Listen to podcast on Spotify or via Anchor: https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-Capitalist-Tool-Part-1-The-Empathy-Deficit-in-Business-is-Getting-Attention-e18tlcn
Children and parents get it. Nurses and doctors get it. Teachers and students get it. Couples get it. Consultants and clients get it. Neighbors get it. What about business people? Do they “get it”—that empathy produces results? Practicing empathy is a neglected opportunity in business. The qualities, practices, and behaviors that help a person build a business sometimes work against expanding the person’s empathy.
An executive’s ego, opinion, expertise, and attachment to being right raise the bar on empathizing with others, who may have diverging mind sets. Hard charging entrepreneurs find it hard to let go of their status or set aside the lessons learned as they came up through the ranks. Executives and managers lose touch with the experiences, perceptions, and perspectives of customers, employees, and stake-holders.
The urgent drives out the important. Management effort and time are monopolized responding to competitive pressures, compliance issues, legal challenges, and solving technology problems.[i] For example, according to a report from Businessolver, a human resources and talent consultancy, some 60% of executives believe that their organizations are empathic, whereas 24% of their employees agree.[ii] An empathy deficit?
The stress of operating the business—deadlines, financial issues, staffing crises, software breakdowns, competition, litigation—drive out empathy and a deep appreciation that a commitment to empathy is good for business. The disconnect is substantial between perceptions in the executive suite and in the cubicles of workers and the front line, customer-facing staff.
Ironically, the empathic practices such as the receptive, interpretive, and responsive processes described in detail in this work (as opposed to compassion) are what are most urgently needed in dealing with customer demands, employee crises, negotiations with competitors, vendors, clients, and one’s own budgeting authorities and board, optimally resolving conflicts with reduced cost and impact.
When I ask business leaders what is their budget for empathy training, the response is often a blank stare. Zero. However, when I ask the person what is the budget for expanded teamwork, reduced conflict, enhanced productivity, commitment to organizational goals, taking ownership of outcomes, product and service innovations, then it turns out that budget exists after all. Empathy makes a difference in connecting the dots between business skills and performance. Empathy contributes to results in a powerful way by engaging the staff’s energies and commitments at a fundamental level.
While every business has its own distinct commitments, in many ways, the basic empathy training in business is the same as empathy training in every other context.
The training consists in surfacing and driving out the cynicism, denial, shame, implicit threats, and pressure that many business people experience in their communications. Empathy then spontaneously comes forth and expands the space of possibilities to do business. This does not mean that businesses do not have their own blind spots when it comes to empathy. They do. Therefore, let us take a step back and look at what it is going to take.
An appreciation of the value of empathy to promote breakthrough results often starts in sales. In business, the sales people get it. Developing empathy with customers is good for business.
Even the cynical sales person recognizes that putting oneself in another person’s shoes is a good method of selling them another pair.[iii] The sales person gives the prospect some empathy. Shazam! The customer calls you to close the deal. Wouldn’t it be nice?
Yet the basic idea is straightforward. When the customer appreciates that the sales person is interested in the customer’s requirements, that the sales person is listening, then the customer is likely to open up and candidly share what is stressing him—budget, deadlines, internal politics, market dynamics, or the competition.
When the prospective customer feels that the sales person has understood him, the chance is significantly expanded that he will prefer to purchase the product or service from the empathic representative. Once the customer feels the sales person is listening, the customer will share details about his needs, vulnerabilities, and shortcomings, including those about which he might otherwise be defensive, enabling the sales person to position the product or service as a solution to the perceived problem.
This is not “new news.” In 1964, in the Harvard Business Review—not exactly an obscure, backwater publication—David Mayer and Herbert M. Greenberg called out the two basic qualities that any good sales person must have: empathy and ego drive. These authors define “empathy” as the central ability to feel as other people feel in the context of selling them a product or service.
In Mayer and Greenberg’s article, the sales staff were trained to interrupt themselves when they found that they were reacting defensively to customer complaints, whether legitimate or not, whether solvable or not. Stop—hit the pause button before responding. Instead of reacting to the complaint, the sales person was trained to “get” the complaint and to communicate back to the customer that he “got it,” namely, that the customer was upset (or whatever the customer was self-expressed about).
The sales person was trained to acknowledge that a breakdown had occurred. Key term: breakdown. The sales person was trained to acknowledge the complaint by calling it out: “This is a break down!” Even if the customer is inaccurate or wrong in his complaint about some detail, the customer is always—the customer.
By definition, the breakdown in the product or service occurs against the expectation of customer satisfaction. The relationship between the buyer and seller is itself in breakdown against the expectation of satisfaction. This does not rule out the possibility that additional training is needed on the part of the customer about product features or the service level agreement; but such training is substantially different from a defensive reaction.
The next step is repairing, fixing, or at least managing the cause of the complaint: the respondent then solicits additional feedback and details as to the complaint, i.e., what went wrong. The empathic response includes what one is going to do about the breakdown and by when.
The committed listening, that is, empathy, creates a clearing for communication, improving the sales process, and restoring authenticity to the relationship when integrity has gone missing. While there are no guarantees, customers treated in such a way tend to stick. Repeat business, maximizing revenue over the lifetime of the relationship, is one of the outcomes. [iv]
Development Dimensions, Intl., (DDI) identifies empathy as one of the critical success factors in executive leadership. One of the leading talent development corporations in the market, DDI’s report on High Resolution Leadership identifies empathy as an emotional quotient (EQ) “anchor skill.”
Empathy provides the foundation for interpersonal leadership skills such as developing subordinates, building the consensus for action, encouraging engagement, supporting self-esteem, and taking responsibility.[v]
In the DDI study, listening and responding with empathy were demonstrated by 40% of executives profiled (as opposed to 71% whodemonstrated taking responsibility or 54% who demonstrated building agreement on actions to take).
