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Empathy versus bullying: Part 3: Recommendations for students, parents, teachers and administrators

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Bullying: Recommendations for students

If one is being bullied, some guidelines are useful.; though no single, easy answer is available.

[Note: even though these recommendations directly address the “student,” they are intended to provide guidance to the parent or responsible adult on how he or she is to address the student regarding bullying. They are intended to inform the grown up, adult’s speaking and listening in the matter of bullying as the grown up engages with their student.]

First, these recommendations are about getting back your power—or at least some of your power—in the face of bullying. Sometimes that looks like making a tactical retreat, much as one might dislike doing so, in order to reestablish boundaries and integrity. The idea is to de-escalate the potential confrontation. What de-escalation looks like is different according to the situation. 

Second, this is not happening to you—the target of bullying—because you did anything wrong. Stop the negative self-talk (devaluing comments directed at oneself) about being to blame for the bad behavior of bullies. Such negative self-talk results in two problems, the bullying and your own negative self-talk. 

Previously there was only one problem, the bullying. Now two problems exist, the bulling and the negative self-talk. Reduce the problems by 50%; stop the negative self-talk. If you cannot seem to stop the negative self-talk, then get help from a parent or professional with doing so. 

Many different kinds of bullies exist—see the above typology—and it is not your job to be the bully’s therapist or policeman. 

There is probably no reply to the bully that is so powerful that the bully cannot transform it by using a sing-song, condescending tone of voice. 

Even if one says: “Thank you for respecting my privacy,” a statement that makes a great quotation in any subsequent police or administrative report, the risk is that the reply is going to come back at you like yet another confrontation. It might be worth a try, but no guarantees. 

The bully is behaving the way he does to “get a rise” out of the target. The intention is to make the target upset. That is a “pay off” for the bully. That is not to say that one should not shout back if shouted at or push back if one is pushed. That is a judgment call based on the situation and one’s sense that fighting back—otherwise know as “self defense”—may make a positive difference in establishing or maintaining a boundary. 

However, if one is out-numbered or the bully is physically larger and one’s power is diminished, engaging the bully in a back-and-forth exchange is not going to work. If one can maintain some measure of composure or equilibrium, then the process of escalation on the part of the bully may be short-circuited or at least moderated. The bully is “getting off” on upsetting the target, so, tactically speaking, being boring to the bully is a valid defense. You will be “less fun” for the bully, and he will move on to the next target. 

Another thing that is done—and is potentially life saving—is to keep a “bully log,” noting in writing, once one escapes, the occasion on which one was bullied and what exactly was said or done. In the case of cyber bullying, this includes print outs, with URLs and time stamps, or screen shots of devaluing comments from email, Facebook, social media, or text messages. 

I know, I know. The last thing that a kid stressed out by bullying wants to think about is documenting what is happening precisely so that one can escalate and get one’s power back. But that is what is required. One may prefer to forget about it all, but keeping a log with dates and times and names (or descriptions if one does not know the name) and what exactly was said or done, is going to be an important part of getting one’s power back in the face of bullying.

Civic and spiritual leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King have famously pointed out that “no one can diminish you without your consent.” That remains true; and it is always a good reminder to oneself in the face of bullying. However, King and his followers actively trained and role-played non-violent resistance prior to engaging in demonstrations, civic actions, marches, protests, and sits-ins, in which they confronted bullying, hostility, and out-and-out violence. 

Civil rights activists practiced with colleagues, who pretended to be racists, hurling insults and ketchup at the would-be demonstrators in role playing. In turn, the would-be demonstrators practiced not responding with counter-aggression; and all this prior to their actually engaging in anti-segregation sit ins, public protests, civil disobedience, and so on. 

One should not have to undertake training in non-violent resistance in order to survive the ride on the bus to school or the school lunch room, and the fact that we are now discussing such a scenario means that something has already gone seriously off the rails. Attempting to transform a culture of segregation and colonialism as King and Gandhi did—or a culture of bullying—is not for the faint of heart. 

A group of middle or high school kids are not the KKK or the British Empire (though they may seem like it at times), and such kids cannot be forced to include an “outsider” when they really decide not to be inclusive. Thus, the coaching to the outsider is to keep looking for a group that is welcoming. Once again, it takes courage—and a support system—and is always easier said than done. 

People need friends, and, for people in middle and high school, relating to friends is an important part of the fun. It is a part of growing up and the non-academic learning that occurs. If you are with a group of people—also called one’s “peers”—and their behavior and speech towards you leaves you feeling “less than” or “upset,” then you may need to look at your understanding of what is a friend. If your inquiry to your “friends” as to what is really going on seems to elicit more of the same upsetting and “less than” behavior—then you need to re-examine their status as “friends.” I hope you will not shoot the messenger: it is time to move on and seek friendlier friends. 

One bullied LGBT teen made a difference by trying to join a Gay-Straight Alliance group activity at his high school. But there was one catch. Before he could join the alliance, he had to create it. It became a significant project, and a path to engagement for him and numerous fellow students both gay and straight. Never underestimate the power of one person with the courage to stand up and say “Enough—there’s got to be a better way!” 

Friends may argue. Friends may disagree. Friends may engage in drama over boy or girl friends. Friends may even decide to stop being friends and go their separate ways. But if one finds so-called “friends” treating one like an outsider, using de-valuing language towards one, or being mischievous in ways that are cruel, mean, or aggressive, then it is time to find new friends. If one’s peer group lets one down, then it is time to seek a new peer group. Once again, this is not easy to do when one is struggling against bullying. However, if one is unable to take action in the direction of finding new relationships because one is so paralyzed by the upset, then it may be because one is anxious or depressed, and the intervention of a caring third party is warranted. But where to turn?

If you have a good relationship with one or both parents, that is a good place to start. Here “good relationship” means that you can talk with him or her. It means the parent has the ability to empathize with your predicament and listen to your concerns. It also means you are not going to come away from the conversation feeling bullied. Older siblings can also be useful if one has a good relationship. 

The idea is not to have a grown up “fix” the problem for you, but to find a “trusted advisor” to work with you on what can be done to get back your power—or at least some of it—in the face of bullying. Though the analogy is imperfect, this is a tad like getting tutoring in geometry or science. Do not expect the tutor to do your homework for you; but together you work to acquire the skills, so you can not only survive the lunchroom or school bus ride, but also even have fun and prosper. 

If you do not have the kind of empathic relationship with a parent that makes you think the parent can help to improve the situation, then look for a trusted teacher at school with whom one has a relationship. (But see the caution below about teachers and staff being school-bullying-mandated reporters.) Once again, this should be someone who you believe will listen to you—use her or his empathy to appreciate you—and work with you to improve the situation. If neither your parents nor a trusted teacher at school can be mobilized to intervene, then you should look for someone in the community such as a coach at the art or sports center, a pastor at church, or coordinator of the LGBT group in the community with whom you enjoy a relationship of empathy and trust. 

If you are being harassed online, request that the web site take down the content, since the harassing comments violent the rules of most web sites. If the site is Facebook, report the abuse immediately via the dropdown item “this picture is of me and I don’t like it” [or words to that effect]. Facebook says that it is committed to taking the word of the reporter (you) about harassing comments. Print out the cruel or mean content or make a screen shot. Put all such stuff in a folder. You need to show others in authority what is happening. It is almost never useful to respond to the perpetrator. If you find yourself compulsively checking back for mean content, take a time out. Power down. Pull the plug. It is not worth it. It might be better to give online activity a break and drop out for awhile. Good friends will be able to reach you by phone or in person. 

Another word of caution is needed. If you approach someone in school—a teacher or member of the staff—then this person may be required by law to report the bullying to the school administration. This might be okay if the school has a program in place to deal with bullying. This is also where your written record detailing bullying that has occurred over the past period can be useful. I wish I could say that this would not result in further bullying with accusations of being a “snitch” occurring. But the risk of escalation is real and must be considered prior to taking action. 

If the reputation of the school is one of having a culture that seems to permit a certain amount of aggression and discourtesy, whether towards teachers or one’s fellow students, then the risk expands. Retaliation on the part of bullies for complaints about their bullying can become as significant an issue as the bullying itself. 

Once the school administration is involved, the process can take on a life of its own. The administration must (is mandated to) open an investigation, and the requirement to gather evidence of bullying can make you feel like you are inside the “hall of mirrors” at the carnival without, however, anyone having any fun. 

Grown ups are notoriously unable to distinguish adolescent drama from out-and-out bullying. This is sometimes due to grown ups’ lack of empathy, but not always. If the tweens and adolescents cannot tell these apart, why should the grown ups necessarily be able to? What seemed open-and-shut to the target of bullying can take on disturbing nuances once people are interviewed “on the record.” 

Trying to sort out a bullying report can become an exercise in forensic investigation with conflicting testimony full of “he said” and “she said.” Are witnesses denying an alleged episode of bullying—note the legalese “alleged” shows up—because they don’t want to be regarded as “snitches” or because the episode never occurred? 

The school system itself—no matter how empathic and well-intentioned—can seem to work unwittingly to punish all participants—or at least use all the time and effort of all implicated in a given incident in filling out forms, processes, procedures, and attending meetings. The process of determining what happened = x has now become something to survive—a potential breakdown in empathy and a breakdown in community. Ready or not, one has matriculated in the “college of hard knocks.” 

However, if the student is being physically assaulted or harassed to the point where the student’s school work is suffering (grades and so on), then it is best to “bite the bullet,” fill out the formal report—including the police report if appropriate—try to take charge of the escalation, share the suffering, and learn the lesson in community building. 

No one should have to suffer in isolation in the face of bullying. Part of the abuse consists precisely in the bully’s attempt to isolate the target. So the best outcomes are those in which one is able to take action to break out of one’s isolation: finding new and welcoming friends, martial arts lessons, founding a gay-straight alliance at the school, chess or science club, and so on. Once again, this is easier said than done, but it must be both said and done. 

If you are someone who is caught up in drama and you are tempted to bully someone, it is time to take a time out. Take a look at your own behavior. Do you really want to be known as someone who is mean or a bully? While “put downs” or “one liners” might seem like auditioning for a role in a reality television show, hit the pause button. There are better ways of getting into show business. Go out for theatre or sign up for an improvisation class. All the world is a stage, and an important part of the training for theatre—and for success in life—is role playing. Indeed acting is precisely role playing. Try taking a walk in the other person’s shoes. There are other, better shoes—and choices—than to bully or be bullied. 

Bullying: Recommendations for parents

If your child comes to you with an upset about bullying or you see that she or he is upset about something and the story sounds like bullying, then what should a parent do? 

This is where empathy goes a long way. Start by listening. Your job as a parent is to support your child and to help your child regulate the child’s feelings and behavior. Your job is to help the child regain an emotional equilibrium in the face of life’s vicissitudes, including bullying.

Parenting is about setting boundaries. Empathy is about navigating boundaries, and bullying about violating boundaries. Therefore, empathy is about restoring boundaries in the face of bullying. 

Be empathically receptive and responsive: “That’s really gotta be a concern.” “Try to tell me exactly what happened.” “Then what happened?” “Say more about that.” “Okay, but help me understand.” “He said what?!” Ask about the details in a concerned, empathic way. “Johnny is a jerk” may be true; but it is an interpretation. That Johnny said “You are a loser” while pointing at his forehead with his fingers in the shape of an “L” is a report of a devaluing comment. Do not be dismissive. It’s not “nothing.” Note it. Be concerned. Avoid finger wagging or moralizing. Though you are obviously “on the side” of your child, do not assume she or he is an angel. Likewise, if the child is known to have a “devilish” streak, do not assume he or she is the devil. A single example is not bullying in itself, but repeated instances start to form a pattern of concern. 

One word of caution to parents at this point. One issue that should not be overlooked is how the adult is inevitably confronted with his or her own fate as a child in the face of bullying. In short, if you had a bad experience in bullying that is still unintegrated as an adult, it is going to be there when your child comes to you. If you have unresolved issues around bullying in your own history, when your child comes to you about bullying, a challenging situation becomes all the more challenging for you. You have to distinguish the child’s problem from your own in order to do your job. As a parent, your priority is to solve the child’s problem, not your own. 

Now this does not mean the parent has precipitously to go back into therapy (though nothing is wrong with that as such), but that one must be prepared to identify and use one’s own experiences around bullying as a resource. These experiences, long past, will come up. Promise. This is where parental peer support can be essential. Consult with other parents with whom you have a relationship of empathy and trust. It is crucial this be a person to whom one can relate without moralizing or finger pointing. 

If one does have an unresolved issue around bullying, then acknowledge it, so that one can gain some distance and objectivity about bullying today. In a deep sense, bullying and human aggression have not changed, though they now have online technology at their disposal; but parenting norms, schools, school administrators, and community standards have shifted significantly since Baby Boomers and even Gen-Xers have struggled with bullying in a different world. 

If, when you were a kid, the guidance from your parent was “just hit him back,” and it worked, then you are going to be inclined to provide such guidance. If, when you were a kid, you told his mom about his bullying behavior, and it worked (as unlikely as that may seem), then your initial inclination is going to be to provide such advice. Even if you wished that you had “just hit him back,” but were not able to do so, you are also going to be inclined to provide such guidance. You see the dilemma? 

Our empathy for our children in the here and now is a function of our own fate as a child in what was (and is) not always the most empathic of worlds. If one is at a party for five year olds, tweens, or adolescents, then one is inevitably going to be present to one’s own experiences as a five year old, tween, or adolescent. That is a risk and an opportunity. Such experiences from one’s own childhood or teen years can be a useful resource and should not be overlooked. However, such experiences of surviving bullying are most likely to make a positive difference within the context of an empathic listening to the child currently being bullied, not the context the parent had to overcome long ago. [i]  

The point is to appreciate the distinction between your own experiences and those of your child. An outgoing or extroverted parent may have a shy or introverted child—or vice versa. Yes, certain kinds of bullying are such that a child may properly be expected to handle them on his or her own. However, if the child who used to enjoy school now dreads it, if grades are suffering, or if a once flourishing child is now floundering, and it is not clear what is going on, then intervention is required. 

A substantial part of the challenge for the parent is to re-create the context on the school bus, at school, in the lunchroom, or on the sports field. What seems at first to be an open-and-shut case of meanness or cruelty can turn out to be a complex example of drama, pseudo-sibling rivalry, or bad manners. Debates quickly emerge about “Who started it!?” or “he said” and “she said.” Try to determine who said what to whom and then what happened. You may quickly find yourself asking, “Is there a single fact here?” This, however, does not mean that bullying did not occur. As a parent, you want to document what you have learned, and you want to keep open the lines of communication with your child. Is there a pattern? 

In order to be useful in supporting your child, you must have a thorough grasp of what is going on. Get the entire narrative. If what is happening really is bullying, you will want to be as specific as possible in order to make a report to the authorities if the problem persists. 

This is where the difference between handing the child a fish and teaching him or her how to fish is the lesson. Even if the student is an adolescent, the student’s request may be to “fix” the problem and make the bully go away. Wouldn’t it be nice? Rarely is that practical. If the bullying is occurring on the way to or from school, and if one can take a different bus or route, by all means, do so. Band-Aids have their uses. Tourniquets are essential. Buy some time to figure out what is really happening. 

The tough job of parenting occurs at four levels: (1) providing guidance to one’s student on how to fend for oneself; (2) providing explicit training in self-defense or assertiveness if the student can be enrolled in the value of doing so; (3) reaching out to the parents of the alleged bully if there is any chance they are responsive people, who are able to have a civil conversation; (4) intervening with school authorities (or law enforcement) as a last resort if no other solution can be found.

(1) Share with the student the above-cited coaching in “Recommendations for Students” about the dynamics of bullying. Even if you have reason to believe that your child has been provocative and is engaging in drama, begin by asking, “What happened?” “Who said what to whom?” “What happened next?“ Do not begin by asking, “What did you do to cause this?” That can seem like blaming the victim. Do not be dismissive. Trust—but verify empathically.

Providing empathy means that one should provide examples of proper behavior on the part of “friends” and peers; friends do not use devaluing, hurtful, bad language or engage in aggression against one another; and broach the difficult subject that maybe one needs to find new friends or a suitable, different, extra-curricular activity if one is being harassed. One should provide assurances to the child, who is blaming himself, that the child did not do anything to deserve such treatment. 

(2) Time was when “bullying” meant physical aggression. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” We now know that devaluing names, too, are hurtful. This is especially so when the name calling occurs persistently across different environments—at school, on the bus, online after school, and so on. I know—I know. Why is it that parenting usually seems to require ever-increasing commitments rather than less? Yet intervention on the part of the grown ups is important., especially if the meanness is escalating.

If a student, who is being physically assaulted, sees value in boxing or Asian martial arts lessons, the parent may pick up the extra expense and effort of chauffeuring him or her. It may be worth it. Self defense remains a fundamental right. 

However, if the individual is up against a group or the size differential is substantial, such lessons might be good for one’s self-esteem (and the value of such a contribution is not to be underestimated), but it is of limited practical value in surviving an altercation. For some shy or socially awkward kids explicit training in social assertiveness is useful. 

(3) If one is part of a community where one has communications with other parents, then it may be worth the risk to reach out to the other parents. It is important to do so in a way that does not land like an incoming accusation or reproach. That such a conversation would initially be uncomfortable is no reason not to try. 

If you can work with the other parents, it provides an example to all the children of how to resolve conflict in a mature, adult way that benefits all involved. Such a lesson is worth its weight in gold—or at least an associate’s degree in counseling. However, if the parent turns out to be troubled or a part of the problem, then one has perhaps discovered the source of the bully’s misbehavior. One has to move on. Encourage one’s child to leave alone a “friend” who is making his life miserable. 

(4) If one has exhausted individual coaching to the child or outreach to other parents, and one still has concerns about the child’s safety or the impact of bullying on a child’s academic results, then it is necessary to approach the school authorities. Remember that these may be harried individuals. 

School authorities already have a long list of academic, administrative, and educational responsibilities. The state legislature has just mandated compliance with rules that schools take on the task of managing and improving a situation in which 10% of a school population (say) of 1,000 students is either a bully or a target of bullying over a given period of time. A budget increase to support the mandate is still pending, meaning doing more with less is again demanded. 

