? Shouted? Wrote a fierce letter? Protested? Baked a cake? Started a political movement? Ate a block of chocolate? Ranted for an hour to a friend? Hugged someone?

The point of these list is not that the responses are equally effective. The point is that they are all valid human emotional and experiential responses. Real humans respond to empathetic understanding with emotion and action. They immerse themselves in experiences to dig deeper and to make a difference. They share their experience, sharing the empathy in wider circles. Action is the right answer to empathy. Action validates the other’s experience and makes the moment a shared one, reinforcing the value to them of the moment. Otherwise is it just arid nodding. You might start with a chocolate bar now but that empathetic experience won’t leave you and you can use that chocolate to consider what you do next.

The emotional and experiential nature of human empathy is why creative experiences like literature and film can help you understand another’s world more deeply and more richly. A novel, a story, a poem or a film can help you dig deeper into the lives, challenges and hopes of others. Non-fiction is an important way to get the facts, but real humans are rich, multifacted and more than a little irrational. Creative arts can help us experience empathy in this diverse and rich way. They are also shared experiences which helps us to share and reinforce the value of empathy in our society. At a time where we can’t always go an experience another’s life in their circumstances, creative works can take us someway there. That is one reason to worry that the arts has been so badly affected by the pandemic – it weakens our empathetic response in a time of isolation.

To put this discussion in a corporate context, one of my frustrations with employee engagement programs is that they are ultimately anti-empathetic. They aim to take a range of emotional and experiential elements of the employee experience and reduce them to intellectual questions and data. The arid nature of the debates that follow is why many managers view the surveys as a joke, employees are discouraged to share their opinion and nothing substantive changes. People are reluctant to deal with the real human, messy experiences and emotions. It is far easy to invest in better onboarding and neater employee communications as if intelligence and knowledge will address all the issues. Most employee engagement can be addressed far more directly with a rise in empathy in the organisation. That empathy is wildly contagious.

Empathy is ultimately a path to action. Our understanding can motivate and shape our actions to help others and make a richer society. If you have the tears or the anger, find a way to make a contribution to others. You don’t have to work at it alone. Find others to share your empathy and the need for action. If you need to start with a chocolate bar to gain the energy for the messy human struggle ahead, do so.

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