The conclusion is that, as regards empathy, the majority of leaders have room for expanding their performance. The good news is that, using interventions designed to expand empathy, the empathy skills needed to drive business results are within reach. [vi]
Thus, the empathy deficit in business is getting attention. Empathy is moving to the foreground. The role and contribution of empathy to business results is penetrating the awareness of leaders, managers, staff, and stake-holders.
Closely related to the challenge of closing the empathy deficit in business is the challenge that “economic man” is significantly different than man as such. Let’s define our terms.
The person who conducts transactions in the market is defined in business school as economic man—homo economicus. The latter is significantly different than man, the human being as such. The person (man) in the economic theory is rational, selfish, and her or his tastes do not change.
Business practices assume the organization is engaging with customers, employees, stake-holders, and leaders who fit the model of economic man. Human beings, on the other hand, do not. Most people in business do not know anyone who fits the description of economic man. Why then are we so busy trying to do business with him when he does not even exist?
Unlike the person described in economics in business schools, humans are limited in their reasonableness. Humans are diverse and inconsistent in their preferences. Humans are even limited in their selfishness, being generous and compassionate in unpredictable ways.
The issue? Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker’s rational choice theory (preference theory) in economics has been extended to many other aspects of life. Becker’s rational choice theory has been extended to areas as diverse as marriage, crime, and discrimination.
Generalizations from rational choice theory to the social sciences at large have been a growth industry in the social sciences. From the rich mixture of inconsistencies and contradictions that most people really are in life, the human being was translated into a function of rational, self-interested, and allegedly consistent preferences. The human as such has been simplified and redescribed as a rational, calculating engine of human behavior.[vii]
People are supposed to be consistent in their preferences and tastes. People are supposed to be logical and consistently obey the rules. But finding counter-examples is easy.
For example, if a person prefers coffee to hot chocolate and the person prefers hot chocolate to tea, then, according to this logic, the person is supposed to prefer coffee to tea. [Think: coffee > hot chocolate > tea; therefore, coffee > tea, according to the transitive rule, in which “>” means “prefers.”] But, no, it doesn’t work that way. Given all these personal preferences as indicated, the person still chooses tea instead of coffee. The person just prefers tea to coffee. The individual is from London!
Nothing inherently illogical exists in preferring coffee to hot chocolate and tea to coffee while also preferring hot chocolate to tea. Nothing unless one insists on making a dynamic network into a transitive sequence. So much for rational choice theory.
The lesson? Empathy as well as logic are required to understand decision making. Without allowing for the possibility of empathy, economics produces some strange results. People are not natural born statisticians, logicians, or gamblers, though the discipline of economics sometimes seems to assume so.
Still, testing a person’s decisions and preferences using probabilities, bets, and lotteries is an engaging exercise, and nothing is wrong in doing so. However, unless one also adds empathy to the mixture of economics and logic one misses something essential—the person!
Now, I apologize in advance to the reader for the technical terms, but in economics the chance of winning a bet is expressed as an “expected utility.” “Expected utility” is technical talk for “satisfaction” or “happiness.” (But nothing more than arithmetic is needed to get this. )
For example, in economics the expected utility of a 10% chance of winning a million dollars is $100K [.10 x 1,000,000 = 100,000] [note: K = 1,000]. If Jack and Jill both end up with a million dollars, they should enjoy the same expected utility, no? Remember, Jack and Jill are supposed to be rational, selfish, and consistent in their preferences. Now consider a counter-example:
Today Jack and Jill each have a million dollars.
Yesterday Jack had zero and Jill had two million dollars.
Are they equally happy? (Do they have the same utility?)
You do not need an advanced degree to know that today Jack is very happy and Jill is in despair. Yesterday Jack had zero; now he has a million dollars. Hurrah! Yesterday Jill had two million dollars; now she has only one million. Ouch!
We must be able to put our ourselves in the shoes of Jack and Jill and get a sense of their expectations. Sounds familiar?
These expectations, in turn, constrain their experience of satisfaction (i.e., happiness). To grasp the outcome in terms of their individual experiences, we need an empathic anchor or reference point in their expectations from which they begin. Empathy gives us access to an anchor point in their respective experiences.
Our empathy shows that outcomes are linked to feelings about the changes of one’s wealth rather than to states of wealth. The experience of value depends on the history of one’s wealth, not only the current state of it.
Yet another bold empathy lesson: People are strongly influenced by hope and fear. Empathy indicates that people attach values to gains and losses, and these are weighted differently than logical probabilities in decision making. This is not just saying that people are irrational, though that may be true enough at times, too. This says that people (and their behavior) frequently do not conform to the pattern of rationality, selfishness, and consistency in preferences.
Still, the matter is not hopeless for those committed to pattern matching in economics. People are frequently surprising, but sometimes in predictable ways. People are sometimes inconsistent, but one can sometimes predict those inconsistencies if one learns one’s empathy lessons.[viii] For example:
(1) People are risk averse due to fear of disappointment and regret. The empathy lesson is that people try to avoid risks even in situations where taking a risk is a good bet. “A good bet” is determined according to the probability calculation.
Consider: if a person had a 90% probability of winning a million dollars, he ought to accept $900K as a “sure thing” settlement, which settlement is logically equivalent to a 90% probability of winning the million dollars [.9 x 1,000K = 900K]. The 10% probability of not winning is an unlikely outcome, but still possible. The “unlikely outcome” often determines the result.
For example, law suits in cases of accidents and contract disputes produce settlements in trial law indicating that people will “settle for” $800K or even $750K for the possibility of knowing the outcome with certainty. For most people that is still a lot of money, and the possibility of having to live with the regret of missing the pay-off due to an unlikely outcome gets most people out of their comfort zone. They decide to settle.
Empathic receptivity to the possibility of disappointment and regret may usefully “override” the rational, self-interested, and consistent preferences that the purely economic person brings to the negotiations.
(2) People are risk seeking in the hope of getting an even larger gain instead of accepting a modest settlement.
This is why people bet on the state lottery where the chance of winning is vanishingly small. Such a bet is illogical, but common. We need expanded empathy to get a clue what is going on here.