A parent may have a right to stand up in a school board meeting and express concern or even accuse officials of being indifferent to bullying. 

However, it does put one in mind of Dale Carnegie’s dictum: if you want to gather honey, do not kick over the bee’s nest. 

Rather identify an educator or administrator who has the empathy to hear your concern about your child’s emotional and academic well-being and its urgency. In a time sensitive situation, specific steps can be taken such as allowing the child to keep a cell phone with him at all times to call for help; a designated safe room (say next to the nurse’s office) that the child can go to in case he feels unsafe; a special hall pass or permission to arrive two minutes before class to avoid the bully; or assigning a grown up to accompany her or him through the hallway. It is important that all the relevant teachers and staff know about this or it will just become another breakdown, punishing the victim as the phone gets confiscated, and so on. 

In the case of cyber-bullying of tweens, parents may appropriately have access to the online passwords. Parents may usefully know what sites the children are visiting. Even if one has a phobia for technology, it is imperative for the parents of kids using computers to have a minimum of computer literacy to supervise the kids’ involvement with electronic media. It is a tad stealthy—but I would not rule it out—to have the child train you with her email or Facebook account, and then use what you have learned to monitor theirs. 

You would not simply give the kids the car keys and tell them, “Hey, keep in touch!” Funny. The Internet is different than the open road, but hazards and risks exist in abundance in cyberspace, too. Since no parent has enough time to monitor the totality of anyone’s online activity—it would be crazy to try—start out like the wise teacher who begins with strictness but eases up thereafter based on proper behavior and feedback. 

Manage by exception. Trust but verify. If spending time engaging online becomes an upset to the child, then an empathic inquiry as to what is happening is needed. Expectations for online behavior should be made clear: Just as one would not use devaluing language, ethnic or racial insults in person, so too one should not do so online. If one is the target of such behavior, then it must be documented, monitored, and neutralized through appropriate interventions. 

Why is it that people forget you can turn off the computer or not go to certain sites? Parents’ good examples of laying aside electronic devices and relating in person to other persons speak volumes to kids. So does any behavior that demonstrates a parent’s commitment to drama or using social media to drive personal conflicts. Business people and politicians now have a rule about email and comments on social networks (even if they do not always follow their own good guidance): Write every electronic comment or communication so that it could be published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal without creating an embarrassment. The reason? Because the communication will eventually migrate there! This is an essential rule of thumb going forward. 

Such is especially the case after the US election of 2016 where a seemingly endless stream of hacked emails—containing ambiguous and devaluing comments about the sender’s colleagues—got published periodically. In some cases, no hacking was required, since the candidate published the comments intentionally using Twitter. 

As this book is being published, reports are emerging that Russia—you know, the sovereign state or a clandestine unit thereof—has attempted to influence the US 2016 election by purchasing ads on social media that attempted to aggravate racial, social, and economic divisions, thereby driving voters towards one Presidential candidate rather than the other.[ii] A lesson for us all? The ability to think critically and for oneself has always been an essential foundation of any democracy or any middle school kid’s emotional well-being. Now more than ever. 

There is also a rule—at the level of Sir Isaac Newton’s ironclad Laws of Motion—that naked or compromising photos taken by a person migrate inevitably in the direction of social media. So don’t take any; and delete any that might already exist now—before it’s too late! 

The expectations of privacy are such that online communications can no longer reasonably be expected to be private. Perhaps they ought to be private. Perhaps the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution against unreasonable search and seizure still holds sway in courts and halls of justice in the USA. I hope it does. I believe it does. But cyberspace just does not work that way any more. Facebook is designed so that people are given incentives to broadcast their personal and private data. As Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is supposed to have said: “Privacy is no longer the norm,” implying rather that publicity is. Here take my personal data—please! Here—see what I am eating, who I am befriending, who I am dating, what I am wearing (or not), what I am reading, where I am checking in geographically, what I like, what I don’t like, what I am thinking—and at all times. [iii]

If you really need to have a private communication, send a letter by US Mail. It does put one in mind of Miranda Lambert’s country western song: “If you had something to say—you’d write it on a piece of paper—then you put a stamp on it—and they’d get it three days later—before everything became—automatic.” Words to live by. 

This may sound a tad nostalgic; and I am not sure that I could explain it to an eleven year old. So, if your eleven year old is citing the 4th Amendment to you as reason for not handing over his password, congratulations! You have a Clarence Darrow for the defense in the making. I hope you can afford law school. But you then get to explain that “probable cause” creates an exception—and a parental search warrant. Hand the password over, buddy—or hand over the device!

Bullying: Recommendations for teachers and administrators

The media provide sensational, even tragic, reports about bullying, but they less frequently provide useful guidance or actionable information. We have to separate bullying from conflict and “drama” between peers of roughly equal power. Attention grabbing headlines have provided a “call to action” for educators in middle and high schools (and for state legislatures), who had been distracted by other priorities and looking the other way. 

A few dramatic, high profile suicides, and many low profile emotional breakdowns, not to mention major litigation from outraged parents, have persuaded school administrators of the importance of intervening on behalf of the most vulnerable, bullied members of the community. 

Yet it is also important to realize that grown ups are not the only source of relief from tween and adolescent bullying. In no way is it blaming the victim that the targets of bullying sometimes need to take crucial actions on their own behalf to improve the outcomes of unwanted assaults. 

The first empathy lesson for administrators is that empathy is on a spectrum that extends from being firm about boundaries all the way to “tough love.” As every administrator knows, education is impossible if a school that is “out of control” surrounds the class room. A school is a system, and the hallways and class room must be calm in order for education to work. Before we turn to the details of how empathy plays in this context, some background is useful.

In December 1982 three elementary school students (10 to 14 years old) killed themselves near Tromsø, Norway. All three had been bullied. For example, one had been called a “leper” because of his measles scars, an insult, frankly, that I had not previously heard. These tragedies galvanized Norway. 

Previously, bullying had been regarded as something that kids had to work out for themselves on the street. These tragedies provided evidence that the most vulnerable members of the community required intervention.

Dan Olweus, who had studied bullying extensively in nearby Sweden, but who was without popular support there for his research recommendations, was invited to come next door to Norway to help out. He surveyed 130,000 students. Some 15% were involved in bullying either as perpetrators or targets.[iv]

Olweus’ research challenged many assumptions. It challenged the assumptions that upper class high school students were less frequent bullies than their underclass peers or that urban kids were more likely to bully than their countryside fellows. Bullying was an equal opportunity issue. The targets of bullying were significantly weaker physically and more vulnerable to anxiety; but, for the most part, they did not look or dress significantly differently than others in the group. Space does not permit a comprehensive review of Olweus’ bullying prevention program; but its focus is on transforming the culture of the entire school, providing authoritative and positive role models, improved overall supervision, and intervention in individual cases. In the initial pilot, eight months after the program was introduced, there was 50% less bullying; but also significantly less vandalism and theft. 

Olweus’ approach anticipated the crime fighting approach of reducing major crimes by fixing the broken windows in abandoned buildings and arresting the petty turn-style jumpers on public transit. These are individuals who might escalate to more serious offenses, if they are allowed to get away with mirror ones. They are halted early in the course of their boundary-violating careers. Their relatively minor criminal behaviors get cut short before they can advance to more serious misdeeds. 

Norway devoted significant resources to the issue of bullying. Here in the USA legislative compliance mandates ordering schools to solve the problem of bullying without providing resources or money are taking the easy way out. And mandates to comply often do not work—precisely because a mandate without resources is at best a well-intentioned, but empty, gesture. To be sure, the indifference of some school administrators has been a cause for concern regardless of the (in)action of state legislatures. But the commitment of many, if not most, administrators is a cause for hope—and engagement. 

Emily Bazelon reports on a case study—a school, Old Mill North, that had a reputation for roughness and was demonstrably spiraling downward. But it was pulled back from the brink and turned around by a program inspired by Olweus. This is not a one size fits all narrative, but numerous lessons exist that can be generalized. 

No matter how inspiring or talented the individual teacher, education is impossible if a school that is out of control surrounds the class room. The hallways and class rooms must be calm in order for the process of education to get the traction it requires to produce educated students. 

Bullies are put on notice that teachers and administrators are decidedly not happy about their behavior. Such individuals have been poorly socialized, and it is going to catch up with them. They need to get in touch with their inner jerk—have a conversation for possibility about recognizing one’s peers as peers—and learn how to respect boundaries. They can do better. If one can get the peer group to validate the language of respect for boundaries, courtesy, an optimum measure of toleration, and empathy, then their behavior eventually catches up with the rhetoric of respect and improves.

As noted, empathy is on a spectrum that extends from being firm about boundaries, but nice about it, all the way to “tough love.” Some students are not interested in respecting the boundaries that mark a commitment to education, and they really do not belong in school. Some 52 kids were expelled from Old Mill North. Likewise, the teachers were assessed. If they were not committed to transforming the culture of the school in the direction of excellence in education, they were encouraged to seek positions at other schools in the system. They were not expelled, but were counseled out. Some 22 out of 66 left the school. 

How shall I put it delicately? This was no longer business as usual. At Old North, a significant minority of the student body was still more than a tad rough around the edges by the time they got to middle school. Some students literally did not know what to do when one student bumped into another student passing in the hallway. They needed to be taught to say, “Excuse me!” or “Pardon me,” instead of telling the other person, “Drop dead, loser!” Similarly, with common courtesy in the cafeteria. At Old North a broad intervention with the students provided explicit guidance in what was expected of them by way of behavior. Thus, the students were drilled in social skills such as acknowledging the feelings of others, making eye contact, and conflict management skills such as making a request, saying “no,” or agreeing to disagree. In short, they were trained in empathy. 

Some bullies are indeed thugs, and need to be removed from the community to protect the community from them; but other bullies are themselves survivors of abusive situations (e.g., at home). They exhibit mental health issues, have a diagnosable cognitive impairment, and require intervention. 

That is no excuse—there is never an excuse for bullying behavior. However, it does mean that to prevent repetition of the bullying after a suspension has been served, these individuals need guidance. Many need treatment. Whether such treatment is full-blown dynamic talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, bullies may usefully undertake an inquiry into their own abusive behavior in order to shift out of a pattern that is creating misery around them. It is worth repeating: If it’s mean, intervene. 

However, intervention is not the same as automatic discipline. Suspension and expulsion should be used only when the immediate concern is safety; and followed up with evaluation for the individual for depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, other emotional issues, or problems at home. Extrinsic motivation was also applied at Old North. 

Using Positive Behavior-Based Interventions and Support (PBIS), along with the Pledge of Allegiance, the school day began with reciting the school commitment: “Be respectful, responsible, and on task.” That means: say “please” and “thank you”; do your homework; and participate in class. 

An internal currency of courtesy was introduced. “Patriot passports” were blue slips that teachers handed out when students were identified as doing something well. The teacher meant it as a recognition and statement: “I liked the way you did that.” 

A gimmick? Perhaps, but the underlying value was in building a positive relationship between student and teacher. Instead of handing out detention slips, getting into an adversarial role, teachers were in a friendly role of recognizing students for a job well done. Those teachers who used up all their blue slips got a gold star on their door—and more slips. The slips could be redeemed for PTA sponsored school supplies, ice cream at the social, a school movie, or getting to the head of the line in the cafeteria.

One word of caution. Peer mediation is not a good method for dealing with bullying. Peer mediation makes sense when the two kids are of roughly equal power. However, putting a bully and a target in the same room together is a bad idea. This is so even if a grown up is present to help mediate. Bullies are skilled at saying the right thing in the moment, and then retaliating later. If the students are roughly equal in power, and the infraction involved drama (not bullying), then peer mediation may perhaps make sense. But otherwise, it is just putting the fox to guard the chickens. Things are not going to go well.

Once a measure of calm was restored to the hallways at Old North, then those students who continued to be disrupters tended to stand out. They could be provided with the services they required to gain control over their behavior and emotions instead of missing even more academics by being sent to the principal’s office or suspended. 

Instead of being given a suspension and sent home, the disrupters were given confidential psychological assessments for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-esteem. They were required to watch videos about bullying, and consider their own behavior in relation to what they saw. Teachers who were chronic yellers were trained in other methods of de-escalating conflict with students who were disrespectful or difficult. This was not a two week effort. 

Six years into the program, scores on standardized achievement tests had improved enough for the school to introduce the International Baccalaureate Program to further drive academic excellence. Reducing bullying is good for academics. 

In summary, schools that support such efforts find that bullying of all kinds is reduced, not merely that directed at kids who are eccentric, socially awkward, new to the community, or LGBT. Of course, if the school’s grown ups are still struggling ineffectively with their own homophobic issues, then survivors must look for alternative communities outside of school. These alternatives outside of school run the gamut from sports to book clubs. It is not blaming the survivor to say, “Hey, it’s gonna take something from you, too, in building a community that works for everyone.” Martial arts and boxing are powerful compensatory activities for people who tend to be shy; but such people have to overcome their own introverted tendencies even to sign up. The very behavior that is stopping them is also part of the behavior that is leaving them vulnerable to bullying. The breakthrough is already present in stopping procrastinating and taking action to get such training.

In conclusion, the lesson is that empathy builds community; and communities demonstrate empathy by being inclusive. Yet rare is theindividual who transforms the authenticity and integrity of an entire community in order to join a community with integrity and authenticity. What would an anti-bullying club even look like? It might look like a LGBT alliance; but it might also look like a jogging, biking, or history club. Don’t just be “anti,” as proper as that is in the case of bullying; but be “pro” engagement, inclusion, and community.

As Daniel Burnham said in different context: “Make no small plans.” Empathy is the foundation of no small community.


[i] Christine Olden. (1953). On adult empathy with children, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 8: 111–126. 

[ii] See “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal Investigation,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039 [checked on Sept 27, 2021]; see also (now “ancient” history): Mike Isaac and Scott Shane. (2017). Facebook’s Russia-linked ads came in many disguises, The New York Times, Oct 2, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/technology/facebook-russia-ads-.html [checked on Oct 15, 2017].

[iii] Bernard E. Harcourt. (2015). Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 90–93. 

[iv] Olweus 1973/1993 in Bazelon 2012. Dan Olweus. (1973/1993). Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Wiley/Blackwell; Emily Bazelon. (2012). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House. This post and the corresponding chapter in Empathy Lessons rely significantly on Bazelon’s journalistic synthesis of the literature and her incisive interviews; see also James Garbarino and Ellen deLara. (2002). And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence. New York: the Free Press (Simon and Shuster).

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy versus bullying: Part 2: Online bullying and what to do about it

Listen as a podcast on Spotify (via Anchor): https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-versus-bullying-Part-2-Online-bullying-and-what-to-do-about-it-e17hj9j

The cyber bully: The rule of thumb is that whatever a person does in life offline, the person does online, too. Whatever the person does in the non-electronic world of personal encounters, the person also does online in social networking. Therefore, people who are mean in person, will be mean online. People who are cruel in person will be cruel online. However, the impersonality of the online milieu can amplify the tendency. The lack of context of the online environment can intensify the upset and impact all around. 

Prior to social media such as Facebook, bullied kids could find a haven from a heartless world at home. Now the kid who is the target of the bullying, having survived the day at school, survived the ride home on the bus, gets home, naively turns on the computer and (wham!) experiences additional, hurtful boundary violations. The unsophisticated kid, who does not know when to “power down” and hit the off button for her or his own mental health, can become quasi-hypnotically obsessed with checking and rechecking for devaluing comments. 

No, the mere passage of time does not cause insulting online comments to go away. Social media make it possible for people to “pile on” and accumulate more “likes” for a hurtful remark. Furthermore, cyber-bullying can be perpetrated relatively anonymously with pseudonyms. 

Fake accounts on Google or Facebook eventually get unmasked and deleted; but it takes time; and new fakes seem to spring up just as fast as the old ones get identified and deleted. If giant corporations, supposedly sophisticated politicians and business persons, major law enforcement organizations, the US government, and the US population at large, can be “faked out” by faked identities and misleading “news,” pity the middle school kid in the face of anonymous, hurtful language directed at her or him.

As the latest debunking of the pretensions of Facebook unfolds on the front page of the Wall Street Journal [no progressive rag, that publication!], the susceptibility of online platforms to fake everything is taking its place among the unintended (and deeply disturbing) consequences of technology that will live on.[i]

Figuring out who is doing what to whom online and when they are doing it requires a forensic inquiry of significant subtlety, time, and effort. School administrators are flummoxed, because the bullying is initiated off-campus. 

How is it then that the school resources, already stretched thin, now must be marshaled to establish responsibility for policing such misbehavior? The target of the bullying may be asked to demonstrate that the abuse is affecting her or his school work. More blaming the victim? 

Of course bullying is not a logical process. An ultimatum from a bully to her or his minion is itself a form of bullying: Call some prepubertal girl a “slut” or we won’t be friends anymore. Hello? If this were a logical process, then the would-be minion would already know that the friendship ended with the very request, since friendship is not conditional on hurtful (and unethical) words or behavior. 

To many kids “friendship” means something quite different than “share wholesome experiences.” It means laugh at my jokes even if they are not funny, say my hair looks great even if it doesn’t, sit with me in the cafeteria at lunch, and do not flirt with the boy in whom I am interested this week. These young people do not know that book Nine of Aristotle’s Ethics is on friendship. The expectation that such an explanation would elicit any response from the young person other than eye rolling is doubtful. Still, it may be worth a try. 

Given that cyber bullying has exploded as a form of online pathology, let us take a look at proper online conduct even in the absence of bullying. 

The genie is out of the bottle—the genie is social networking

Social networking is not going away. Humans invented computers and smart interfaces. Let’s be smart is using them. When the child is interacting through Internet video with a family member living on another continent, then such an interaction is a boundary expanding and richly rewarding experience. When a parent and child are playing a game together using a computer screen, the benefit is in the parent-child interaction as such. The rich computer graphics are a bonus. 

The paradox is the anti-social nature of social networking. The computer screen isolates the person even as the person is trying to connect. The contrary is also the case. The screen connects the person when the person wants to be alone, rudely announcing an incoming message by beeping, demanding one’s attention. Sometimes the screen brings out the anti-social tendencies instead of the pro-social ones, enabling one to be inauthentic, hiding behind a false self. [ii]

It is perhaps a symptom of the broader issue that the online world even calls forth innovations in punishment. Taken to its logical conclusion, the savvy, harried parent steals a march on the technology. The ultimate method of grounding? Take away the child’s electricity, thereby having a “time out” on the use of electronic devices. However, during the time out do something positive. Read a book! Play a board game with your sister. If the latter seems too much like a punishment, paint a picture or go for a bike ride.

The challenge is to find a balance that allows our humanity its due. 

The rule of thumb is easy to say but hard to do: Seek balance in time and emotional equilibrium between online and offline engagement. Trial and error is a part of the process. By the time you get it just right, the kids will be going off to college, and they will have the skills they need to manage the online jungle on their own.

As the New Yorker cartoon famously observed about a dog sitting at a computer, “on the Internet no one knows you are a dog.” People who have issues with their self-esteem are both attracted and entrapped by the lure of being whatever they want to be online. Nothing wrong with fantasy as such. Many of us build castles in the sky. But only a few of us try to move into them; and those that do so are headed for trouble for so many reasons.

Children have to be 13 years or older to sign up for Facebook, and it is on that platform that we will concentrate here. The risks to children of all ages are real: online “cyber bulling,” vulnerability to predatory adults, sharing too much information, identity theft, and exposure to age-inappropriate content from advertisers, news, or stranger danger. The possibilities of getting paranoid about stranger danger are very real, but, as has been noted repeatedly, just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not out to get ya. 

As regards the age limit, I am grateful for it, and I see it as a useful reason to deny access to children of tender age, who lack readiness for the risks of the online world: “I did not make the rule, and it seems sensible to me.” Unless the child is actually working on a project with NASA, I see no reason to make an exception for children under 13. “But Susie’s mom lied to help her get an account!” As my mother used to say when I wanted to play in traffic like the other kids: “Yes, everybody is doing it; but you shall not!” The challenge is to figure out where is the boundary and how to navigate it. 

A word of caution to policy makers: Do not make a rule prohibiting that which you cannot enforce. A heavy hand is counter-productive. 

For example, thousands of adults did not even know they were interested in drinking alcohol until the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited it in 1919. Then drinking alcohol suddenly became strangely attractive. Likewise, Susie did not even want to get online until someone told her that she could not do so. The prohibition creates the desire. 

To make matters even more challenging, the boundary lines keep changing. Such is the case with social networking. Computers, tablets, and smart phones are widely available, and unless you are planning on moving the family “off the grid,” youngsters need to be taught how to use social networking sensibly, safely, to have fun, and be productive with it. 

To err is human, really to mess up requires an Internet connection. 

Imperfect but empathic human beings try to navigate unempathic, imperfect social networks. This in itself is the business case for empathy-centered design of human and system relatedness. This is sometimes called “usability” testing. The computer system must be useable by error prone human beings. This points to another parental rule of thumb: if one’s experience of the computer is not useful or productive or if it is not fun, then a “time out” is in order. Say three words. Not “I love you,” but “Pull the plug.” Same idea.

Empathy lessons for parents of kids going online

What are the empathy lessons for parents around screen time, devices, and the relationships of kids with personal technology? Closely related to this question about how much time online is too much, is the issue of how best to manage the time children do in fact spend engaging with computer devices. 

Children are great imitators. They want to be just like the adults, who seem constantly to have their noses buried in their electronic devices or a phone glued to their ear. Even when parents are at home, they are not fully present. Think about it. Grown up behavior speaks volumes to the children. 

The good example parents set in laying aside electronic devices and relating in person to other persons speaks volume to the children. So does any behavior that demonstrates a parent’s commitment to drama or using social media to drive personal conflicts.

The authority with which a phone call, text, or email arrives from work, and the parent drops what she or he is doing to attend to it, says everything to the child. The rest is just a lecture that lands like “blah, blah, blah.” 

On the spectrum of guidance extending from empathy all the way to tough love, here is the tough love for parents regarding the amount of time spent online, on screens: Look at your own example. 

If you interrupt your conversation with your child to attend to a call, email, or text, you are an enabler. You were perhaps expecting the child to behave otherwise? You have demonstrated, clearly nothing is more important than attending to beeping, barking electronic appliances. The text or call is more important than your child. Your empathy is in break down. Ouch! Clean up your act. 

A recurring theme of these lessons is that authenticity is the foundation of the work we are doing on empathy, and so before talking to the children about their use of electronics, come clean about your own electronic inauthenticities. 

The empathy lesson? Set boundaries. Look for balance. Be responsible. Own it. Manage the amount of time children and young people spend on their screen by empathic parenting. Children of all ages are sensitive to any discrepancies between what grown ups say and what they do. Empathic parenting is about boundary setting. With older children, “first you do your homework, then you go to the mall (or play a computer game).” Children of all ages will inevitably test the boundaries, so have an explanation that privileges what you value about community, healthy personal relations, and friendship.

With electronic devices, rather than set an arbitrary number of hours that probably cannot be enforced, begin by creating an electronic device free zone. Start with dinner if your family is able to eat together or perhaps designate a time on the clock such as 8 to 9 pm to quiesce the electronics. This is good sleep hygiene too. 

Rather than be negative, think positively. It is not just turn off the computers; but, especially for children of tender age, turn off the computer and let’s read a story book together. Turn off the computer and let’s play blocks. Turn off the computer and let’s play catch (weather permitting). Visit with friends in person. For older kids, dance lessons, gymnastics, science club, chess club (where you sit across from a real person), organized sports, hobbies, or arts and crafts. This will surface the parent’s ultimate inauthenticity. Just as in the days of old, when the parent used to sit the kid in front of the TV as a form of baby sitting, likewise with computer games. 

Nothing is wrong as such with harried parents pushed down into survival occasionally using screens as baby sitters. Just be aware that something is missing from the virtual reality milieu—the first person relatedness of a human being with another human being. Within limits, nothing is wrong, but something is missing—empathy. I doubt that virtual reality is like the “good enough” parent. When virtual reality crowds out real reality—authentic human presence, then the time has come to call a “time out” on the use of devices. 

For young people who are teenagers, the idea is similar. Don’t be negative; rather substitute something positive—and then turn off the device. Sports? Dance lessons? Cooking lessons? Tai Chi? Jogging? Volunteering at the Jaycees? An ice cream social? Window shopping in person? The opportunity is to teach social skills that require relating to another human being who is present at hand in person. 

The mirage of popularity migrates online, too, especially as children enter middle and high school. The details differ, but the psychology of puberty does not. The influence of peer groups, which are emotionally (though not financially) more important to the teenager than family, is a standard part of the developmental process of separating from parents and leaving home to contribute to the community at large. The volatility of emotions due to hormones combines with experimentation, resulting in a high level of stress (for all): “I hate you! Drop me off at the mall?” This too shall pass. 

Teenagers are experimenting with identity, emerging sexuality, and boundaries of all kinds. Why should they not experiment with online boundaries, too? The guidance is the same: “Check in! Don’t hurt yourself.” 

At least prior to going away to college, the 13–17 year old group continues to require guidance and limit setting. If the teenager is involved in after school activities, is attentive in doing her or his homework, and has some friends who periodically show up in person, then the teenager is developing in a wholesome way. There is limited time for online networking and online misadventures. 

The isolated individual, the socially awkward teen, for whom being online is a substitute for getting out of her or his comfort zone, is the concern. Perhaps the individual has experienced shaming or bullying. Or the individual is so sensitive that thoughtless statements that bounce off of most kids are experienced as hurtful. Here the amount of time spent online is the symptom of a problem, not the cause. I repeat: the symptom, not the cause.

When the child clings to his device and cannot be separated from it as if it were the beloved teddy bear, then, speaking personally, I start associating to the disturbing experiments with severely deprived macaque monkeys of Harry Harlow.[iii] Separated from their biological birth mothers, these monkeys clung desperately to the piece of cloth on the wire surrogate mother, even though it did not have a nipple. They would rather go hungry than forego contact with the cloth, surrogate mother. Heart breaking. 

Restricting online access when that may be the main thing holding the teenager’s shaky sense of self together is likely to cause more conflicts, breakdowns in relatedness, withdrawal, and expanding isolation, not emotional equilibrium or empathy. Restricting online access does not provide the longed for balance. Further upsets and disagreements are predictable.

The challenge is that the teen is precisely at risk of re-enacting online an emotional upset similar to that with which he is struggling offline. What then provides the emotional equilibrium and deescalates the conflict? 

If the parent has a relationship with the teenager, it is time for a heart-to-heart conversation—actually a series of them. Something is troubling the teen, and a grown up needs to find out what it is and take corrective action. Trouble at school with academics? With peers? If it is trouble at home—serious illness in the family, pending divorce, or financial setbacks—then these have to be surfaced, called out, and acknowledged. If the teenager is still unresponsive to parental overtures, then professional intervention may be required.

So much for the tough love. Now for the empathy. For children, especially of tender age, play is serious business. Group activities—whether play dates for younger children or organized clubs for older ones—activate and develop social skills, including empathy, whereas screens tend to isolate. That is so even if the screen is networked to include other players, who, however, do not necessarily show up as anything other than a function of the computer system. 

The child’s job is to develop her emotional and cognitive abilities through the productive imagination activated in play. In so far as computer games and explorations can promote play and be integrated into play, all well and good. Yet the screen is intrinsically limiting, appealing to the reproductive, repetitive imagination. Still, many kinds of play do not require a screen. 

For example, the graphics and images of the Magic School Bus are engaging, especially for children of tender age. The school bus becomes a space ship (or submarine or time machine and so on) voyaging out to explore the planets in the solar system, undersea world, or the inside of the human body.

However, every kid knows how to play at being a rocket ship or air plane without electronics: you stick out your arms, make a rocket motor noise, and run around the dining room table—to a neighboring solar system. The child’s entire body is fully engaged in motion. The child’s mind is fully engaged in fantasy. The child’s full self is active. The child’s mind is expanded. My only concern is that the child does not think that one needs an electronic device to fly. Make believe does the job very nicely, thank you. The productive imagination knows no limits of screen size. 

Do not underestimate the power of a large cardboard box such as one might use to deliver a washing machine or refrigerator. Cut a couple of holes in it, and it becomes a space ship or the bridge of the RMS Titanic. Given some crayons or felt tip pens, it can be decorated with the markings of NASA or a personally invented team. Cut another hole in it, and it becomes the castle in which Sleeping Beauty is a prisoner or it becomes the Spirit of Saint Louis making the first solo transatlantic flight. If the computer game promotes imagination and innovation, then take the game and act it out by playing “make believe” with an actual cardboard box that Carmen the Explorer can use as a motor boat to sail up the River Nile. Bon voyage!

How to understand the child’s and the teen’s relationships with technology?

How should parents understand the relationship that children have with their devices in terms of empathy or lack thereof? Just as a teenager would not be allowed to drive a car without lessons and passing a test, access to the fun features of social networking comes with responsibilities. In both cases, one can hurt oneself and others. I am not advocating licensing online users—which would be an unconstitutional restriction of free speech (we can’t go there now!). However, new privileges imply new responsibilities. For teenagers and emerging adults, “Don’t hurt yourself (or others)!” remains essential guidance at all times. 

The teenager needs to understand that there are some people “out there” in cyberspace who are not only not nice but dangerous in rather unpleasant ways. Do not click on communications that seem to arrive with authority from an unknown source or supposedly from a friend, but something just doesn’t seem right. What to do? Ask a grown up? Find someone who is computer savvy. The Help Desk should tell you: “Don’t click. Delete. If it’s important, they will pick up the phone or send a letter.” 

As with any privilege, teenagers test limits. Recommend the Golden Rule: Treat others as you yourself want to be treated online and off. If it seems mean, do not do it. That means no devaluing language, no being mean to those who may be struggling with family or school issues, and speaking with integrity. 

Kids immediately get it that “on the Internet no one knows if you are a dog.” Why is the creation of fantasy (i.e., fake) identities online any different from when kids used to brag, “I got more stuff from Santa Claus than you did!”? It is harder to get caught? Perhaps. Even if parents have their children’s passwords and access to their online resources, no one has time to monitor all the back-and-forth drama to which teenage life is prone. No one aspires to operate a mini-NSA (one of the spy agencies). Rather trust—but verify. Verify empathically. Spot check. Listen empathically for signs of upset or devaluing language. Watch for unexplained changes of mood and so on. 

I repeat: trust—but verify empathically. Manage by exception—and if an exception shows up, then express concern and ask for her or his side of the story. Give a warning that the unacceptable behavior must stop—if the child is the perpetrator—whether cyber bullying or cheating or spending hours gossiping. If the questionable behavior does not stop, then see above—pull the plug. Confiscate the electronic appliance for a specific time period and until a commitment is forthcoming to change the behavior. 

However, what if the electronic device is a smart phone and the child needs it to “check in” or coordinate pick up after school? If the family is affluent enough for the child to have a smart phone, then the family is affluent enough for the parent to swap out the smart phone for a flip phone or dumb device that enables a simple phone call. Take the SIM card out of the one and put it in the “dumb” phone. I wish there was an easier way, and, yes, it has come to that! Take away the teenager’s electricity, the ultimate form of “being grounded.” 

Now after this significant digression into cyberspace and its challenges, we take the conversation back up a level, returning to the work of expanding empathy in the world of authentic human interactions, of which none are more important than those with our children. Many adults and teenagers will benefit from these recommendations, but they are initially for children of tender age. 

Empathy lessons with children

(1) Lead by example: When parents demonstrate the ability to take the point of view of other people in solving problems, children learn by example. When parents demonstrate emotional drama and complaining, children learn by example. Be the role model that you want to see your children imitate. Be an example of the change you want to see.[iv]

(2) Speak in the first person: Use “I” as a way of establishing a firm boundary between self and other. “I don’t like it when you that word ‘x’. It hurts my feelings. Please stop it.” 

(3) Validate the feelings of other people: “Sally is feeling angry because you took her ball. Please give Sally her ball back and then pick another one to play with.” In other cases, validation does not necessarily mean agreement; but it means recognizing that the other person does indeed feel the way she feels. Validate by finding the grain of truth in the other person’s perception.

(4) Use play to get access to how other’s feel: Talk with children of tender age about feelings and empathy as you play. For example, you might have your child’s stuffed dog say that he does not want to take turns with his friend, the stuffed tiger. Then ask your child: “How do you think tiger feels? What should we tell this silly dog?” 

(5) Empathize with your child: As a parent you are a significant source of insight into what your child is experiencing. “Are you feeling sad that Sally cannot come over and play? That is a disappointment. She wanted to come; but she got sick and has to stay home. She can come next Friday. In the meantime, we can call your friend Jane and see what she is up to.” 

(6) Suggest how children can be empathic: “Let’s make Sally a ‘Get well soon card’ and send it to her in the mail.” 

(7) Validate your child’s upsetting emotions: Help the child understand what he or she is experiencing. Instead of immediately trying to substitute a positive emotion for anger, sadness, or fear, acknowledge that feelings can be upsetting. Identifying and validating upsetting feelings helps children to manage them: “You are really angry that I turned off the computer. I understand. You were playing your race car game. It’s okay to feel angry. When you are done being angry, you can join me fixing a sandwich for lunch.” Thus, children learn that feelings are important, but feelings do not have to run our lives. Feelings make us human and show us interesting things too. 

(8) Be responsible for one’s actions and the consequences: Instead of rushing to have the child of tender age say “I’m sorry” when he has hurt another child, hit the pause button. Many children do not even know the meaning of the words “I’m sorry.” Rather invite the child to look at the consequences for the other child’s feelings and well-being. “Jane, why do you think Sally is crying? What happened? She skinned her knee when you pushed her. Let’s see if she is okay. Let’s get her some first aid. Here is some petroleum jelly and a bandage.” Sometimes the consequences of our actions escape from us. Help the child make the connection between the action (pushing) and the consequences (a skinned knee and crying). 

(9) Be patient: Practice patience if a toddler or a child of tender age does not get it right the first time out. The parent may not even know whether or not the child of tender age literally understands what is being said. Be prepared to wait before judging and assessing based on ongoing, future behavior. Indeed throughout many of these examples, the cynical take away may be: “Hey, these parents seem to have time to relate to their children. Wouldn’t it be nice?” Empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it. 

(10) Teach the child to identify feelings and emotions: Provide guidance in how to recognize emotions in others. We try to teach a child, who fusses and bangs on his high chair because he wants more milk, to say the words: “More milk, please!” The words are not a description of his feeling of hunger or impatience; rather the words substitute for the expression of hunger or impatience. Likewise, the word “pain” is not a description of the sensation of throbbing when the child has jammed his toe, it is an articulation in human speech that expresses upset and provides an alternative to screaming.

We teach our child well to use sentences like “I hurt my toe!” as a substitute for crying in pain. Shouts of distress are the natural expression of pain, but are notoriously unhelpful in determining the particulars. We substitute expressions such as “my toe hurts” for natural expressions as tears or cries of pain. 

Given the nuances of human experiences and emotions, and the relative lack of explicit training in expressing them, it is not surprising that many people lack skill in identifying and communicating feelings and emotions.

Simultaneously, we work with children on recognizing such experiences in others. It is often easier to see that Sally is in distress, crying due to a scraped knee, than when that happens to the child himself (who is then preoccupied with his own “owie”). We work from both the outside in and from the inside out, and eventually meet in the middle, being able to communicate our experiences and emotions to others and ourselves. Meanwhile, when relationships have become weaponized, as in bullying then the issue has to be how to implement a disarmament plan. The issue is how to de-weaponize relationships. In the following and third post in this series, I directly address students, parents, and teachers/administrators with recommendations.