The empathy lesson indicates that people are not buying a chance to win a big pot of money. Rather people are buying a chance to dream of the possibility of winning the big jackpot. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of,” said Shakespeare. The value is in the dreaming, that is, precisely in the possibility of the big jackpot, not the jackpot itself. That such a dream would more likely be the dream of a poor person rather than an affluent one is a further problem that invites attention.
If one looked rationally at the odds, one would not buy the ticket. No way. Clearly lotteries are popular, especially with the poor and “have nots.” The possibility of escaping from poverty is being manipulated in a cynical way by the establishment, and we citizens have all become “addicted” to the revenue stream.
The lottery budget and effort would be better devoted to job training and instruction in basic financial management, except now lotteries have become a source of revenue for local government and education. This is a breakdown in empathic understanding, which gives us our possibilities. It is hard not to become a tad cynical in considering that the poor are paying for education through lottery revenue, though they are often unprepared to benefit from or hindered from accessing the educational opportunity.
(3) People are risk seeking in the hope of avoiding a loss in situations in which simply stopping a project altogether would enable cutting their losses (rather than incurring additional likely losses). Defeat is difficult to accept. The empathy lesson is that people are attached to an ideal, in this case a losing cause, for reasons extending from perseverance, egoism, greed, risk aversion, fear of the unknown, all the way to idealism, romance, blind hope, and just plain stubbornness.
People (and businesses) facing a bad outcome manage to turn a survivable (but painful) failure into a complete meltdown. Desperate gambles often make a bad situation worse in exchange for a small hope of avoiding the loss at all. Businesses, individuals, and even countries, continue to expend resources long after they should blow the bugle, lower the flag, and leave, implementing an orderly retreat. Instead people (and organizations) persist in a lost cause until a rout becomes inevitable.
Business accounting teaches the basic idea of a “sunk cost.” Suppose Octopus, Inc., (OI) is building a new software system for $100 million dollars. OI has already spent $150 million. The project is over-budget. It is estimated to take another $55 million to complete the job. Suppose further that evidence of a new, breakthrough technology really exists. It would enable OI to develop the system from scratch for $25 million. What should OI do? The money already spent is a “sunk cost.” It should not influence the decision. Given the evidence that the new technology really works, the OI project leader should throw away the over-budget system and build the new one from scratch, spending $25 million and saving $30 million against the projected completion cost of the project. However, that is not what most project leaders would do.
Due to a sense of ownership of the over-budget project and a fear of the unknown in engaging the new technology, many project leaders double down on the investment in a losing proposition. In a breakdown of empathic interpretation, they continue to project their hopes and fears onto the old technology and, as the saying goes, throw good money after bad.
(4) People are risk averse due to a fear of a large loss and may rationally and usefully bet on a small chance of (avoiding) a large loss. This is why people buy insurance. The empathy lesson is that people are not merely buying protection against an unlikely disaster; they are buying peace of mind, the ability to get a good night’s sleep. If the negative event would have catastrophic consequences, creating a risk pool, in which everyone participates, spreading the risk in a manageable way, makes compelling sense. Note that certain risks such as war and civil insurrection (or a giant asteroid hitting the earth) are uninsurable. Insurance is a calculation, not a gamble against undefined odds. In general, the insurable risk must relate to individuals or subgroups and the occurrence of the risk should not destroy the infrastructure of the entire community, which needs to be intact to cover the insured risk.
Insurance was a brilliant business innovation that emerged at about the time of the European Renaissance as traders in the Netherlands—those frugal Dutch—were sending valuable but fragile ships to fetch precious cargo in far away lands. The risks and rewards were great. How to even out the odds? Insurance was born.
In our own time, one can see the irrationality, the unempathic response, and gaming of the system by special interests in health insurance in the USA where attempts were made to exclude the sickest people from the insurance pool through penalties for preexisting illnesses, combined with charging monopoly rents to the healthiest participants.
Insurance is often a “good bet” when an outcome that is highly unlikely but catastrophic can be managed by everyone (or a large group) incurring a small cost to spread the risk. But how to get everyone at risk into the pool? When told that people have no health insurance, some politicians are supposed to have said: “Let them pay cash!” In another context, in one the most spectacular breakdowns in empathic responsiveness in modern European political history, the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, was told that the people had no bread, and she is supposed to have said: “Let them eat cake!” Same idea?
Saying that the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to breathe. Keep breathing—and make money—by all means. But the purpose of life is to find satisfaction in one’s work, raise a family, write the great American novel (it’s good work if you can get it!), experience one’s efforts as contributing to the community and making a difference.
Likewise with business. Business is about delivering human value and satisfying human demands and goals, whether nutrition, housing, transportation, communication, waste disposal, health, risk management, education, entertainment, and so on. Even luxury and conspicuous consumption are human values, which show up as market demands.
In conclusion, business people “get it”—empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business strategy, implementation, and operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of index derivative hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, as noted, some of the things that make people good at business make people relatively poor empathizers.
Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time or place for it. This is a challenge to be engaged and overcome.
What to do about it? Practice expanded empathy. Empathy is on the critical path to serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition—not exactly empathy but close enough?—building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. Empathy makes the difference for contributors to the enterprise at all levels between banging on a rock with a hammer and building a cathedral. The motions are the same. When the application of empathy exposes and strengthens the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes synonymous with expanding the business. Building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, building teams that work, are the basis for product innovation, brand loyalty, employee commitment, satisfied service level agreements, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, leaders need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. If the product or service is wrappered in empathy, has an empathic component as part of the service level agreement, gets traction in the market, and beats the competition’s less empathic offering, then we have the ultimate validation of empathy. We do not just have empathy. We have empathy Capitalist Tool!
[i] Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard. (2012). Empathy on the edge: Scaling and sustaining a human-centered approach in the evolving practice of design, IDEO:
http://liphtml5.com/gqbv/uknt/basic [checked on 03/31/2017].
[ii] William Gentry. (2016). Rewards multiply with workplace empathy, Businessolver: http:// http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/businessolver/rewards-multiply-with-workplace-empathy/ [checked on 03/31/2017].