[i] September 18, 2021: “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal Investigation,” Jeff Horwitz, Keach Hagey, Newley Purnell, Sam Schechner, Emily Glazer: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039?mod=hp_lead_pos7 See also: Mike Isaac and Scott Shane. (2017). Facebook’s Russia-linked ads came in many disguises, The New York Times, Oct 2, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/technology/facebook-russia-ads-.html [checked on Oct 15, 2017].

[ii] I express my thanks to Firas Nakshabandi, MD, for conversations, ideas, and input on social networking and raising children. Very thoughtful; very empathic. 

[iii] Harry F. Harlow. (1958). The nature of love, American Psychologist, 13, 673– 685.

[iv] These recommendations, liberally adapted with acknowledgement and thanks to Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian. (2016). How to help your child develop empathy, Zero to Three: Early Connections Last a Lifetime: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/5-how-to-help-your-child-develop-empathy [checked on June 26, 2017].

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy versus bullying: The biggest bully in my life

[This is the first in a series on bullying and empathy.]

Listen to this podcast on Spotify (via Anchor): https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-versus-bullying-The-biggest-bully-in-my-life-e16v57j

The biggest bully in my life

The biggest bully in my life was a member of my family, my father. Most of the time, he was a nice guy, a good neighbor with a lot of social skills. However, he had a nasty temper that would go off unpredictably. 

Dad would lose his tempter in unpredictable times and unpredictable ways about three times a year, and then there was hell to pay. I would get hit, pushed, knocked down, and called devaluing names. Over a period of ten years, between seven and seventeen years old, that adds up. A bold statement of the obvious: it was unpleasant. 

Persons (and therapists) who later heard about my struggles would ask: “Did he drink?” No, he just had a nasty temper that got triggered by what he (and apparently only he) perceived as narcissistic slights or injuries. His bad behavior satisfied the criteria of bullying in that it was verbal and physical aggression, occurring repeatedly, and in a context where the individuals were significantly unequal in power. 

I have documented the recovery process without describing my father’s behavior explicitly as bullying in an earlier book, A Rumor of Empathy (2015). As part of my recovery, I even published a book chapter on empathy and the treatment of domestic violence.[i]

The new information disclosed here is that Dad’s behavior improved significantly when, at the age of seventeen, having finally grown up physically, I hit him back. Just one punch. Well placed, it gave him a bloody lip. A technical “knock out.” It had a calming effect on him, and I never got hit again. The fight was called in my favor, by mutual agreement. However, do not make too much of it. I was heading out the door and off to college, never to look back, with my academic scholarships.

Dad only bullied members of his own family. To the neighbors and his colleagues at work he was a friendly, even wonderful guy. In years of dynamic psychotherapy beginning when I escaped to college, I explored a process of treatment that included recovery from domestic violence. 

I now believe that the triggers to Dad’s bullying outbursts were some slight provocations—real or imagined—to his narcissism. This means that he was not your typical school yard bully. The school bully may “go off” if one bumps into him in the play ground, but the school yard bully is both strategic and opportunistic in his aggression. With my Dad, he seemed to lack emotional regulation once his sense of self was knocked out of kilter—dis-equilibrated—by a real or imagined narcissistic injury. Dad was at the effect of his rage. He did not seem to be having fun. The people around him were definitely not having fun. 

Dad had a narrative about teaching me a lesson as he lashed out and described me with devaluing names. This was a self-serving narrative at best. Whatever distorted lessons might have been intended, they were not empathy lessons. His bad behavior was in the service of venting his emotions and restoring his own equilibrium. Everyone else around him was dis-equilibrated. As a boy, I was trying not to cry any more in order not to be given more of “something to cry about.” 

In those days, a college student on summer vacation could still get a relatively well paying job in a factory or working construction, and I never returned home. Dad and I patched things up years later. However, the years of misbehavior had taken their toll. There was neither a sentimental reconciliation nor a truth and reconciliation commission to frame the encounter between perpetrator and survivor. Dad never thought of asking for forgiveness and, near as I could tell, he never told the truth about how violently he had behaved. It seemed not to occur to him. 

Forgiveness is over-rated, thought I, at the time; though I eventually came to endorse Desmond Tutu’s approach and bought Tutu’s book based on its title alone—No Future Without Forgiveness. It is about a formal truth and reconciliation commission. The perpetrators have to stand up, face the survivor(s), and tell the truth about what they did to the victims (who did not survive) and to the survivors (who did) in such a way that they agree it is the truth. The perpetrators have to acknowledge what happened in such a way that the survivors recognize it. The process creates a set up—provides a clearing—to build a case for forgiveness. The survivor then gets to say whether he or she accepts the representation of what happened and whether the survivor chooses to grant forgiveness.[ii]

Self-forgiveness is an entirely different matter. Sometimes the hasty forgiving of others is a clumsy way for survivors to get to self-forgiveness, which is a worthy goal. The survivor may usefully forgive himself for incorporating the devaluing descriptions of the bully into the survivor’s low self-esteem. This is an important step, which, speaking personally, years of therapy helped me to attain. The benefit is to empower the survivor to put the past back in the past and create a clearing for positive possibilities going forward into the future.

In comparison to Dad, any school bullies that I encountered were “boy scouts” (with apologies to the Boy Scouts). Any bullies that I encountered at school were more like jumping in reverse back from the fire into the relative coolness of the frying pan. They were physically bigger, but I had other sources of power including humor, a rapier wit, a sharp tongue, and, most importantly, an ability to run amazingly fast over short distances. It worked well enough. 

I was still physically small in middle school; and I had potential as a target of bullying. However, I would speak out of turn in class, playing the class clown, so the tough kids were amused, even entertained. 

The tough guys saw that I spoke truth to power—or at least was not afraid to get an occasional punishment exercise from the teacher for trying to be funny. 

I gained a certain kind of reputation—not exactly popular, unless you consider the notorious outlaw Jesse James to have been popular. Think of “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters at the post office. So the tough kids—and there definitely were some in my pubic middle school—didn’t mess with me. By the time I got to high school proper, I was still below average in size for my age, but it was a private, all boys school. That was the main challenge.

Virtually without exception every kid at my high school was so afraid of the teachers, who were mostly Jesuits, that even the meanest of one’s fellow students seemed like an alter boy in comparison. There was no talking in the corridors between classes; and if one did talk, a teacher, who had been lurking quietly behind you out of sight, would suddenly emerge and bang your head against the lockers, which lined the hallways, making a formidable hollow sound. The locker, not the head, that is. 

Most classes in my high school would begin with the Our Father (the prayer)—nothing wrong with that—but you knew that The Lord—along with big brother (those were the Jesuits who were not formally ordained as priests)—were watching. If the tactics were to put the fear of The Lord into everyone’s head, creating an atmosphere similar to boot camp in the armed forces, then it seemed to have worked. This raises the delicate question whether the teachers were actually the bullies; and I am sorry to report that, yes, some were. 

Sadly, it was not empathy but a common oppressor (the teachers) that helped to build solidarity among the student body. I hasten to add that the majority of the teachers were humane and caring, indeed many were talented educators, creative and engaging. Many had a sense of humor, which sometimes extended to sadistic hijinks. Most would simply give one a week’s worth of detention for daring to talk out of turn. 

The boot camp atmosphere had a tendency to displace the bullying from school itself onto the school bus or the athletic field. I did see a couple of kids bullied on the school bus, and I am ashamed to say, I was not enough in touch with my courage to intervene. Indeed at one point a couple of the mean boys seemed to notice me, and hurled a couple of insults in my direction. I was anticipating a rough time; but then, without explanation, the bus route was changed, and the bullies simply disappeared—to another bus. 

Thinking back, I now believe that the rambunctious kids were motivated by the draconian atmosphere in the school to express their extra adolescent energies by participating in sports (which was perhaps the intention); or going home and raiding their well-to-do parents well-stocked liquor cabinets (not an option for me—Dad did not drink, he was just a bully); or seeking solace for their lack of social skills in their studies. The last was my favored approach. I did find someone to hang out with in the cafeteria—the food was so unpalatable that I further stunted my growth by not eating lunch for four years, though I ended up being an average height. 

After reviewing the research on bullying in depth, I have reached the conclusion that if kids have enough time for interpersonal drama and conflict, the latter often as practice for out-and-out bullying, then the kids have too much time on their hands. They are not nearly busy enough. They would benefit from more homework and extra-curricular activities. Note, however, that this implies the school has the resources to offer the extra-curricular activities, which is not always the case. Unlike Hollywood films of the depression era with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, many schools do not have the resources or organizational skills to say “Hey, let’s put on a play to raise money for the orphanage!” The kids are already the “orphans.” 

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying. Where empathy lives, bullying is rare. Where empathy lives, bullying has no home. 

In environments where empathy is taught and practiced, bullying does not get traction. Situations in which empathy is valued are situations in which bullying is devalued. One might say exactly the same thing about common courtesy. 

In communities—whether middle school or high school or, for that matter, the US Armed Forces—where common courtesy gives way to disrespect in relationships, bullying expands and spreads; but where common courtesy holds sway in relationships, bullies head for the exit or at least hold their (lack of) peace. 

The point? Empathy and courtesy have in common a careful treatment of boundaries in relationships. What empathy and common courtesy share is recognition and respect for the boundaries between individuals in relationships. 

Another bold statement of the obvious: every bulling remark is a breakdown of courtesy—and of empathy. Every bullying gesture is some kind of a boundary violation. We have to be careful with words like “every,” “all,” or “never,” but in this instance they fit. “Please” and “thank you” and requesting permission are discarded. Pushing, shoving, and devaluing language are front and center. 

Empathy is about moving back and forth across the boundary between self and other in relating to other persons, and doing so in such a way that the boundary is treated with integrity. In contrast, in bullying, the boundary between persons is violated, and, so are the space and integrity of the target of the bullying. In bullying, the boundary between persons is crushed, and so is the emotional integrity of the intended target. 

The response of empathy to bullying is to engage in a process of reestablishing the boundary between persons in such a way that people are left authentic and whole. As we shall see, this is different than being nice or even trying to induce empathy in the bully.

Bullying defined

Before we say any more—and there is a lot more to be said—let us define our terms. We rely on the definition provided by the pioneer of bullying research, Dan Olweus, whose ground breaking studies in his homeland, Sweden (and Norway), have provided a rich source of further research.[iii] Olweus was thorough in his research interviewing some 1,000 children as well as their teachers and parents. He administered projective imaging tests (the “ink blot” Rorschach) to those he had identified as bullies or the targets of bullying. 

Olweus defines bullying as (1) aggression (either verbal or physical abuse) towards a person; (2) that occurs towards the person more than once over time; and (3) is between persons of unequal power (whether physical or social rank or both). [iv] The special thing about bullying is that kids do it especially when the targets seem helpless. Kicking someone when they are down is precisely an identifying feature of bullying. 

According to Olweus, what is most distressing about bullying to its targets is repeated domination to inflect pain. If the aggression happens only one time, it is aggression; and that is not good; but it is not bullying. If the people are of equal power or almost equal power, then the behavior is conflict, drama, or a fight, not bullying. 

The distinction between bullying and drama (conflict) is not always easy to determine, so look at physical size (height and weight), formal rank in school or professional status, and job roles. When someone who has power, whether formal or physical, over another is treating the other in such as way as to violate their dignity, that is a strong candidate for bullying. 

Olweus found that about 5% of the boys in his studies were bullies and about 5% were the targets of bullying, “whipping boys” as Olweus called them. 

What the latter had in common was they were physically weaker and anxious. Olweus studied only boys. The discovery of the “mean girl” phenomena still lay in the future. We now know that among girls, physical strength is less of a factor, and girls  have been known to bully by indirect means. 

When relationships become weaponized

When cruelty relies on what one knows about the other person or can plausibly attribute to them, then it is as if the relationship itself becomes weaponized. Insults, injuries, slights, discourtesies, racial and ethnic slurs, are used to deliver pain and suffering to the target. 

Since the bullying is a boundary violation, the way to reestablish empathy and order (where “order” means common courtesy) is to reestablish the boundary between persons. 

A word of caution upfront. Let’s say one is the adult hall prefect at a high school, and an act of bullying is perpetrated in full view in one’s presence. It is tempting to attempt to induce empathy in the bully by asking: “How would you feel if that (aggression) were done to you?” Ultimately such an intervention may be useful, however, not here. If Jack is calling Jill “Fatso!” it is precisely to make her feel bad; it is likely that he knows it; and that is exactly why he is doing it. 

One says to Jack in a loud voice: “Stop! I don’t like what you are doing.” Or “That behavior is unacceptable. Cut it out!” Jack replies: “But Jill doesn’t mind.” An obvious lie—or maybe Jill is so depressed that, in the moment, she is just numb. One clarifies: “I don’t care how Jill feels—I don’t like it. We do not talk to our fellow students that way. It is disrespectful.” Or words to that effect. 

There are numerous scenarios here. If kids are whispering in the presence of another kid such that the target is supposed to imagine devaluing things are being said, the response is similar: “It is impolite to whisper in the presence of others—stop it—it is discourteous” (said in a loud, authoritative voice). The point is to reestablish the boundary in the relatedness, so that even if people do not want to be empathic, they can at least be courteous. It may sound paradoxical, but that is the most empathic response one can provide. 

If the relationship between the bully and the intended target includes hurling insults, then the bystander establishes a “no fly zone” in one’s presence. The metaphor is telling. Stop the insults from flying around. Shoot them down. 

The bullying approach to relating is de-weaponized—at least in one’s presence. The bully may also be better off, at least indirectly, since he (or she) may be trying to use bullying to regulate his own de-regulated emotions. Think of the intervention as regulating the dis-regulated emotions that the bully is experiencing, but which, if only the bully had some interpersonal skills, he would be able to regulate for himself. While there is no silver bullet here, the intervention itself provides the regulation—in the form of a firm boundary to help the bully contain himself and regain an emotional composure without hurting anyone. 

If we use empathy as a method of data gathering about bullies, we may be surprised to learn that bullies are a diverse group of people:[v]

(1) The stereotypical bully: The stereotype really does capture features of the real world. Think of Bill Sikes (see Figure 5) from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Bill Sikes beats his dog and his girl friend. The relationships of power are one-sided and physical violence is prominent. 

Other examples of classic bullies include Carrie’s schoolmates in the revenge movie of the same name; Nelson in the Simpsons; Malfoy in Harry Potter.

One person who reports in great detail on bullying, Emily Bazelon, calls the stereotypical bullies “thugs in training.”[vi] These bullies rely on superior physical strength. They trip you in the corridor, and steal your lunch. They exemplify the descriptions that bullies do poorly academically (except perhaps for Malfoy, who is all the more sinister for being smart and psychopathic). These bullies habitually cause conflict with others, Bazelon reports, and are 4 times more likely to become criminals. 

Bill Sikes bullying his dog in Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Figure 5: Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, bullying his dog

According to Olweus, to whom Bazelon is indebted for the definition of bullying, 60% of childhood bullies have at least one conviction from breaking the law; 35% have three or more encounters with the police. These are the kids who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorder such as cruelty to animals, damage to property, casual disrespect in addressing others—along with bullying behavior. 

Many of these kids, stereotypical bullies, feel miserable, and, are attempting to regulate their disregulated emotions by making others suffer. Yet these bullies would not necessarily agree or endorse the judgment that they are unhappy. This is because they are out of touch with their feelings. They would have to be taught how to feel their feelings prior to asking them, hypothetically, how they would feel if something similar was done to them. If they are out of touch with their own feelings, it is likely that they are unable to get in touch with the feeling of others. They are out of touch with the grain of empathy, which we generously attribute to them. 

In most bullies, the bully’s conscience developmentally lags behind his age cohort. That is especially the case with these individuals. Even if they have a capacity for empathy, empathy is not effective in appealing to their conscience. The conscience is stunted or they dismiss its influence. They may have a trace or sense of empathy, even though undeveloped, but it is often misused to increase the suffering of the targets. 

Instead of tactically trying to induce empathy, external surveillance and behavioral incentives are likely to be most effective in reducing their bullying behavior. If they could find a positive role model to admire and imitate—someone who is not a member of a street gang or “bad boy” rap star—then they could get guidance from him or her. Admiration for a role model would allow the person to acquire ideals and ambitions, contributing to their integration into the community. It just might save their lives. 

(2) The clueless bully: The aggression of this kind of bully does plenty of damage. Yet, at another level, these bullies just don’t get it. He may be socially awkward, or even fall on the autistic spectrum. One kid who fell into this group called his targets “stupid.” He hurt the feelings of many, and, made some kids cry; but in the process he became extremely unpopular. If he thought bullying was a way to get ahead with his peers, it didn’t work. His status plummeted. 

Our empathy suggests that the empty wagon makes the most noise, and this kind of bully is one of those. He is not filled with sadism and malice, but definitely lacking social skills. This is small consolation to those whose days he wrecked, yet it does give one pause. This is the kind of bullying for which the adult’s advice to “fight back” makes the most sense. This is not easy to do. Taking “assertiveness training” or “boxing lessons” assumes the target of bullying lacks skill in one of these areas, and has incentive to develop it. 

The target has been selected precisely because this is someone who does not like to fight. The problem is that prior to assertiveness training, and so on, most targets of bullying are unable to act effectively on their own behalf—or assertively. Lack of experience and skill in dealing with hostility as well as out-and-out fear rarely improve the judgment of the person who is the target of bullying. 

The target of bullying ends up being a deer in the headlights when it comes to fighting. When the power equation is out of balance and a hostile environment exists due to physical size or social conditions (e.g., apartheid (“legal” segregation), anti-Semitism, etc.), fighting back can become a suicidal gesture, literally if not emotionally. Rarely does any benefit exist in getting into a back-and-forth with the bully. 

Still, this is precisely the scenario where the possibility of the would-be victim fighting back in self defense makes the most sense. In many bullying scenarios one may need to beat a tactical retreat or call for backup prior to engaging, since the power equation is so unfavorable. However, in this case, the idea of attempting to set one’s own boundaries by pushing back and confronting the clueless bully is potentially useful and self-empowering. No guarantees, but it might work. 

(3) The bully who is also a target: These bullies are vulnerable to peer pressure. They succumb to peer pressure to abuse others. Nor are they good at protecting themselves from bullying. Unlike the first group, who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorders (which used to be called “juvenile delinquency”), these kids do not feel okay about themselves. They do not subscribe to the philosopher Socrates’ maxim that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. These kids experience the worst of both worlds, but it feels less bad to bully than to be bullied. 

These bullies are relatively more in touch with their feelings than the first two groups, and here is a chance that an “empathy induction” might bear fruit. “How would you feel if this were done to you?” These kids are depressed or anxious or both. They experience a conflict between the fear of being bullied and the “easy way out” of succumbing to peer pressure and becoming a bully. 

Instead of intervening with a suspension from school for the bully, punishment has to be supplemented with treatment, rehabilitation, or guidance. With treatment such as counseling or therapy a possibility exists of improving the behavior once the student returns to the school community after the suspension. A continuum of interventions from online training to individual counseling to working with parents can produce positive outcomes. 

(4) The bully who is a “popular” kid: These individuals score high on social skills. They are good at reading the emotions of others. They have empathy skills, though often they lack the basic foundation of authenticity and integrity needed to use the skills to benefit others or build community. They find relating to other people is relatively easy, and they know how to say just the right things to make friends or placate the grown ups. If the reader is expecting me to say that they are secretly insecure or wracked by self-doubt, that is simply not so. On the contrary, these kids are popular and mostly happy with their lives. Often their parents are well off. The kids get gear and stuff. Yet something is amiss and missing. 

Here bullying occurs as a play for power and social status. A pecking hierarchy exists in which the most popular kid gets a minion to perpetrate the “dirty work,” the bullying. This is the Machiavellian moment. It is best for the Prince—I mean, bully—to be loved; but it is essential to be feared. Likewise for the Princess. When perpetrating wrong doing, one should nevertheless be perceived as being gracious and generous. What is the point of having power or status unless one is able to exercise it? 

Boys provide numerous examples of popular kids who can be mean—see McFly in the Back to the Future series of films—but this is where “mean girls” come into their own.[vii]

When relationships get “weaponized,” the discussion cuts across gender lines, though girls have provided the “poster child” for meanness in the popular press. While boys bully both boys and girls, girls mostly bully girls, bringing a sublimated aggression to the act. 

Up until the age of four, girls grab toys, hit, push, play rough, and shout as much as boys do. At some point, social expectations from parents, extended family, biological programming, school teachers, and so on, drive such behavior underground. 

Conforming to community standards, whether helpful or hurtful, about “sugar and spice and everything nice” requires that girls become stealthy in their aggression. Fisticuffs are out. Queen Bees are in. One definition of a “Queen Bee” is a popular girl, who collects various “minions” around her. The minions, in turn, conform to her expectations in behavior, dress, language, and bullying. 

Girls use threats, blackmail, gossip, rumors, attacking reputations, whispering in provocative ways, the silent treatment, or non-verbal gesturing. Opening up in relationships can leave one vulnerable to aggression from those one has trusted. Following the bad example of the grown ups, cliques of kids will “vote someone off the island.” Nor is it progress that, in some subcultures, girls are becoming almost as ready to throw a punch as the boys. 

This is where empathy may be misused to increase the misery of the target of bullying. Social skills enable the would-be bully to “get inside the heads” of their intended targets to inflict the maximum upset. 

One can find many, diverse examples in which the bully takes the perspective of the intended target, thinks about what would be most shaming or hurtful, and goes about implementing it. The bully has a sense of what the target is experiencing through a refined empathic receptivity. 

What one cannot find is an example in which calling someone devaluing names or giving them “the silent treatment” is an example of empathic responsiveness. While the point is controversial, I am calling this out as a breakdown, indeed a “pathology,” of empathic responsiveness. 

The description of empathy is crucial here. For advocates of empathy as a fundamentally “pro social” attitude, simply “getting” someone else’s feelings and perspective and then using this verbally to bully them isn’t really empathy. An empathic individual would recognize and anticipate the potential hurt, and, therefore, would not respond to the other person in a devaluing way.

The empathy lessons developed in this work takes account of the possibility that empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, and empathic interpretation can be misused to hurt people. But empathy without empathic responsiveness falls short of the definition of full functioning empathy. Such an approach fails and breaks down when empathic responsiveness is tested. One does not give back to the other person that person’s own experience in such a way that he recognizes it as his own. Instead one bullies the other. So empathy must be informed by one’s good upbringing and ethics not to misuse empathic responsiveness to hurt others. 

In conclusion, the recommendation and response of empathy to bullying – and in every case – is to set limits, establish boundaries, and get one’s power back in declining to take the bait of provocative gestures. Self-defense is always appropriate is one is the target of aggression, and so is retreating in the face of disproportionate unfavorable odds.

The challenges is to contain and disarming bullying without becoming an even bigger bully than the bully against whom one is struggling. The proposal is NOT to use empathy to get in touch with the bully’s suffering. Many bullies enjoy misbehaving and they get off on the conflict and making others suffer. Rather the recommendation is to use top down, cognitive empathy to put oneself in the place of there other person (the bully) in order to understand what might be motivating him so that one can deflect, defuse, or deescalate (including implementing a tactical retreat). 

Even if the bully is the boss at work or members of the local police force who have a monopoly on violence, the recommendation is still the same: set boundaries, establish limits, and try to defuse the situation. Note well: this is not a suicide mission – one may have to retreat, call for backup, and find other methods of restoring boundaries and integrity such as civil disobedience, finding powerful allies, documenting and escalating to sympathetic authorities in the establishment (if there are any), or seeking a personal solution in another context. The devil – and the empathy – is in the details and in further podcasts in this series on empathy and bullying, additional guidance will be provided. 


Notes

[i] Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery in Psycho analysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge: 141–194.

[ii] “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” requires telling the truth about what happened and what one made it mean. In asking forgiveness one is required to say for what one is asking forgiveness. I ask: If the perpetrator does not think to ask forgiveness is one obligated to make an unsolicited offer? Forgiveness is a possibility and a recommendation, not an entitlement? 

[iii] Dan Olweus. (1973/1993). Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Wiley/Blackwell. 

[iv] Ibid. 

[v] Emily Bazelon. (2012). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House. This chapter relies significantly on Bazelon’s journalistic synthesis of the literature and her incisive interviews; see also James Garbarino and Ellen deLara, (2002), And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence. New York: the Free Press (Simon and Shuster).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Rachel Simmons. (2002). Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. New York: Harvest (Harcourt). 

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy as presence – online and in shared physical space

Review: Gillian Isaacs Russell, (2015), Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books: 206 pp.

Granted in-person physical meetings are impossible when the health risks become prohibitive, that is no longer the case (Q3 2021), at least temporarily. Therefore, the debate resumes and continues about the trade-offs, advantages and disadvantages, of online telecommunication (“Zoom”) mediated therapy sessions versus physical in-person work.[1]

Gillian Isaacs Russell’s book in a powerful and important counterforce to trending technological optimism that online therapy is the wave of the present and of the future. This optimism compels those of us who are digital immigrants to align with digital natives in privileging screen relations over physical presence in the same space in engaging in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. By definition, “digital immigrants” were educated prior to the explosion of the Internet (and world wide web on) or about the year 1999 and “digital natives” came up with “online everything” such as pouches for their smart phones in their parents’ baby strollers. 

The cyber rush to judgment is slowed if not stopped in this hard-hitting critique of online screen relations. Isaacs Russell wisely asserts skepticism that meeting online (even in a pandemic) and meeting physically in person are “the same.” One may eventually go ahead with online therapy in many situations (especially in a pandemic), but if you are hearing “they are both the same” that is reason for a good healthy skepticism that the purveyor of the online approach is being straight with you. One also needs to be skeptical as online therapy starts out being “better than nothing” only quickly to slide in the direction of “better than anything.” As usual, the devil – and the transference – is in the details, and Isaacs Russell provides insight in abundance to the complex issues. 

Speaking personally, in my own work on empathy, published in 2015, the same year as Isaacs Russell’s book, my Preface concludes with the ontological definition of empathy as “being in the presence of another human being without anything else added” – anything else such as judgment, evaluation, memory, desire, hostility, and the many factors that make us unavailable to be in relationship (Agosta 2015; see also 2010). Though Isaacs Russell uses the word “empathy” in a specific psychological sense, I would argue that her work on “presence” is consistent with and contributes to an enlarged sense of empathic relatedness that builds community.   

Isaacs Russell has interview psychoanalysts, clients (clients), over several years and reports in a semi-ethnographical style on the trade-offs between online mediated relations and those which occur in the same physical space, such as a therapist’s consulting room. Her arguments and narratives are nuanced, charitable, and multi-dimensional. The reader learns much about the process of dynamic therapy regardless of the framework. 

What she does not say, but might usefully have called out, is that the imperative is to keep the treatment conversation going, whether online or physically present in person. When someone I am meeting with in-person asks for an online session, after controlling for factors such as illness of a child at home or authentic emergencies, then my countertransference may usefully consider the client’s resistance to something (= x) is showing up. In contrast, when an online client asks to come into the office, one may usefully acknowledge that the individual is deepening his commitment to the work. In neither case is this the truth with a capital “T,” but a further tool and distinction for interpretation and possibility in the treatment process. 

Isaacs Russell makes the point (and I hasten to add) that no necessary correlation exists between the (digital) generation divide and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for online screen relations of baby boomers versus millennial or gen-Xers. Some digital immigrants are enthusiastic about online therapy, whether for authentic professional reasons, including economic ones, or to prove how “with it” they are, and growing numbers of digital natives are becoming increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of online relations, craving physical presence without necessarily being able to articulate what is missing. 

Isaacs Russell provides an informative and wide-ranging briefing on developments in baby watching (child development research). Child development is a “hands on” process of physically relating to another emerging human being. Her point (among many) is that we humans are so fundamentally embodied that in some deep sense we are out of our element in reducing the three dimensional, heat generating, smell-broadcasting mammalian body to a cold two-dimensional video image. Though she does not do so, Isaacs Russell might usefully have quoted Wittgenstein: The human body is the best picture of the soul (1950: 178e (PPF iv: 25)). As the celebrity neuroscientist A. Damasio notes: [We need] “the mind fully embodied not merely embrained.” What then becomes of the relatedness when the body becomes a “head shot” from the shoulders up on a screen?  

The answer is to be found in the dynamics of presence. Key term: presence. Physical presence becomes tele-presence and the debate is about what is lost and (perhaps) what is gained in going online. The overall assessment of Isaacs Russell is that, not withstanding convenience and the abolition of distance, more is lost therapeutically than gained. 

Although Isaacs Russell does not cite Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty loom large in her account of the elements of presence. Much of what Isaacs Russell says can be redescribed as a phenomenology of online presence, including the things that are missing such as smell, the ability to physically touch, aspects of depth perception, and the privileging of “on off” moments over against gradual analogical transitions. The above-cited philosophers were, of course, writing when the emerging, innovative, disruptive technology was the telephone, and Heidegger himself went “off the grid” physically (and morally!) with his semi-peasant hut in the Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany. But even though they never heard of a mirror neuron, the distinctions these thinkers lay down about relatedness are fundamental for work in communications and human understanding.

Isaacs Russell gives the reader a generous tutorial in breakthrough developments in neuroscience, including the discovery or mirror neurons in Macaque monkeys and a neurologically-based mirroring systems in humans, which account for key aspects of empathy, intersubjectivity, and human social-psychological relatedness. 

Since this is not a softball review, I must inquire, following detailed descriptions of embodied cognition, the primacy of movement in empathic relatedness, faces as emotional hot spots (which nevertheless incorporate full-bodied clues as to the exact emotion), kinesthetic and proprioceptive feedback: do we need a psychoanalysis or rather do we need an aerobics class (okay, at least a class in Tai Chi, moving meditation)? The point is that both participants may indeed “forget” about the computer-mediated relation, but the unconscious does not. The (unconscious) transference is also to the technology and needs to be engaged, interpreted as such. Isaacs Russell provides the distinctions to do so, which is what makes her contribution so valuable, even if one disagrees with her ultimate skepticism that online is the wave of the future. 

Amid many useful distinction and nuances, as noted above, the key-differentiating variable for Isaacs Russell is presence. She connects this closely to D. W. Winnicott’s seminal work on enabling the client to recover the ability to “go on being” in integrity and individuality, even in the presence of another person. The model for this therapeutic process is the young child’s breakthrough in individuality as the child is able to be alone (e.g., playing) in the presence of the mother (or care-taker). 

This process of becoming an individual being gets operationalized and tested when the client tries to destroy the therapist and the therapist [demonstrates that s/he] survives. Here “destroy” is a technical term, though it does indeed invoke hatred and the possibility of aggression. The paradigm case is that the client expresses hostility – even hatred – towards the therapist and the therapist does not retaliate. The therapist “takes it,” metabolizes the aggression and responds appropriately setting an empathic boundary in the relationship. This advances the treatment, expanding the integrity, autonomy, and individuality [mostly] of the client. 

According to Isaacs Russell, this is the key moment – the differentiator: “In ‘screen relations’, the client can never really test the analyst’s capacity to survive” (p. 37). 

Why not? Isaacs Russell quotes an astute client (in so many words) that without being in the same shared space the potential for the client or therapist “to kiss or kick” the other is missing. The potential for physical desire or aggression has been short circuited. Since the treatment must engage with these variables, the treatment is stymied and deprived of essential enriching possibilities of transformation.

Isaacs Russell is adamant that the ability of the therapist to survive, in Winnicott’s sense, cannot be test in the online context. If it could be significantly tested, then much of what she writes about the inadequacies of online presence would be invalidated or at least significantly reduced in scope. As noted, Isaacs Russell makes much of the potential to “kiss or kick” the other person in the same physical space; and it is true that such acting out rarely occurs but what is needed is the potential for its occurring. 

However, what has been overlooked is such acting out bodily is not the only way of testing the separation and survival of the therapist. Many examples exist in which the client tests the limits by means of a speech act – seductive or aggressive language. Speech is physical and would not occur with the sound waves impacting the biology of the ear. This is not merely a technical point. Tone of voice, rhythm, and timing are physically available. 

The distinction “speech act” is one that is critical path in any discussion of the talking cure, even if the latter is understood in an enlarged sense to be the encounter of two embodied (not merely “embrained”) talkers and listeners. Speech act theory includes pragmatics that allow for the illocutionary and perlocutionary force of speech.  Speech does not merely describe things – it performs things, building connections and relations. People get other people to do things – change the physical environment – by speaking to them: close the door! Pick up the kids at soccer! Persons invested with certain kinds of conventional authority, powerfully change relationships and other aspects of the human world. For example: “I now pronounce you man and wife” spoken by the officiating authority at the wedding. This is a new reality – in so many ways. The empathic response of the therapist, spoken to the struggling client, is another such example. 

Language is powerful, and we humans both wound and heal through our words. Heidegger, who is usefully quoted by Isaacs Russell as inspiring the work of Merleau-Ponty regarding physical spatial dynamics also noted, “Language is the house of being.” That is, presence – physical, mental, poetical, historical – emerge in the conversation that we have individually and in community in language.  

Recall that Winnicott’s point is that when the client acts out – in this case verbally – the therapist demonstrates his survival skill by not retaliating. Thus, s/he remains in integrity as a “good enough” partner in empathic relatedness and becomes independent. This likewise rebounds to the expanding integrity and independence of the client. 

If the therapist does retaliate – say by moralizing or withdrawing or blaming or becoming aggressive or seductive – then the possibility of treatment in the relationship is short-circuited. Absent significant repair, the relationship ends, even if the conversation continues in an impasse for awhile longer. 

Speaking personally, and omitting confidential details, I recall an instance online where, being clumsy with a relatively new online client, who was vulnerable in a way that I did not appreciate, I triggered a challenge to my survival. I triggered a combination of panic, retraumatizing flashback, and panic, in the client that resulted in an extended and seemingly automatic combination of verbal abuse. It threatened me professionally and the safety of the client such that I seriously thought of sending emergency services to the client’s address. The screen is always the screen, in this case, but the screen was no protection against the impact of the hate. It is a further question whether the same thing might have happened if my clumsiness had occurred in person. Perhaps the client would have kept quiet and never returned. We will never know. 

So while the client might not effectively have been able to throw a pencil at me (to use Isaacs Russell’s example), the individual would have been able to inflict self-harm in a way that would do more damage to me than a kick in the shins (another Isaacs Russell example). Never underestimate the ability of clients to innovate in acting out around the constraints of an apparently firm therapeutic framework. 

The good news is that, without making any commitments I couldn’t keep, by a combination of soothing statements, placating statements, self-depreciating humor, apologetic words, and deescalating inquires and suggestions, I kept my wits about me, and was able to restore the integrity of the therapeutic process. S/he agreed to continue the conversation. I survived and so did the relationship. It actually was a breakthrough, and, without everything being wonderful, the client demonstrated capabilities that had not previously had going forward. 

Thus, the counter-example: Survival was tested online, not by physically throwing a pencil, but in reciprocal speech acts and the enactment of presence in speech, a physical media not to be underestimated. One learns that the environment is safe when safety breaks down. To Isaacs Russell’s point, the potential for non-survival also includes non-survival as an actual enactment and outcome – and neither online nor physical presence has a privilege in that regard. 

In a real world emergency – a credible threat of self-harm – there is a difference between sending emergency services to the client location and summoning them to one’s own office. But perhaps not that much. The point about survival, safety, and containment (different but overlapping issues) and their respective breakdowns is the same. Many distinctions exist between an online and physical encounter, but the risk of survival or non-survival occurs in each context. 

One may argue back that the risk of a meltdown is less extreme in the warm and cozy confines of one’s own office, but maybe you never met a borderline client like this particular one or a client as suspicious or deeply disturbed. If the client takes out a box knife on camera and starts to carve up her or his inner thigh (or threatens to do so), one may fervently wish that s/he kicked one in the shins instead.

Thus, in answer to the potential for “kicking or kissing,” the answer is direct: Oh, yes the client can – can indeed test the capacity to survive and do so online. The example “kiss or kick” is not a bad example, but many counter-examples exist that provide useful evidence to the contrary as cited above. 