[iii] Roman Krznaric. (2014). Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. New York: Perigree Book (Penguin): 120.
[iv] C.W. Von Bergen, Jr. and Robert E. Shealy. (1982). How’s your empathy? Training and Development Journal, November 1982: 22–28: http://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2012/11/Hows-Your-Empathy.pdf [checked on 03/31/2017].
[vi] William Gentry, Todd J. Weber, Golnaz Sadri. (2007). Empathy in the workplace: A tool for effective leadership, http://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/EmpathyInTheWorkplace.pdf [checked on 03/31/2017].
[vii] Bernard E. Harcourt. (2015). Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[viii] Daniel Kahneman. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
This is a transcript of the talk.
The recommendation? Listen to the podcast: https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-and-LIterature-Grand-Rounds-Presentation-at-Rush-Medical-University-October-13–2016-e177nvv
or watch the Youtube video: https://youtu.be/sYJvplP5cKo
Howard Kravitz, MD: Welcome to the partner psychiatry gran realms this morning is my pleasure to introduce the speaker dr. Lou Agosta got his PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago with a dissertation entitled empathy and interpretation and running with that as his career scholarly activity ever since he’s an assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and Argosy University and instructor of philosophy at the University to call the Graham School of adult education and director of research at other gang psychotherapy services in Chicago he also as a psychotherapy practice in the Chicago community who specializes in making empathy present in his storytelling and listening – he’s committed to a gracious and generous listening based on empathy which I personally experienced a meeting with him this summer to talk about his idea for Grand Rounds – as an educator he teaches empathy in the history of and systems of psychology program at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and Argosy University – he has published three scholarly academic books on empathy entitled – empathy in the context of philosophy – a rumor of empathy: rewriting empathy in the context of philosophy – and a rumor of empathy: narrative and recovery – he also undertook training as a psychodynamic therapist at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis – however did not complete the program when he was summarily dismissed for asking publicly “is anyone beside me aware of a lack of empathy?” – so with that I will turn the program over to him
Lou Agosta [LA]: Well thank you so much dr. Kravitz for that introduction – so the challenge is to make empathy present – will we be able to do that in the next 45 or 50 minutes? I begin by acknowledging your empathy – you all are going to be doing some listening and I appreciate that and recognize that and acknowledge it – and I want to be concise and allow time for questions in interaction at the back end – some logistics and housekeeping make sure you have the color handout – if you don’t it’s in the back on the left side – there it says how empathy functions – 2-sided copying ladies and gentlemen – and then how empathy breaks down – so sometimes we can create a breakthrough based on a break down – and one of the results of the conversation that we’re going to have today among others is a short history of the distinction empathy – in fact the secret underground history of empathy – we’re going to define empathy –
Lou Agosta [LA]: we’re going to look at some examples of empathy through literature – so rather than clinical examples I’m going to ask you to take it up a level – the guidance is and with all due respect don’t be too concrete don’t be too literal let’s get our metaphorical transference thinking caps on and look at empathy of [in] some examples of world literature and then I’m going to make time – I’m going to say a few things about how empathy is teachable trainable – in fact that’s so important i am going to give you the answer right up front – basically people are naturally empathic – if we remove the obstacles to empathy, then empathy shows up – in other words, the obstacles to empathy are the such things as: denial, resistance, cynicism, bullying, aggression, bad language –
LA: I have a great Dilbert cartoon here -[make sure you] don’t get inside of a Dilbert cartoon – [it is] hilariously funny – closely related to empathy – [drive out] denial, cynicism, guilt, shame, and the like – remove the obstacles to empathy and it [empathy] naturally comes forth – so that’s the answer – what’s the question? – how do we train everyone ? – so we’re gonna circle around and return to this at the back end – we’re going to begin with a short secret underground history of empathy – so this is going to be blazingly concise –
LA: this is the part which you may find somewhat academic [but important] and there as you look at it in the upper left hand corner a man named David Hume [ who published] A treatise of human nature 1739 – [in the year] 1739 the word empathy in the English language was not even invented [it was not invented] until 1895 when a Cornell University psychologist – a man named Edward Bradford Titchenner was translating some of the works of Vilhelm Vundt [Wilhem Wundt] – I have to get my best German accent on there – it comes across as empathy – he [Titchener] makes up the word [empathy] – okay – meanwhile […] that’s why we have a secret underground history of empathy – Hume is writing and has at least five different definitions of sympathy – I say close enough – you have the hand out – the complete deck is on the URL on the lower left hand corner [see the youtube video for the slides] – I’m not going to speak slowly enough for you to take notes –
I’m going to tell you what the five different definitions of sympathy – they’re there and you can go back and get them – he never a stickler for consistency – the philosopher Hume divides sympathy as (1) emotional contagion – he defines sympathy as (2) suggestibility – the power of suggestion – (3) he defines it in a somewhat technical way as a double representation of a vicarious experience of another person combined with the idea of the other that matches closely to a modern definition of empathy that we find in psychology (4) he also defines sympathy as a delicacy of sympathy and taste and this matter of substituting a certain kind of sympathy in the experience of the work of art – this is the secret underground history of empathy – we relate to other people on a good day as if they were works of art – that is without use value – without manipulation – without knowing something – without categories – without argument – and [on] a less good day we struggle like everybody else – and finally as (5) benevolence – he defines sympathy as compassion or benevolence –