Positively expressed, plenty of evidence is available that the analyst’s survival can indeed be tested in an online session and s/he may survive or not. Ultimately even “kiss and kick” can be enacted as verbal abuse on line, perpetrating boundary violations with hostility or seduction that can be grave and survival threatening, either in imagination or reality, including the survival of the therapist as a professional and the therapy itself. 

To give the devil his (or her) due, it is true that there are some cases that are decidedly unsuited for an online engagement. Marion Milner engaged in a celebrated analysis of a deeply disturbed and regressed client, in which the client was silent for long periods of time.[2] The client finally was able to recover significant aspects of her humanity in producing hundreds of drawings and sketches that expressed a therapeutic process of pre-verbal recovery. It is true that, though these were visual artifacts, and presumably might have been communicated remotely, the client herself was already so “remote” from reality that another layer of virtuality was not going to work (nor was it possible mid-20th century).

Heinz Kohut has a celebrated example that he presented in an lecture made a few days before his death. Kohut was working with a deeply regressed and suicidal client (client) in years gone by. In a desperate moment, Kohut offered to let the client, lying on the couch behind which he was sitting in his customary straight-backed wooden chair, hold two of the fingers of his hand. The point of this potentially life saving (and boundary testing) gesture was Kohut’s association to the client’s desperate grasp with her hand being like that of a toothless infant sucking on a nipple. An empty nipple or a life giving one? Powerful stuff, which of course, would never be possible online. Far be it for me to be the voice of reality, nevertheless, these two cases of Milner and Kohut are outliers, albeit deeply moving one, that are completely consistent with the sensitive and dynamically informed application of online analysis and dynamic therapy.[3]

Though the uses of extended moments of online silence should not be underestimated or dismissed, Milner’s and Kohut’s cases were ones that privileged physical presence. It in no way refutes the power or potential of online engagement. What are missing are criteria for telling the difference. No easy answers here but the rule of thumb is something like: do whatever is going to further the treatment in the proper professional sense of the words. What is going to sustain and advance the conversation for possibility in the face of the client’s stuckness? Do that. Winnicott has been mentioned frequently, and rightly so. He spoke of the “good enough” mother. Here we have the “good enough” therapeutic framework including the online one. 

Another part of the narrative that was particularly engaging was Isaacs Russell’s discussion of ongoing online psychoanalytic training with the colleagues in China. There are few psychoanalysts in China, so in addition to significant culture and language challenges, such remote work would not be possible without online analytic therapy sessions and supervision. The nearly unanimous consensus is this is valuable work worth doing. The equally unanimous consensus, about which one may usefully be skeptical, is that this work is “functionally equivalent” or in other ways “just the same as” work done physically in person. 

The author provides examples, whether from the Chinese colleagues or other contexts is not clear, where neutral observers are asked to evaluate transcripts of sessions where the online versus physical feature and descriptive details have been masked. The result? They can’t tell them apart. What more do we need to say?

Apparently much more. With dynamic psychotherapy and related forms of talk therapy if you can tell the difference between an online and an in person meeting (other than comments about traffic or Internet connections), then you are probably doing it wrong or there is some breakdown that interferes with the process (in either case). Abstinence is easier online – no hugs. But if we are talking boundary violations, maybe some people – exhibitionists? – are tempted to take off their clothes on camera. (This has not happened to me – yet.) Anonymity – just as one’s office has clues as to one’s personal life, so too does the background on camera. Neutrality – being on camera suddenly causes one to adopt a point of view on social media or politics or nutrition or economics or education? Perhaps but I am not seeing it. 

However, what Isaacs Russell does not discuss is the “other” transcript – the unwritten one, which is only available as a thought-experiment. There is another transcript different than the verbatim account of what was said or even what a web cam could record. It is a transcript that is just as important as the recoding of the conversation, and why verbatim recordings of the conversation are less useful than one might wish. Both participants may “forget” that the session is being recorded, but the unconscious does not. There is the transcript of what the people are thinking and experiencing, but remains unexpressed or expressed indirectly. Such an aspect of the counter-transference or thought transcript is harder to access and includes the therapist’s counter-transference. 

One thing is fundamental: When the context of the encounter between people is an empathic one, then both an in-person encounter in the same physical space and an online encounter via a video session are ways of implementing, applying, and bringing forth empathy. 

The online environment and the imaginary thought transcript present new forms of client resistance and therapist counter-transference, and it is these that now are the main target of the discussion of this essay. 

Moving therapy to online opens up a new world of symptomatic acts, parapraxes, “Freudian” slips, and acting out. 

I had one online client who stands up in the middle of a session to check on what this individual had cooking in the oven, carrying her camera-enabled device with her. Was I amazed? Indeed. 

I acknowledged to the client that clients sometimes have mixed feelings about their therapists, and nothing wrong about that as such. Yet I was wondering did she believe I was perhaps half-baked? Key term: half-baked. Further discussion occurred of whether this individual was expressing her unconscious hostility towards me – while, of course, also preparing a baked dish. 

The breakdown in empathy may be a thoughtless remark by the therapist, a mix up in the schedule, or a failure of the computer network. The empathy – and transmuting internalization working through it – LIVEs in restoring the wholeness and integrity of the relatedness. Empathy lives as spontaneous relatedness, a form of transference and vice versa. This is not limited to psychoanalysis versus psychodynamically informed psychotherapy. This is not limited to online versus physical therapy. 

Other than candidates for psychoanalytic training, few people are calling up practitioners are saying: “I want the most arduous, rigorous, time-consuming, expensive treatment known – I want a psychoanalysis!” I tend to agree with Isaacs Russell that the possibilities for doing full-blown remote psychoanalysis are – how shall I put it delicately? – remote, but not necessarily due to any features of the online environment.

After all the dynamics and debates are complete, Isaacs Russell ends her book with a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. She gives an account of a conversation in an online session with a client in London, UK. Isaacs Russell has relocated to Boulder, CO, USA. Having worked together in physical presence, the client misses her and Isaacs Russell misses the client – yet the therapeutic conversation continues. One cannot help but agree with the sentiment – there is something missing – and yet the conversation continues. Thus, we roundly critique cyber therapy – and go off to our online sessions.


[1] Acknowledgement: This reviewer first learned of Gillian Isaacs Russell’s penetrating and incisive engagement with all matters relating to online psychoanalysis and psychotherapy from my friend and colleague Arnon Rolnick in Q2 2021 as the 2020 covid pandemic was waning, at least temporarily. Thus, I am catching up on my reading.

[2] Marion Milner, (1969), The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psycho-analysis. London: Routledge, 2010.

[3] Charles Strozier, (2001), Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, “Gentle into that Good Night,” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 376–377.

References

Lou Agosta, (2010), Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lou Agosta, (2015), A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge. 

Reclaiming Empathy in Online Therapy: An Imaginary Conversation with Sherry Turkle

Here is the verbatim transcript of the complete conversation between Lou and Arnon Rolnick, PhD, about Sherry Turkle’s work on Reclaiming Conversation (also the title of one of her books), and including her memoire The Empathy Diaries (2021) and the debate about online therapy. 

For the complete video see: https://youtu.be/6OId-0QDFys

To listen to the podcast on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6K8byq8UAs85lnVcSAj4DJ

Lou Agosta (Chicago, USA): Today’s conversation is entitled Reclaiming Empathy in Video Conversation: An Imaginary dialogue with Sherry Turkle. Today I’m having a conversation with my colleague and friends Arnon Rolnick, PhD, Psychology. I will let him introduce himself momentarily. Just once thought upfront – his commitment is to integrating biofeedback, psychology, and technology. He says – and I believe it is accurate and true – that he is incapable of being indifference. His exuberance, enthusiasm commitment and empathy are an inspiration to me, and I believe will be one to the listening, viewing audience. Great to see you!

 Arnon Rolnick (Tel Aviv, Israel): Great to see you and thank you for such a nice introduction so I want to share with you my almost 30 years of effort to integrate Psychotherapy Psychology and Technology. As a clinical psychologist I’ve been baffled by the power of those who characterize life in the 21 century. On one hand, technology and science are providing us with better ways to live; yet, on the other hand, people are suffering more. It is as thought technology helps us to neglect our selves. And before I will say a few words about my work in this area, I want to say why she [Sherry Turkle] is so important. She was a Pioneer and a guru.

Lou:  A pioneer and a guru 

Arnon: Yes – I will say a few words about my work and then the issue of empathy will lead us all the way. So it was her book The Second Self where she defines this computer as more than just the tube but part of our everyday personal and psychological lives. She looks at how the computer reflects on ourselves and our relationships with other. She’s claiming the technology defines the way we think and act. Turkle’s book, which was really the first one in this area, allowed us to view and re-evaluate our own relationship with technology. This was her first book and this was that the first moment that I thought “Wow!” interesting. And then came my own work as a psychologist. I felt that there is some gap between what happened in the meeting [between therapist and client] and then the person is going home and he either forgets or doesn’t do I what we decided he was do so. I thought we would like to do what in CBT they called homework I don’t like the name “home work,” but most people know 

Lou: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT} and assignments there are sometimes assignments. Back to you

Arnon: II will even appreciate it, Lou, if sometimes my English is not so clear, you will help the audience to understand my accent. So it was sometimes early in 1995 – see how old am I – I think I work with biofeedback I thought why don’t you give that the patient not only a biofeedback but also a CD that you can work at home and we call it “De – Stress” and we sold it in Boots – you know the British Pharmacy [Boots the Chemist] and I so I thought that should be there the killer [“killer app”] that should be the most important thing you give to the world and apparently it didn’t work 

Lou: You send the patient home with a CD and there is an interactive media here – so already we’re in the online digital world and the patience or the clients or the individuals struggling – so what happens? They still are not that engaged? Explain it – what is the take away here?

Arnon: I will explain it – a little bit later when I speak about “Beating the Blues” – then the company – the British company hired me to help them develop already for the internet – first for the first CD – the program of cognitive behavioral therapy to help the patient overcome depression and anxiety. I thought again it would be wonderful idea – after seeing the patient, he will use this CD. The company thought differently. She said we don’t need a therapist. Just we will give them this program: eight 45-minute sessions and they will be cured.

Lou: And so you become [in]dispensable – you think maybe this is not going to work exactly as the British UK publishing company is imagining. But at some point, if the once the therapist, the psychotherapist, has designed the assignments, we no longer need you. So keep in touch! Have a great life good! What happened? 

Arnon: What happened is very interesting. There were about eight good [unintelligible] that it works. I felt strange – it was a good program – I was part of it but could it really replace the human element? Later on it was found that the picture is more complicated. It works well only when there was a nurse involved her and she helped them to do the program so the nurse…

Lou: Let me just to interrupt you here. it sounds like the human element – so you’re already dealing with the human element and the technological elements whether it’s a CD or whether you know it goes fully online in the cloud as we have it today and it turns out what turns out we have the psychotherapist step aside and it [the nurse] turns out perhaps to be the replacement therapist.

But we’re just calling him or her a nurse shows up – and we suspect the human touch – the therapeutic Alliance if you will – the Rapport between human beings may be a hidden common factor 

Arnon: Exactly. But this will allow me later after you will introduce your work and that will help me to divide the Psychotherapy into two main camps: the technique camps and the relationship camps. And I will talk about it only after you will tell us about your work about empathy 

Lou: That sounds like a good segue for me to say something about empathy and we’re going to do it – so hold that thought: there’s the relationship camp and the tips and technique camp. And so hold that though – and so back to me – thank you! I appreciate the shout out – who the heck am I anyway? One claim to fame that may be more than one but is to have authored three peer-reviewed books on empathy, starting with A Rumor of Empathy – in effect, virtual volumes one and two and then Empathy Lessons and Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. My PhD from the University of Chicago began with a dissertation on Empathy and Interpretation – so I’m not going to give the storied, complicated history of the distinction empathy at the time I was a graduate student. It’s a matter of public record, my dissertation adviser, Stephen Toulmin, was being psychoanalyzed by the colleagues here in Chicago I don’t know the name of his analyst – he may have told me – but Kohut was innovating in the matter of empathy and his colleagues Michael Franz Basch, Arnold Goldberg, Ernie Ernest S Wolf were innovating in the matter of Self Psychology – and is there anything to this concept empathy or is it just cumbaya stuff?  Really what’s the intellectual Providence? And it made a great dissertation for young graduate student and it is something meaningful to engage and so fast forward – I am not going to tell you about all of these books – they’re there’s actually available from your local online book seller. What I propose to do is provide really – no kidding – the one minute empathy training. You can actually do it in a minute. Now there are some conditions and qualifications – and so here it is: Drive out – get rid of – reduce –   drive out things such as aggression, hostility, bullying, cynicism, resignation, bad language, politics in the pejorative negative sense – you know we are political and often times it doesn’t bring out the best [in us] – drove those things out – and empathy naturally comes forth – people are naturally empathic – people want to be empathic – and will be so if given half a chance. So that’s it! That’s the training: get rid of the negatives and empathy shows up in the space of relatedness. I pause for breath. I see you have a question.

Arnon: Being also trained in psychoanalysis you’ll clearly represent the Kohutian self psychology view – people are good – but what about the Kleinians? How can we get rid of our aggression 

Lou: Well, thank you! I mean thank you: I mean human beings are naturally empathic; human beings are also naturally aggressive. We are a complicated species; and I have no easy answer. The difficult answer is that often times hostility and aggression are reactive. If you want to see somebody get angry – if you yourself get angry – if I find myself angry or even enraged, [then] one good question to ask myself – yourself – the people in the listening or viewing audience: who hurt your feelings? who perpetrated a dignity violation? or where did you not get the empathy and respect you deserved? cuz if you want to get a person angry, hurt their feelings – say something devaluing about their parents. It’s not going to go well. If you say something bad, it could get messy it’s just I have no [easy answer] – I mean we acknowledge the contribution of Melanie Klein. [Klein was] an incredible innovator. Let’s talk to some children. Freud’s innovating – Anna’s innovating – he’s got some ideas about infantile sexuality. Melanie Klein comes along – herself kind of a tortured genius in her own way – [she says] let’s talk to some children – and play therapy is invented. What a breakthrough – so I don’t know – there’s a lot of room for disagreement here but I’ve also seek some over lap and common ground. Hostility and aggression: there are a lot of things that can cause it. I mean, some of it may indeed be in it and species-specific. Nevertheless, who gets their feelings hurt and who experiences an empathy break down [or] a dignity violation. I claim that’s a candidate answer and so I may continue or you can get follow up

Arnon: So I think I’m responsible for the digression. 

Lou: A digression but a productive one – so we finished the one minute empathy training; and there’s a lot more to be said about empathy – here right now. [However] We’ll come back to that. I’m going to segue – I think usefully – I’m going to begin a conversation about the contribution of I believe it would be: Madame Professor Dr Sherry Turkle, PhD, social psychology MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). On a personal – the occasion is – I’m going to wave the book – [Lou holds up Turkle’s book, The Empathy Diaries, on the on-camera version of this conversation for YouTube] here her Memoir is published The Empathy Diaries (2021); and there she is as a child of tender age in the 1950s and the 1960s, coming up on the residential part of Long Island. The parents [actually] grandparents are Holocaust Survivors. They escaped Eastern Europe; and her mom marries a man named Mr. Zimmerman. Something is immediately strange – an unconventional something comes out. He’s performing certain kinds of I should say weird experiments that end up sounding like the work done by Mary Main and John Bowlby on attachment [the blank face gesture]. He’s leaving the kid – the young Sherry, the kid – forgive me, Professor Turkle, of tender age – alone in her room, .and letting her cry your eyes out. This guy has gotta go. The mom divorces Zimmerman and marries Milton Turkle, who has issues of his own, but two other children come along, her younger siblings. And here’s the – here’s the empathic moment – here’s the moment of the break down of empathy. At home she’s “Sherry Turkle’; [but]  at school, somehow given this bureaucracy, she’s a Sherry Zimmerman. Now in our time, this is second about to be now third quarter 2021, blended families what’s the issue? It’s somehow devaluing, stigmatizing, divorce- you know,  the feminist Revolution is occurring but divorce is still an issue one in this community – it is a Jewish community – non observant – living in genteel poverty – coming up in a kind of genteel poverty. Here’s the problem: [pretending to be Sherry’s parents]:  “Sherry, you’re not allowed to talk about it. You’re not allowed to talk about the fact that your last name really is Turkle but at school, it’s Zimmerman.” Holy mackerel! It’s a two-tone elephant in the room. It’s [confronting] and so here is my short review: this is a great memoire. It is in many ways a page-turner. I was engaged, and I’ll say just a little bit more about that [soon], and it is also entitled The Empathy Diaries, [but] it might be also [be] entitled The Breakdown of Empathy [diaries], because it gives an account of what Sherry has to survive to reclaim for Humanity. It goes well – she’s smart – her parents tell her or grandparents tell her: “Look, you are not going to typing class.” This is amazing – this is the 1950s. If she learns how to type, she will end up in the secretarial pool. “No, Sherry, you are going to be in the front of the class. You are going to be the teacher” They don’t let they refuse to let her do housework. “Read!” they say. I heard something similar in a kind of weird way. This is a way of improving one’s life and one’s humanity and of getting some empathy. She goes to MIT. She meets – she goes back and forth for a while. She ends up at the University of Chicago about a couple of years before I was there. So it is a page turner for me, cuz they’re she is in Social Science 122 – sitting in the classroom – Social Sci 122 – and in comes Professor Bruno Bettelheim. He brings his straight back wooden chair; puts it on the low stage; and the students, who are trying to speak truth to power, give it to him, he gives it to them back – [Bettelheim is] the author of so many books: Love is Not Enough, the empathy fortress, [oops, I mean], The Empty Fortress, The Children of the Dream – over to you for a digression – insert your story here – he goes and visits a Kibbutz for a few months and says a few things which become controversial – you grew up there – tell me – 

Arnon:  I was born in Kibbutz and I was there raised there in this unique type of experiment – experiment – experiment – and you know what? We still don’t know that result of the experiment. What I mean is that we develop in so many ways and how many of us became leaders in various areas but we also have some pain and maybe it has been in his own way. May I take the leave now? 