LA: and so we’ve got all these definitions – what the heck is it [empathy] – what is this definition so I sent the class [I was teaching at the time] out [to do research by asking people on the street] – I have everybody in the class – several classes – each student asked five people what they think empathy is – not members of your family people – you know moderately well – not really close – you know – but people you might work with or run across at the club or at the gym or something – so there’s a trend – so sometimes I go around saying we don’t need more Data we need expanded empathy – I’ve been known to say that – and nevertheless we need both data and empathy […] -I say more empathy – it’s like there’s something missing rather than something wrong – let’s expand – the languaging is significant as well – this is in the realm of tips and techniques- okay – so anyway – so the people go out and ask them and so here’s the trend: most people think empathy is something like compassion – they tell the story about altruism – they tell a story about charity – they tell the story about doing good – they tell the story about making difference – they tell a story about being nice and heavens knows ladies and gentlemen, the world needs more niceness – [yet niceness] it is distinct from empathy – we’re going to say a little bit more about that but first I want to very concisely touch on – as you look at the picture in the upper right hand corner – Immanuel Kant – he died in 1804 – he had the distinction between putting oneself in the position of the other person – he said enlarged thinking – think as the other [people] think and feel – so that’s top down – in effect we take that as the folk psychology definition of empathy – we take a walk in the other person’s shoes – where does the shoe pinch – where does the moccasin chafe – and then he also he once again interestingly and controversial enough in the context of a theory of art and beautiful nature he talks about the communicability of feeling – art is impossible without the communicability of affect – feeling – that’s stage one of empathy – now if you stop, [then] there you get emotional contagion – you get suggestibility – you get a certain kind of shared mutual enthusiasm – and there’s nothing wrong with that if there’s further processing upstream and downstream that’s going to occur – nevertheless it’s right there and then [we are going] around the circle –
LA: and this is why this is the secret underground history: on the bottom left – a man named Theodore Lipps – remember the movie Amadeus ?where you know Mozart is slaving away and the most famous man of his day a musician named is Antonio Salieri who today except for the movie Amadeus nobody would have ever heard of Antonio Salieri – I mean he’s not played – or they’ll give attention occasionally now because of the movie – right – and today Mozart – everybody knows Mozart’s music is played widely and nobody’s ever heard of Salieri until you come across the movie – well Lipps is Salieri to Freud’s Mozart – Lipps wrote several volumes in which he gives currency in the German language to the word Einfühlung [empathy] – he [Lipps] in effect replaces the distinction aesthetic taste judgment of a feeling of pleasure or displeasure with Einfühlung [empathy] – and he [Lipps] is significant because seven volumes of Lipps work are in the Freud Library – Freud encountered empathy by reading Theodore Lipps –
and [Freud] footnotes Lipps explicitly in Freud’s works on jokes and the relation to the unconscious – and the number of his aesthetic works – so moving right along there are twenty-two mentions of empathy in 24 volumes of the Freud Library as Harry Trosman MD and Simmons – our colleagues over at the analytic Institute – have done the scholarly work – here’s the point – almost every one of them [references to empathy] is mistranslated – freud says in so many words in his 1913 [year published] recommendations for physicians beginning psycho analytic treatment: you will go wrong if you begin with any other method besides empathy – quote end quote – it’s there and that gets mistranslated as sympathetic understanding – the Strachies [translators] will have a few other devaluing things to say about the word empathy so that’s the secret […] – the rest is history which we’re not going to do in the necessary detail – we’re going to move right along –
so most people think that empathy is compassion – and heavens knows the world needs more compassion – yet [compassion] it is not empathy – so what then is it ? Well basically we’re gonna have about two or three different definitions but the main definition which you have in front of you is to the effect – I know what the other person is experiencing because I experienced it also – not as a merger but as a vicarious experience – note vicarious experience contains the word Vicar which means representative – the etymology right as it actually works in this case if that is the the bishops representative to the community – the Vicar of something or other – and in any case combined with the distinction Other – and so basically here’s the distinction – empathy tells me what the other person is experiencing – and my good upbringing, my morals, my values, tell me what to do about it – and so that’s the compassion part – it’s in and its distinct – so having said that now here’s the most controversial slide I want you to pick up on this because it could be a controversial –
and I want – to quote to Jodi Halpern and I’m gonna wave Jodi’s book at you [entitled From detached concern to empathy: humanizing medical practice – Jodi Halperin – this is [published] 2001 so this has been around for a while and you know if we’re gonna have lunch afterwards – if you want to take a picture of the cover – I’ll bring it [the book] along with me and you can check it out but basically she says – the field of medicine empathy is a mode of understanding that specifically involves emotional resonance so it’s not just top down – it’s also bottom up – I’m getting some kind of a vicarious experience – this may or may not be the case – this may or may not be the case […] and so you know nevertheless she puts a stake in the ground and she is actually a psychiatrist – she has some stories
and I turn now to the explicit definition of empathy which we’re going to work with here and there are four phases to it – and that’s the handout – […] you get the handout – it’s on the left there – in the back table – so you want to be on the side: how empathy functions – […] so we’re gonna go around in a circle – we’re gonna go around in the circle here that would be actually counterclockwise – I’m open to the other person – I’m receptive – I have mirror neurons – and here’s where one can insert the underlying physiology – the underlying neurology – that’s not visible – here us mammals – we seem to resonate together – something is going on – we’re attached – it’s a myth that we aren’t related – we are related – physiologic\ally, biologicall,y and so [that is] phase one […]
phase two that creates a potential space for interaction – what’s possible in the relationship – do I relate to the other person as a means or end – do I relate to the other person as a possibility as a potentiality – we’re going to see an example of that and then actually you have to jump across so that gives us empathic receptivity- empathic understanding and empathic interpretation is the third aspect of empathy and that is the folk psychology of empathy – I take a walk in the other person’s shoes – I imaginatively change places with you – now that’s easier said than done because I don’t know you and nine times out of ten if I don’t, [then] I’m going to attribute to you aspects of my own character traits – Who I am – what I’m up to and that’s the challenge – right? – that’s not going to be and it’s going to be a psychological mechanism called projection which has its uses and is of interest – nevertheless is once again not empathy – and so get a view from over there but that does especially when I come up short I don’t know who you are – where you came from – then I go to the cognitive imaginative projection – and that’s very useful – and finally empathy can be a tree that falls in the forest without anybody being there – does it make a sound? does it make a difference? I have to say something I have to do something – a gesture- an aspect of behavior to let the other person know whether or not I have gotten what their experience is and sometimes that’s called empathic listening – that’ll work – good gracious listening – that maybe it is self sufficient but sometimes it’s not especially if I don’t know the other person – it may we’re highly verbal – you know there’s a lot of words and sometimes it’s necessary for me and so empathic responsiveness – so we’ve got receptivity – understanding – interpretation – and responsiveness –