Lou: You have the conk shell –

Arnon: I want to say that again Sherry began with computers and she was fascinated with computers in particular and slowly she changed her ideas about the problems with computers – for example, she has many books – but I speak about two of them – both have explored how technology is changing the way we communicate – in particular, she raised concerns about the way in which organic social interaction can be degraded through constant exposure to lose every meaningful exchange with artificial intelligence. I will speak about artificial intelligence later on. In [Sherry’s book] Reclaiming Conversation, which is the book just before the one you mentioned 

Lou: Reclaiming Conversation [Lou hold sup the cover on camera]

Arnon: She is arguing – she is gathering data from schools [and] companies [and] families – she says: we forgot [how] to speak with each other. We [are] all the time doing it via devices – we type – we send SMS – but we don’t talk and that’s led her to the interview that we will talk [about] later on where she kind of arguing – and maybe you will express it better – that online therapy is something completely different from psychoanalysis – and we will talk about this [more later] – but let me come back to this distinction between the two camps – and I will try to explain how the internet when it entered into the Psychotherapy world how it affected the two camps in different ways. So let’s begin – what are the two camps? The technique camp and the relationship. And everybody who knows Psychotherapy – you know that there is the group that thinks that their relationship is (a) very important aide in understanding the problems of the patient and (b) in maybe curing. Now you know that the earlier relationship with the parental figure is very important and this might be reflected later on in the relationship with therapist so that that camp is clearly or might be worried or interested about how does online therapy work. It seems like you want to comment and talk or should I continue? 

Lou: – Well I have some comments I mean I think you hit the nail on the head so to speak in that the book you refer to – Reclaiming Conversation – she launches a Jeremiad – she is on a tear – you know, remember the Prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible? He was angry about something – we’re talking about anger – and it’s not clear whose feelings got hurt – but the feelings of the people at the dinner table where dinner conversation and conversations between friends are interrupted by beeping, buzzing, alerting smartphones – she is on a rant that we have got what amounts to acquire attention deficit – it’s not like we were born ADD or ADHD – amphetamine-based interventions will not help, because it is acquired through the number of interruptions that – so she’s, you know, [on a tear] and that’s the immediate trigger if you will, which, I believe, you’re expressing – what I would say is you are then tracing the conversation in the direction of online therapy – and it’s because – I mean – it’s now, you know, we’re emerging from this pandemic – the positivity right here in Chicago – hopefully – fingers crossed – we are jinxed now, I said, but – let us not do magical thinking. The positivity rate in Chicago is last week was .6 per cent and I had said the pandemic is at least temporarily over when it hits .5% but on other places it’s 6% and 10% and the struggle continues and we are really not going to go into it and there is a conversation about technology which we are not going to go into – technology can be used for great good and there can be big issues with it. That’s the point I wanted to make. She launches a Jeremiad – back over to you. 

Arnon: We spoke about the relationship camp and how they acted to [towards] the Internet and I mentioned the technique camp – this camp who believes that what changes people’s behavior and thought and emotion is: we should give them technique. It could be cognitive behavioral technique – it could be emotion-focused therapy – it could be hypnotic technique.

Lou: You are not anxious or depressed – you just lack skill – that’s an enormous over-simplification, but there may be some useful techniques that can be improved and manage one’s anxiety and depression in a downward Direction 

Arnon: Yes, and I should have made [note] that part of my research has dealt with this CBT techniques and I’m not I’m not in any way against it [unintelligible] Now what happened when the Internet entered the picture?  Beating the Blues

Lou: Beating the Blues – I’ve got the name of the British company – we give them a shout out if they still exist: Beating the Blues – sounds good. 

Arnon: But there is today ten thousand applications programs trying to do what beating the blues did, and it’s amazing how people are still trying to help or be helped by online application. Now just a the beginning of June there is a big article in the New York Times about an application called something –BOT – Webot – something – and it says that this application is working so well that one cannot differentiate if the bot – this machine – is a human being or behind it [a computer] or in fact, they are using a some engines like Google is doing now and – has developed Meena – a computer or machine – 

Lou: A system of hardware-software stuff – Meena – 

Arnon: That passed the tutor test –

Lou: The Turing test – Allen Turing – can I tell the difference between – in a conversational exchange between someone who supposedly hidden in a room or a machine or a device the Turing test and it turns out – we think – natural language has fallen to a technology that we now have technologies that can simulate natural a conversation with another human being the debate continues

Arnon: The debate continues and it is interesting to note that Sherry Turkle was married to one of [the members of] the group that developed Eliza. Eliza is another very early program that used Rogerian concepts to try to imitate Psychotherapy. Of course it was by far more simple. But let’s go back to the technique camps and a lot of effort to get rid of the psychologist I do at what Sherry Turkle says “the robotic moment.” She has a very strong anxiety – or she’s afraid that this artificial intelligence idea making – how can I say? – It’s dangerous to our humankind 

Lou: Humanity – yes – yes – 

Arnon:  Humanity – I spoke about the technique camp and they’re mistaken direction; and I agree with Sherry [as] she speaks a lot about the dangers in this robotics [approach]. Oops, my chair almost fell.

Lou: If you disappear off camera, we will await your return. Maybe I can pick up the thread usefully at this point and a segue to the immediate occasion where you called me a few weeks ago and you said: “Hey, you know, let us have a conversation about her concerns and objections. I mean, she’s got some energy for this matter. She publishes – and I’m going to quote the publication that catalyzed our back-and-forth conversation: Afterward – here’s the title: “Afterword: Reclaiming Psychoanalysis: Sherry Turkle in Conversation With the Editors of Psychoanalytic Perspectives,” Volume 14: 2017 in this one and in this article, she raises a number of serious objections about the very possibility performing online therapy and she makes the case for co-presence. What I want to say at this point is – 

[Video freezes and Internet connection is lost – connection is restored]

Arnon: We had some problems – we don’t know where was it – I don’t hear – you are on mute – we can we use this moment – I don’t know what exactly happened 

Lou: I’m so I’m just going to pick it up I’m going to pick it up at “Afterword Reclaiming Psychoanalysis: Sherry Turkle in Conversation With the Editors of Psychoanalytic Perspectives

[[Video is frozen again – and connection lost]] 

Lou: You were frozen

Arnon: You were frozen also

Lou: Things like this happen

Arnon: And it happens in online conversations – just a moment – and the question – how the therapist and the patient react to this? One could be completely angry – the patient – or the therapist could be: I’m not psychotherapy online anymore or we could use it 

Lou: I mean you might reboot the router too for that matter – that could make a difference – 3, 2, 1 – the name of the article in Psychoanalytic Perspectives, Volume 14, year 2017:  “Afterword: Reclaiming psychoanalysis: Sherry Turkle in Conversation With the Editors of Psychoanalytic Perspectives” – and in this – I must say – this was 2017 – I listened before the pandemic – then she denounces – I would say it’s not too strong a word to say she speaks in a devaluing way about online therapy, and [she] considers that psychoanalysis is missing the opportunity to emphasize the presence [of] the being together in the physical space – and all of the issues that occur there, which I will shortly enumerate – and what I really want to emphasize here is that there are at least three objections that she has: she says, lookit, online, to make eye contact with another person, you have to look at the green dot [the “camera on” LED]. I’m looking at the green dot. And it looks like I’m looking directly at you but when I look at Arnon’s eyes, I’m actually looking away from the green dot. So it’s not like sometimes, if you take a step back, it’s not clear where you are looking, but in person there’s a kind of code presence which is makes also, I think, an interesting but perhaps questionable point – so I want to be an honest broker here and charitable – who makes the point what starts out as being better than nothing – key term: “better than nothing” – in it pandemic, you can’t meet in person. So it is so, as she acknowledges in a podcast in July 2020, at the height of the pandemic here in the States, you can’t go to visit in person. It doesn’t work – you can’t – it’s impossible – it’s forbidden – and when we get back at someday out of the pandemic, from which we are (arguably) emerging at this time, the problem is (she sees) is that there will be friction and resistance to meeting in person where our fullest Humanity, if you will, empathy in the sense of being present with another human being in the same physical space embodied in a physical way. And so being “better than nothing” becomes “better than everything,” “the best of all” in so many words. And, finally, well those are her two points, and she says psychoanalysis may be missing a great opportunity here to take a stand and then she talks about a number of issues including [incomplete thought] – but she doesn’t say, you know, how to use the couch online – the couch – lie back on the couch – free associate – I’ve seen people who lie back on the couch and immediately have a breakthrough. They think of things which they were aware of – that they have not really been unaware of them – but we’re just kind of shoved back in there you know in their consciousness -in their inner sanctum, and all the sudden lie back and relax a little, and, oh, my God, I remember this or that about parents, about friends, about current relationships that they had not been aware of; so it can be a powerful tool and how does that work online? It doesn’t come up in this particular article. I pause for breath. 

Arnon: The issue – is that the real psychoanalysis – is that typical discussion in psychoanalysis for many years – and now when Sherry Turkle says this is not psychoanalysis, speaking of online therapy – she is repeating and doing what many people did years ago before when the question was being on the couch or not being on the couch or sitting front face-to-face was considered not psychoanalysis

L: Somehow it was not echt – not genuine or authentic enough

Arnon: Yes, it was not the real classical Freudian in the day – and also the question should it be five times a week or three times a week – so psychoanalysis all the years is it the real thing or not the real thing and in this way I look on Sherry Turkle context can be partly understood – old psychoanalysis – is it true or false – in the 1950s when people said can you do psychoanalysis via the phone there were articles that said, you can do it but it is only supportive therapy – so what I am trying to say is the relationship camp was very much obsessed with the question was it the right thing as regular therapy or not regular therapy – so what I am saying is it is clearly different but it might be interestingly different – we might even find some advantage and learn a little bit what works in psychotherapy – for example, now when we are talking to one another, is it the content, my interpretation or is it my fault my visual appearance, which might be even bigger than what we you would seeing if you are in the end and I turn. You can see my face – my bird [beard] – my eyes – and like that so, and look. For example, I can do now this [Arnon zooms in and out with the camera] I’m going backward and then zooming 

Lou: Amazing – we are gong to zoom in – we are literally zooming – and so may I jumping in at this point, because you raised a number of questions – now this is now not Professor Turkle (Sherry) – this is Lou Agosta: We may usefully have a phenomenology of presence – of online presence – just as we have the philosopher Merleu-Ponty talking about embodiment and a number of researchers [on the subject]. There is need for that, because the image is different than the physical presence – sometimes – it’s – it’s just different – it’s not better – it’s not worse – it may be richer in some sense and then less dimensional in another sense – and so, you know. I mean I could see – she doesn’t call for this, but she might usefully do so. The second idea: take a transcript of an in-person psychotherapy session and take a transcript of an online session. What’s the delta [between the online and the in-person]? How could you tell? Now the Internet blows up as it did a moment ago in our conversation, then you know we’re online. If the patient comes in and says, well the traffic was horrible, then you know you’re on the ground. But remove those deltas – remove those considerations – I suggest that in most cases – but interesting ones may not be on the list of most cases – one could not tell the difference, because therapy is basically a conversation – it lives in language – but [unintelligible] what about those instances [that are] new forms of Freudian slips. An anecdote: I met a new patient I had a second meeting with the individual – we use some version of Zoom – she gets up – the device is moving around the apartment – she goes to the kitchen – goes to the oven and says “pardon me, I got something in the oven” I am thinking  – this is now would not be in the transcript – my thought would not be in the transcript – I’m thinking: Okay, this is amazing – this is practically like an enactment – an acting out – a Freudian slip – and I [think to myself] sometimes clients wonder whether their therapists know what they’re doing – it’s a valid question to be a little bit skeptical when we are consumers of psychotherapy services – does his or her therapist guy knows what he’s doing; and I said I’m thinking it’s a new relationship, but people are a little ambivalent about how they feel about their therapist and I say to her: “Do you perhaps think I am half baked?” She’s got something in the oven – she is baking a cake – it’s denied yet the thought is there – you can’t make this up – you can’t make stuff like this up – so that would be a delta – you get new forms of slips of the tongue, parapraxis, Fehlleistungs. Make no mistake, the transference is always the transfer, and so, this does not come up in Professor Turkle’s work. It might usefully do so, because the genie is out of the bottle.

Arnon: I think the example you gave is wonderful. Being a more CBT like therapist, I would not interpret as Half Baked or those things like but I would say: Wow. What a wonderful opportunity to see you are working – have hobbies – that you can cook – you see, what I am saying is the fact that the therapy is not now in our clinic but in in her room – her place, helps me know things about her self that I would not know – so instead of fighting this – and lets make the room exactly the same – let’s use this uniqueness that I can see their room and maybe they can see my room which is again interesting.

Lou:  It is significant, and I would tend to agree, and I claim that I was using it to explore the relationship and it’s true my countertransference was like can – one version of empathy is to be fully present with the other person – and I think Turkle – I mean, she doesn’t actually define it that way, but I think Sherry gets that – she appreciates this matter of copresence and really being with the other. I mean just like, you know, if this dialogue between you and me, Arnon, we go back a bunch of years – you know, if it were successful beyond all of our dreams, notwithstanding internet interruptions, we would succeed in making present a certain empathy. I mean, like I got you, man, I know, you know, we’ve been struggling with these issues for a lot of years, and now that’s a criteria of success: that we bring it forth – and we [are] doing it online. Hey! Hello! We are having [an online conversation] – we couldn’t do this on the ground. I mean you’re in Tel Aviv – we didn’t put this at the start of the video but you’re in Tel Aviv – I’m in Chicago Illinois – it would not be humanly possible otherwise  

Arnon: Right – right and that brings me again to my belief that we are reclaiming conversation – we are reclaiming conversation of [as] Internet dialogue and that it works very well – and let me tell you I am doing it for almost twenty years – and I prefer still to have the patient in my clinic – but I clearly suggest to our readers or audience not to go in either direction – not to say that technology will replace the human element and, on the other hand, let’s use technology. May I just add one more thing that we are currently struggling with – remember I want the therapy to continue only by the one-hour session. So the question comes, can we use technology not only by doing the one-hour session but by [for example] I am doing quite a lot of couples therapy – can the couple call me in the middle of a crisis – they are at home – 

Lou: That would be powerful – that could be power at the moment, the enemy (so to speak} – the issue is present at the moment 

Arnon: That would be one way to enlarge therapy – the second thing I am doing – according to the technique camps, not the relationship – I am using application, but the application is not trying to replace me but trying to resonate our interaction.  Suppose you are now my therapist and I was your patient and you will use this resonator application to resonate [saying to me] remembering how we felt when we had this problem – the idea: so we can use technology in many other ways not to fight it and not to say this is everything. 

Lou: Technology – surely, I mean this is a cliché, but perhaps hidden in plain view – technology can be a two-edged sword. Like any communication [device], it both connects and divines – I mean, we are relatively inexperienced with online therapy. I said earlier, dropping in the [conversation that the] genie is out of the bottle. In her in her podcast in July 2020 at the height of the pandemic, Sherry expressed concern that there would be a lot of friction, as she said, to going back to in person meeting just as there apparently is a lot of the people going back to the office and to their cubicles in person, and in some cases it’s essential and in some cases it’s definitely not required, and so how to tell the difference becomes the challenge. And it does seem like there is something – she makes the case, I mean, with which I must occasionally and in many ways align, that she makes the case that physical presence has something that is missing, and, yet. The genie is out of the bottle.  We’re not going, you know, we’re not going to get rid of our telephones, and if I want to send a message, I write you a letter, or, you know, I send you a message with a boy – a runner – run and deliver – people would do that – we’re not going to be able to go back, so the challenge then becomes how to be authentic online and interact with a phenomenology of online presence with new forms of, I mean, in the world of online humor I’ve been known to say occasionally two new clients, I mean, well what about the digital divide. You need a computer and zoom and a door that you can close for confidentiality, and privacy. I’ve had clients, sadly at the beginning of the pandemic that fell through the digital divide. This young man was living in the same bedroom with his younger brother. He was trying to do the conversation, walking around outside. It was really hard. It was really kind of not working the way it should. And so there are peopling now where are you may need to meet with them in person, because they don’t have the technology. And here in the States, it’s a much bigger country (bold statement of the obvious) than Israel; in some ways, more poverty. There are parts of this country, which are not digitally wired and connected; and so those issues become a matter of social justice as well. And so I have to call them Sherry doesn’t solve them either, but nevertheless she lines up and makes the case that it’s very important. So where are we? I want to – maybe since I’ve got The Conch Shell here, I will tie up two loose ends. I interrupted myself as I was talking about her Memoir. After she answers up for a little while at the Committee on Social Thought and she ends up writing a dissertation at MIT on the social psychology of French political psychoanalysis. She meets Jacque Lacan – so all of the controversial figures Professor Bettelheim, Jacque Lacan – the amazing thing – I really want to put this on the video – he [Lacan] treats her nicely – bad [boy, Lacan] – I mean, Why? This is so uncharacteristic. Why? He wants her to write nice things about him. He wants her to produce a enriching and ennobling and even perhaps – you know, given who he is – a flattering report and she doesn’t of course do that but he does come to Boston to visit at Cambridge, and to visit the colleagues, and the thing about Lacan – the only criticism – the only problem with Lacan – there’s only one problem, Jacque Lacan. He goes to dinner. He doesn’t wear a tie. He throws a conniption fit. It’s kind of an interpersonal disaster. Professor – Sherry not yet Professor Turkle has nothing to do with his bad behavior but it resonates in different ways, She goes on to publish that book I was waving around or about to wave around [on camera] in this version Psychoanalytic Politics [on camera] you see the cover [and a silhouette] of protesters of May 1968 and the Eiffel Tower there. She is not a Lacanist, but she is informed by the dynamics, and, you know, the prohibition creates the desire. I didn’t know I wanted to go online to do therapy until you told me I couldn’t.  Now if I have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.  That’s the best I can do. So that wraps up her memoire. There’s a lot more there, but those are some of the essential talking points. So I pause for breath. 