I take the other person’s experience and give it back to them in such a way in such a form that the other person recognizes the experience as their own – on a good day that’s how it works – that’s the aha moment – that’s what I was going through – it’s sometimes it could be the very words but often it’s not – often it’s I’ve got inside the movie of your life for a little while – now each of these [four moments of empathy] breaks down in an interesting way and we’re going to therefore look at the breakdown – so this summarizes something interesting and which I think I do want to say it’s always useful to know the order in which one has one slides but basically this is the matter of so we’re gonna, you know, this [talk] is front end loaded – I acknowledge this presentation is somewhat front and loaded because there are several important ideas I want to get into the space and on the table so that we can mix it up about it – but basically so this is the compassion fatigue the burn out moment – heavens knows, occupational hazards – professional challenges – if I may say so – here’s the guidance – this may be for the easier said than done but nevertheless it must both be said and done – and insofar as humanly possible: if I’m interacting with somebody who is suffering, it is highly probable that I am going to suffer – the recommendation, the guidance is, that I have a vicarious experience of that suffering – if I am suffering in such a way that I am in breakdown or upset, [then] I’m doing it wrong
That’s the easier said than done – if I’m overwhelmed by the suffering – as strange as it may say sound to say: I should suffer but not too much – and so this points to the matter of a granularity – to the receptivity – there’s a filter there – right – I mean this all hypothetical – interesting to engage – nevertheless I may want to make the filter more granular and do things to take a little distance so it is not an on/off switch – the takeaway here – not an on/off switch – more like a rheostat – more like a dimmer on a light switch and this is where training and practice make the difference – so I mean we may or may not come back to that – but I want that [statement] in the space so that we can work with it as we get to these examples we’re going to look at – so am I going in the right direction here […] I see we’re just on time –
we look at three or four examples – here I may cut this short because I want to say a little bit more about the training aspect but we’re going to look at Thomas Mass – Thomas Mann is a storyteller – this story got told on or about the year 1900 – it’s about a family the name of Buddenbrooks – they’re a business family – right – and the context is Thomas Buddenbrooks – so here’s the inside skinny – here’s the Birdseye low down on this Buddenbrooks caper – Thomas Buddenbrooks is an artistic type – he’s very artistic – and his father passes away in an untimely way and he – Thomas – goes into the family business to pay the bills – you know, one can understand why one would do this – he gives up his artistic career – his artistic aspirations – and instead of pursuing an artistic career, he marries one – her name is Gerda – she’s an artistic type – we’ll see a picture of her later – […] – she’s playing the violin – she’s a virtuoso violinist – playing passionate virtuoso violin duos with her talented father – it’s so great to have a great relationship […] it’s a very good thing and they have a son – Johann – Hanno, for short – he’s an artistic type – he’s portrayed by Mann as being on sickly – I mean, he’s got bad teeth – this is going to be an issue because this is 1900 – you know dental science – oh my god this has to be interesting –
LA: [ …] some people are already squirming in their seats – it’s working – the mirror neurons are going off even if they don’t exist – this might be a good point to digress – the myth of mirror neurons – professor – C[Jean] Decety – he’s got the MRI machine down at Gates Blake – he recommended this book by Gregory Hitchcock- there’s an underlying neurological mechanism, ladies and gentlemen – it does [or doesn’t] have to be mirror neurons – how about Association? – have you considered a good old-fashioned association? – there’s some implementation mechanism – it’s highly interesting and controversial – I’ll keep the book handy – it’s a scholarly academic debunking […] but what isn’t debunked is our physiological relatedness – even if they [mirror neurons] don’t exist, we’re physiologically related – that’s interesting so and not in the way you might have thought – okay – so anyway you know the dentist – we’re gonna have a trip to the dentist here thanks to Thomas Mass and I’m actually going to read it to you – the paragraph long quotation – so Hanno has bad teeth – in Mann bad teeth are a sign of artistic sensibility – in the case of Hanno he’s kind of sickly – kind of small – he gets bullied by the straggling Nordic types down at school – you know they push him around – it’s not a pretty picture – and his father becomes [a book camp dad] [the father, Thomas] he’s kind of badly compensated – I would say and he’s this hail-fellow-well-met – my son – give me your mathematical multiplication tables – and Hanno knows his tables – he just can’t perform – he breaks down – it’s pathetic – you know but he’s like seven years old – wa, was [crying sounds] – buck up my son – Thomas is boot camp dad and it’s not working – okay – so meanwhile there’s a bit of orality – you know, we can do the oral symbolism – Hanno needs to vigorously suck on the nipple of life and he’s really struggling to engage
[Meanwhile] – off to the dentist doctor – the dentist is already upon dr. brecht – a pun – it’s broken – so I’m gonna read you this slowly –
‘The bad thing about Dr. Brecht was he was nervous and dreaded the tortures he was obliged to inflict – we must proceed to extraction – he would say growing pale – Hanno himself was in a pale cold sweat with staring eyes incapable of protesting or running away – in short, in much the same condition as a condemned criminal – he saw dr brecht’s sleeve and the forceps bending over him and noticed that little beads were standing out on his bald brow and that his mouth was twisted – when it was all over and Hanno, pale and trembling, spat blood into the blue basin at his side dr brecht had to sit down and wipe his forehead and take a drink of water”
LA: So what’s going on here is a breakdown – this is a breakdown in dr. Brecht’s empathic receptivity – he’s overly empathic – one might argue – compare and contrast – the description itself gives us access to the phenomenon – right – both both are sweating – brecht’s mouth is twisted – interesting, the mirror neurons are going off – [brecht’s] his mouth is twisted [so the mirror neurons are going off] – so what’s the recommendation? this is the time for a bad joke – right – he should have gone into ophthalmology – forgive me – okay so back that one out – okay pause for laugh – but anyway it’s a serious insignificant group here – so here’s the breakdown and so what’s the recommendation? – given that empathic receptivity is breaking down on the part of dr. brecht […] – to get some distance from the tortures he inflates – given what is 1900 Dental Science – oh my god – it’s hard to think right and so he has to increase the granularity of the filter – easier said than done but practice practice practice practice what does that look like because he’s providing a useful service – […] I mean, it’s like it’s misery – there’s all kinds of mystery – okay – so you know I pause for breath at this at this point – I would ever take questions even at this point about the example – you know it’s not like this is a quiz and I don’t you know you’re eager for me to move along but don’t be shy raise your hand – okay, so we will move to the next example and that if you think of anything we can circle back around – so remember the set up – Thomas Buddenbrooks gives up his artistic career and he marries someone who is very artistic – Gerda – and she is artistic and she has to move and locate because the Buddenbrookss live in a different town than her father – so she’s no longer playing violin duo’s with her father – she’s got nobody to play with – one might say – so she meets this lieutenant who happens to be a talented violinist in addition to his military aspirations – so they’re upstairs playing passionate violin duo’s and Thomas’s office is downstairs and he’s listening to the violin music – and that’s not the problem – there’s nothing wrong with that – then the music stops – then there’s silence – there’s more silence – there’s even more silence – Thomas is going crazy – Is he going to become the caricature of a jealous husband? – that would be to throw the guy [lieutenant] out – that would be a scandal – that would indeed be a caricature – right – so he’s wandering around pacing back and forth – so he is pacing back and forth and he runs into Hanno in the hallway next quotation –
“His father did not seem to be listening – he held Hannes free hand and played with it absently, consciously fingering the slim fingers and then Hanno heard something that had nothing to do with the lesson at all – his father’s voice in a tone he had never heard before – low distressed almost imploring – Hanno, the lieutenant has been more than two hours with Mama – little Hanno opened wide his golden brown eyes at the sound and they looked as never before clear large and loving straight into his father’s face with his red and eyelids under the light brows its white puffy cheeks and long stiff moustaches – God knows how much he understood – but one thing they both felt in the long second when their eyes met – all constrained coldness in this understanding melted away – Hanno might fail his father in all that demanded vitality energy and strength but where fear and suffering were in question, there they were as one empathic understanding –
Hanno [saw] something that he had not previously perceived – this father was boot camp dad – multiplication tables right – the time goes by – Oh God now he sees – so what’s the word? vulnerability – that’s one possible description – this bootcamp dad is vulnerable – he’s suffering- Hanno does not get it – what does it mean – playing violin duos and then silence -Hanno’s seven or eight years old – right? – so their eyes meet – that is the moment of empathic receptivity embedded in empathic understanding – the father who was so inaccessible in his hail-fellow-well-met and boot camp-style cross-examination of Hanno about his lessons becomes vulnerable and accessible in his suffering – Hanno gets it – his father’s suffering is a possibility – the possibility of his humanity – they share a human moment – the possibility of relatedness emerges in which both are human beings and an emotional connection with one another – this had not been available to Hanno before – for whom his father was this strong demanding taskmaster – now he sees his father’s vulnerability and it humanizes both of them – this is also an example of empathic understanding that works to an extent but ultimately the father remains [in] the role and the story goes along […] What you want to get here is just a picture of the lieutenant and Gerda – they are practicing the violin – she’s giving a master class in practicing the violin – and so let’s do a reality check here – I want to leave both enough time for questions and answers and say something about a little bit more about training
So I’m going to fast-forward through interpretation – if you get the deck you can get some detail and move on to the Glass Menagerie [by] Tennessee Williams who is a formidable psychologist – so the story in brief: Amanda is the mom – Laura is the frail, fragile keeper of The Glass Menagerie – she lives in the back room – she is the daughter – she has a brother, Tom, who has a friend, Jim – Amanda, the mother, had many gentleman callers in her youth – she was popular – we could do with the song from Wicked [the broadway play] at this point but perhaps we won’t – we can we splice that in later – but as she was popular – now she’s fading – the bloom is off the rose – off the flower in the years nineteen fifties – and she so badly wants a date for Laura – to get a date – she wants her to have a gentleman caller caller so she pressures her son, Laura’s brother, Tom, to bring somebody from down at the factory and finally Tom invites Jim, his friend – there’s other information asymmetries in the story – Jim’s already engaged – get ready – you don’t necessarily know that at this point [in the story] but look is to follow along so the invitation is accepted – at last a gentleman caller! – the problem is Jim thinks it’s just a casual dinner with his friend Tom but in fact he then meets Laura who know Jim from grammar school – they went to grammar school together! – it’s small world and Jim sees her and and he says two words: blue roses – blue roses – and Laura is taken aback – she had many childhood illnesses including pleurisy – fluorosis – and when the teacher this was the day when the teacher would say why you weren’t in school well she’s got fluorosis or pleurisy – nobody knew what that meant anyway but Jim hears that as “blue roses” so here’s the part we’ll cut to the chase – Laura also has another childhood disease which leaves one of her legs slightly shorter than the other – polio- and as she walks down the aisle her experience of herself as that she’s making this enormous clomp clomp thumb clomp clomp as she walks down the aisle that everybody must know about it –
of course Jim didn’t even perceive it [it is so soft] and so we have here an example of what amounts to empathic responsiveness – he [Jim] gives her back his experience of who she is for him – for Jim, Laura is “blue roses” – something beautiful even if kind of melancholy – she’s got this melancholy aspect to her which makes her all the more attractive of course – […] and whereas she experienced herself as clunk clunk clunk thunk – the asymmetry there is very powerful – it’s very nice – I think Williams is a brilliant psychologist – I mean – and unfortunately – I mean – he’s also pretty depressed himself and it ends badly – nevertheless we’re going to enjoy the moment – the emotional devastation [is powerful art] – okay, so having so you know that’s three out of four examples – now we’re just on time
I’m going to talk and to tell you about an exercise rather than do the exercise – I call this exercise: I can’t hear you because my opinion of what you are saying is so loud – I’m going to be disarmingly with candid – so you know there I am walking down the street – and I am ashamed of myself – the author of three books on empathy – [and i am thinking devaluing thoughts] – how did that person get to be that way – I’m judging and evaluating – there’s these thoughts – what happened to you man? – wherever it comes, from it’s not authentically Who I am – you want to take this and apply it as appropriate and to yourself: there I can’t hear you because the opinion of what you are saying is so loud in my own thinking – so this is an exercise, not how to listen better, but how to expand one’s listening – right – stop and so actually this is where the the [Dilbert] cartoon comes in handy –
[…] there’s an exercise here that this is how to train for empathy – what does it mean to train empathy – remove the obstacles such as cynicism, categorizing people, labeling, pigeon holing, and so on – I’ll read this to you just so some of you are picking up on it – [in the Dilbert cartoon]: now so there’s the pointy headed boss [and he says] “from now on all teams will be formed on the basis of myers-briggs personality test types” “if you do not have a personality, one will be assigned to you by Human Resources [dept]” – okay, laughter at this point, [this] is deeply cynical […] this is what not to do – right? – and then the final [statement of the cartoon] “we need a quiet dumb guy to pair with an extroverted thinker” – well here the cynicism is what gets in the way of empathy – now that is not to say that it is not abroad in the land of the corporation [and it] goes off the rails – so what I invite – what the exercise consists of doing is going inward and realizing that if one goes inward far enough, one encounters the other – so we actually are going to take literally a half a minute and do the exercise –
So I’m going to ask you to be quiet and listen to yourself […] now there may be papers going off so just include that because this is after all a hospital – […] but listen to what is there – okay are you ready – any questions before they do the exercise? – it is it clear what I’m asking you to do ? please say if it’s not clear […] so you’re just gonna listen to whatever is there okay ready set go
[pause for thirty seconds]
Okay – that’s 30 seconds […] now you might have heard something like “what is he talking about?” “where did this guy come from?” “What voice?” “What conversation?” That’s the one – that’s the one [we are talking about]! – it’s not who I authentically am – and [yet] that is a source of empathic understanding -I am in relationship with the other and I’m going to have judgments, opinions, evaluations, philosophical arguments, categorizations, labels and so on – there isn’t anything wrong with those – those thoughts occur – they are inevitable – you can’t – ladies and gentlemen, you can’t stop thinking those – you can’t prevent it – what you want to do is get some distance from it and realize when it’s useful and when it’s less useful and so with that said we’re going to have some time for questions –
The one final thought I leave you with – and it’s a direct consequence of this little exercise – to listen to oneself, when all the labels are removed, when all the categories are removed, when all the philosophical arguments are removed, when all the cynicism, hostility, affectation, even compassion, sadness, fear, guilt, shame – when all these things are removed, [then] empathy consists in being in the presence of another human being
LA: what are your questions?
LA: The lady in the back – I’ll repeat the question – go ahead –
Do you think you can teach empathy?
LA: The short answer is yes […] so I’m going to repeat the answer – I just [asserted] we’re naturally empathic – remove the cynicism, denial, shame, guilt, and empathy naturally shows up – train the trainer now that’s not considered the possibility […] there other tips and techniques – this is the realm of tips and techniques: my reaction to you tells me something about both of us and a lot about myself which I then parlay forward to understand the relationship
[….] The challenge to create a context in which empathy can show up – right that’s not a trivial things – it’s a lot of work – and of course teaching is information transfer – I put information in your bucket – you bring a bucket or a basket and the teacher puts information in it – there’s nothing wrong with that – we need that – […] the world doesn’t work without information and there’s also the other aspects – dimensions – especially to our humanity and what happens in the context of a conversation – so you know there’s some work to be done on creating [possibility] and that’s what I think [why] literature has its uses in creating a context for a conversation that’s why I find it useful other questions? so I mean feel free to challenme
Individuals have been in some tough spots in the trenches for a while and become hardened – I think you use that word and how does one recover from that? – so I would also put on the list compassion fatigue – burnout – this is a significant occupational hazard – I mean – take some time off for self-care – this is the case for self-care – that one has to find some things where one can restore one’s emotional energies if you will – that we have something like emotional energy – and because being burned out – being compassion fatigued – I ain’t doing nobody any good much less myself – right? – so sometimes one has to get some supervision – I mean now leaving aside matters of such as vacation and that is where I find humor which is closely related to empathy – this Dilbert is deeply cynical right? – but –
in both empathy and humor one traverses a boundary – in the case of humor, one can say look at the boss is an idiot and it’s funny – Human Resources says a personality will be assigned to you – it’s hilarious, right? […] it’s the reduction to absurdly right? – so philosophically, it’s a reduction to absurdity – so one can use humor […] so this is the case for one’s own psychotherapy – I mean that the therapist him or herself may usefully encounter at some point in their development something like whatever this thing is – therapy h- aving a conversation with oneself – journaling – it may become a self-sustaining process – I get a lot out of journaling – I mean some people do and some people don’t – the world is not generous in the matter of certain things such as empathy – put it on the list with compassion as well right? – and so one has to find some resources to recharge one’s empathy – oftentimes it’s family – speaking personally, coming up, I experienced the lack of empathy so I actually started writing about it – and that was how I approached it and I kind of symbolically created something for myself […] – one final question…
LA: we are out of time – one final question?
what is the triad that sustains the therapeutic process? Warmth, accessibility, what else?
LA: okay well the concise answer is the Triad is – empathy empathy and empathy and warm and accessible is also useful – on a good day the other individual will show you who she or he is – if I am present without categories, distinctions, labels – on a good day they’ll reveal their soul – on a less good day we will struggle like everyone else – thank you so much
I heard there was some lunch – I don’t know if there is – I heard it was are up on six – I’m gonna go up there and check it out
(C) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project