Arnon: It’s a nice way to finish with the more personal. May I bring up another personal [matter] – Sherry speaks so honestly about a Jewish home she grew up and her problematic father and she came to the same direction that I came to though I have a wonderful father, because he thought technology can help change the statues of the Jewish people. It can help solve the pandemia, the pandemic. It can help the human race. So my father really believed in technology, but not only in the technical aspects, but it’s a part of the human spirit that we can fix things. We can overcome problems, 

Lou: That is remarkable, because here you are growing up in a Kibbutz, which is kind of a collective environment. The parents are not dismissed, but moved to the side and here Sherry who gets a lot of attention, in some ways it’s almost impossible to get too much attention but she does and not always of the right kind in some instances, and the end result is this complicated relationship with technology for the things that it is powerful in doing and for its disadvantages and drawbacks as well advantage. So final thoughts as we are coming up on the back end of our conversation. And your personal anecdote is a final thought. Two thumbs up on the work she’s doing. We find that we take exception to the throwing online therapy and online psychoanalysis under the bus as we say here in the States. The problem with that – here is my final reflection – the problem with that is that it is getting crossed under the bus. There are a lot of people under the bus struggling so we want to make productive useful application of all of the means to combat human suffering. What all of these different modalities have in common – whether it’s CBT or biofeedback or group therapy or traditional dynamic therapy or rigorous Freudian therapy or self psychology – they’re not exactly the same – all of these are commitment and a stand against human suffering which is significant and ongoing that’s my thought. So I think Sherry stands with that. I think we have common ground there.

Arnon: Yeah, maybe she would join us in the next go around

Lou: Well, would you like to make an invitation? Make the formal invitation, because that occurred at the start of the conversation. 

Arnon:  Well, you probably would say it in a more American, polite way – but I would say: Sherry, I was trying to communicate with you, she know it, so I wrote to her, because we wrote a book – we did not mention it yet  – we wrote a book about online therapy with Haim Weinberg [editor] and you wrote a chapter – and I wanted to have her in the book – it was before she wrote the Empathy Diaries – and she wrote to me, I am so much into it [writing the memoire] that I cannot stop – and I pushed again – and being Israeli, I pushed, and she replied, “I appreciate it but no.” Maybe now she will be more open. 

Lou: There’s an invitation for further conversation. Thinking of the end: we acknowledge your empathy, Professor Turkle – Sherry. I acknowledge your empathy, Arnon, my colleague and friend. I acknowledge the empathy of the listeners to this conversation, because you’re listening creates the empathy in this conversation. We honor and thank and acknowledge you for that. Thank you very much. Signing off. 

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project

Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 1: Organizational Resistance to Empathy)

You don’t need an expert to practice empathy

Every parent, teacher, doctor, social worker, sales person, person with customers, first responder, consultant, neighbor, or taxi driver already knows a lot about empathy. They would not be successful, much less survive, if they did not practice empathy. You may need a license to be a barber and cut hair. However, outside totalitarian state, no one can require that you have a license to do what comes spontaneously to the vast majority of human beings—be empathic. However, an expert can be helpful in clarifying distinctions, providing tips and techniques, and modeling the empathy you want to get or apply and expand.

Parents are naturally empathic towards their children; teachers, towards their students; medical doctors, towards their patients; business people, towards their customers, consultants towards their clients, and so on. Even if a person is clumsy and does not get empathy quite right, people can’t stop doing it. Yes, that’s right—people can’t stop being empathic; but then fear stops them—fear of experiencing vicariously another person’s pain, struggle, conflict, or suffering—and a breakdown occurs in their empathy. There must be something wrong here! Blame starts flying around. They blame themselves. They blame the other person. They blame empathy.

Even if doctors are trained to “tune down” their spontaneous empathy until it becomes “detached concern”—and good reasons exist for doing that at times—empathy naturally breaks through, and they often relate authentically to their patients as one human being to another in spite of themselves.[i]

The really useful thing is that in learning to contract one’s empathy, one is also learning expand it, because one is learning to regulate and manage empathy. Contracting one’s empathy also means being able to expand it. “Dialing down” empathy also means being able to “dial up” empathy. 

“Dialing down” empathy does not mean “stop listening,” “be unkind,” “blame,” “make wrong,” “reject,” “be hostile,” “use devaluing speech,” or “feign thoughtlessness.” Such a response would be absurd. 

There is a sense in which a feeling may be socially appropriate or inappropriate—for example to laugh at a funeral when nothing is funny—feelings are valid in themselves in that they always are what they are. 

A feeling may be an inarticulate judgment—fear being the judgment that one should run from danger—especially if a mountain lion is coming around the bend. The fear is an absolute given in the moment. 

One may wish that one felt differently than one does in fact feel in the moment; but that one feels a certain way is an absolute given. 

The best way to turn fear into an out-an-out panic attack is to say to oneself: “This (fear) should not be!” But of course it is, so that means what? One has lost control. Panic! 

The recommendation? Accepting the feelings as what’s so does not make an unpleasant feeling any easier to bear, but it takes away its power, drains the upset out of it, and gives one space to be in equilibrium with oneself again. Thus, radical acceptance of the feeling is an effective method of “dialing down” one’s empathy.

Most people are naturally empathic, but they lack practice. They set about practicing empathy, but are clumsy. Or they had a bad experience in relation to their own empathy or someone else’s (lack of) empathy. They develop a “flinch reflex” when it comes to practicing empathy. For such individuals, resistance to empathy replaces their spontaneous empathy. Most people use empathy every day, and do not need an expert to tell them what it is. Olympic athletes get a coach, but it is not because they are not good at what they do. They are good at what they do; and are striving to get to the next level of excellence. Few people claim to be really good at empathizing. Those persons who are practiced in empathy can be useful coaches in helping one to clarify definitions, engage the hard cases, and distinguish how to transform breakdowns of empathy into breakthroughs that make a difference. 

Using empathy—practicing empathy—sometimes means being used by empathy. Yes, empathy uses us. 

“Being used by empathy” means that the person has trained in being empathic, so that the person has a level of mastery that allows the person to be empathic (or not) without thinking too much about it. Empathy has become practiced, habitual, and automatic. 

There’s what we know we know about empathy. There’s what we know we do not know about empathy and hope to find out. Where did the word come from? What are mirror neurons anyway? How does one expand one’s empathy? 

Finally, there is what we do not even know we do not know about empathy. The third area is where this book and its training operates—what we do not even know we do not know: our blind spots about empathy; our vulnerability, shame, and cynicism in relating to others; and our resistance to empathy.

Empathy requires that one get “up close and personal” with other people. Other people can be notoriously difficult, irritable, dishonest, manipulative, apathetic, too pushy, or contrary. Other people resist being on the receiving end of empathy, because being understood makes them feel vulnerable.

If someone understands me, really understands me, then he can use what he understands about me to take advantage of me. Now an authentically empathic person would not do that, but the world is not known for being filled with authentically empathic people. 

Well-intentioned persons sometimes simply misunderstand what empathy is and are resisting something else that they happen to call “empathy.” They mistake the breakdown of empathy in emotional contagion, conformity, projection, distortion, mind reading, or lack of responsiveness, for empathy proper, and throw out the baby with the proverbial bath water. The empathy lesson in confronting resistance to empathy is direct: remove the resistance to empathy, and empathy comes forth, develops, and blossoms. Empathy expands. 

Overcome resistance to empathy: empathy expands

Another person’s blind spots are easy to see, but one struggles to catch a glimpse of one’s own. Thus, one of my own blind spots about empathy comes into view, albeit in my peripheral vision. When I do not get my way, I have the thought that the other person (or the world) is unempathic. This is of course absurd and self-serving, though, heaven knows, empathy is unevenly distributed in the world. The empathy lesson? Wherever there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? (No.) Thus, I clean up the thought—give it up, distinguish it as not helpful, let it go. But no matter how may times I give it up, the next time I am frustrated, it seems like there is that thought again, coming into view like the grin on the Cheshire cat. Only now it becomes an inside joke, and a challenge to earn my empathic wings everyday.

This lesson is easy to express, hard to do. The devil is in the details. One has to descend into the hell of one’s empathy breakdowns in order to emerge from the refiner’s fire of self-inquiry with renewed commitment to empathy, relatedness, and community. This sounds too hard. No one said it would be easy.

How to start? One begins by introspecting. Acknowledging one’s own lack of integrity and inauthenticity in the matter of empathy. Like the labors of the mythical hero Hercules, there is a whole lot of shoveling of manure to be performed. 

Cleaning up broken interpersonal relationships is on the agenda. Repairing integrity outages and inauthenticities is in order. Empathy training includes the requirement to go out into the world of one’s relations with other persons and engage and practice. 

The very idea of resistance to empathy inspires resistance. The idea of resistance to empathy requires motivation. 

What could that even be? Resistance to empathy seems to make no sense. It sounds like resisting motherhood, puppies, or apple pie. 

The idea that some people would resist empathy is surprising. Very surprising. What’s not to like about empathy? A great deal it seems. Even within this way of talking, appearances can be deceptive. Puppies make a mess on the new carpet. Apple pie is delicious, but it makes one fat. Mothers are wonderful people. The human race owes its existence to those who are mothers both individually and as a community; but motherhood is a damn tough job, not withstanding its many rewards. Mothers require a lot of support. Volunteers? 

In general, receiving empathy is like getting a gift; providing empathy requires effort. Getting empathy is a benefit. Providing empathy requires listening to the other person, attending to one’s introspective reaction to the other person, managing the increase in tension, living with the uncertainty of being open to the other person, being vulnerable, and risking misunderstanding. This is why providing empathy inspires resistance. It requires work. 

On the other hand, receiving empathy from a committed listener has been compared to sinking back into a warm bath. It is relaxing. It reduces stress. It is restorative of one’s emotional equilibrium. However, even in a one-on-one conversation, receiving empathy sometimes feels like being publicly acknowledged and recognized at a banquet. It has its uncomfortable side. 

It is not always easy to be explicitly acknowledged and recognized for one’s contribution. One may feel ambivalent about being exposed and vulnerable. So even receiving empathy, though properly regarded as a benefit, has its conditions and qualifications; and some people are made painfully self-conscious by being acknowledged.

Whether one is giving empathy or receiving it, empathy has its dark side. If one is committed to giving empathy—being empathic—one is vulnerable to burnout, empathic distress, or “compassion fatigue.” If one is on the receiving end of empathic receptivity, though a restorative experience, one is still exposed in one’s potential weaknesses and limitations. One feels vulnerable to misunderstanding by the other person, to whom one has exposed oneself emotionally.

At a deeper level, resistance to empathy lives in our individual and collective blind spots about our dear self. Where there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? “Narcissism” is a way of relating to oneself. The mythical Narcissus was an attractive young man. He was so enamored of his own reflection in the mirror-like surface of the pond—this was before the invention of “selfies”—that he did not see the dangers of his surroundings. In different versions of the myth, Narcissus either fell into the water, drowning in his own image of himself, or he was consumed—metaphorically eaten—by the lion of his narcissistic desires, who also frequented the watering hole. 

The empathy lesson of the myth of Narcissus? Empathy requires de-emphasizing “the dear self.” Even for someone committed to giving empathy such a de-emphasis of self-love is not automatic. When the empathy being delivered includes recognition, people struggling with self-esteem issues—either too much or too little—find it challenging just to accept the acknowledgement. “Naw, it wasn’t nothing—just doin’ my job.” It is not easy to be acknowledged, and therein lies resistance to empathy, too. Though receiving empathy feels good, it is not easy to open up to another person and acknowledge one’s personal issues, sufferings, sources of shame, or struggles.

In every instance of resistance to empathy, the empathy lesson consists in identifying, engaging, reducing, managing, or eliminating, the resistance to empathy by interpreting the resistance; driving out cynicism, shame, guilt (and so on); saying what is missing the presence of which would make a difference (such as respect for boundaries or contribution); and being open to the possibility—of expanded empathy. 

When the resistance is reduced, empathy has space to expand, which it does so spontaneously as well as through providing explicit practices, tactics, strategies, and training.

The qualities that make organizations successful are not always the qualities that enhance their empathy. I am so bold as to assert this generalization applies whether the institution is a tax paying public one, listed on the stock exchange, or a nonprofit, community organization. Whether the corporate mission is to deliver value in manufacturing automobiles or to serve the community by collecting and distributing whole human blood to sick people, the ultimate truth is: no money, no mission.

Yet to say that the purpose of one’s business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to keep on breathing. Well, okay. The two are closely related. Definitely, don’t stop breathing. But somehow “don’t stop breathing” is not very useful as life guidance; and, likewise, “make money” is not a useful business strategy.

The ongoing process of living—or doing business—should not be confused with the purpose, vision, strategy, and meaning of the activity in the direction of excellence, whether in business or the community.

In most successful organizations, expanding revenue is a result of a successful strategy—applications and implementations that deliver value—and satisfy the demands of the customers, employees, and stakeholders. The expanded revenue is the effect of getting the vision and implementation just right, not the cause of it.

Successful enterprises of all kinds have to handle navigating an intricate, complex network of rules assigned by government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, and non-governmental special interest groups. Business and nonprofit enterprises must contend with competing organizations that assert and authentically believe that they can provide the product or service at lower cost or higher quality. Within the enterprise itself, the organization must balance the personalities of the leaders, individual contributors (workers), and stake-holders, who make up the organization.

An inherent challenge exists in building organizations and crafting an administrative structure that actually functions; and then getting the administrative structure—the bureaucracy—to act in a responsive and balanced way to customers, employees, and stake-holders.

Economies of scale that require fitting people into functions that can be substituted for one another to increase efficiency rarely expand empathy, because empathy consists in recognizing differences in individual contributions.

Hear me say it, and not for the last time: the things that make us good at business, including the corporate transformation of American medicine and education, do not always expand our empathy. What to do about it? The battle is joined. The recommendation?

Let your customers, constituents, or stake-holders train you in empathy: Realize that if you do not respond empathically, the customers are just going to go quietly to the competitor that does. Empathy is good for business. If the customer has a complaint that he is having trouble expressing, then use one’s listening skills to get to the bottom of things.

If the customer expresses anger, know that empathy is one of the best methods, bar none, of deescalating conflict and soothing anger. “Gee, it really does sound like you have not been well treated. Let’s see what we can do to make things better” [or words to that effect].

Still, I do not know of a single organization that as of the date of publication of this book, when making decisions, serving customers, documenting complaints, closing sales, managing conflicts of interest, asks: “What would the empathic response be?”

To be sure, aspects of the empathic response are included in such common factors as “be respectful to customers,” “be helpful to clients,” “keep one’s agreements,” “strive to deliver value.” Empathy is already in the mix, and many customers are willing to pay a premium for empathic services even if they do not use the word “empathy.”

The astute businessperson, committed to expanding the enterprise, knows that “if you want to gather honey, do not knock over the bees’ nest.” This is distinct from empathy, but not by much. Thus, the task is to nurture the seeds of empathy already present in abundance, but lying in hiding in cynicism and denial, while making the case that smart organizations build and deliver value empathically.

The legendary Marshall Field, one of the inventors of the department store, on which the sun is now setting, and a kinder, gentler robber baron of capitalism, is famously quoted as saying, “Give the lady what she wants.” It made Field rich, and his workers well off. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Field’s was purchased by Macy’s some years ago, which has struggles of its own in a world in which retail, having been “Amazoned,” is not what it used to be. So the tenuousness of the market value of empathy can be measured by the mark down of the once storied Field’s Enterprises in the face of Internet shopping.

An alternative redescription of the fire sale of Marshall Field’s flagship stores is that individualized, personalized, customized one-on-one service has moved to the ultimate free market, the Internet, once again, disintermediating the disintermediators. I would not rule out expanded empathy in online cyberspace, but, even allowing for the convenience of shopping naked, it is a work in progress.

Even in mild and efficient bureaucracies, people misuse organizational rules and paper work to create resistance to empathy. Passing the buck, “Not my job,” “I’ll have to get back to you,” “We received no such request,” “I don’t know, and I can’t tell you when,” are common responses. Bureaucrats (which used to mean “office worker,” but is now a devaluing term) address such pseudo-answers not only to customers, but also to their coworkers and managers.

Resistance to empathy uses organizational rules and regulations to build protective walls, instead of teamwork. Without concern for the other person, bureaucracy unwittingly creates obstacles that prevent workers from being present with one another.

Mutually implementing and contributing to agreements with the organization and one another is not a priority. Perpetuating the bureaucracy is. Managing permissions and gaming the system occur to avoid work, rework, and overwork. The threat of uncompensated overtime and overwork consumes the energy required to get the job done.

People automatically and unwittingly fall into resistance to empathy, exploiting the tendency to be territorial.

The organization itself can show up as the unempathic authority figure—like the unempathic parent, who leaves the child feeling devalued, depressed, and de-energized. In response, an individual pushes back against the organization and its rules, disagreeing and speaking truth to power.

Rarely does the organization respond empathically to the individual, but rather urges the individual to conform. The individual asks for an accommodation. “Power” exhorts the individual to comply. “Power” says, “I did not make up the rules—I just enforce them.”

The individual states that the organization exists to serve the stake-holders, not to perpetuate its own rule-making. But rule-making has a way of becoming habit forming, if not addictive. Whenever a problem, issue, or breakdown occurs, the tendency is to try to formulate a rule to cover the new case. If the individual continues for any amount of time in a state of non-compliance, then “power” tends to experience a loss of authority, which is deeply threatening and unacceptable to “power.” Power escalates efforts to force compliance. Power imposes sanctions, increasing the cost to the individual. Empathy struggles to make a difference and be heard.

Compliance is definitely trending. This is the age of compliance. And there is nothing wrong with compliance as such. Stop on red; go on green. Yet sometimes so many “shoulds” exist that doing one’s job can end up on a slope of diminishing returns. Filling out the required paperwork takes an increasing percentage of the workday.

For example, some people train to become nurses because they care about other people, and they want to take care of them and their health. However, when virtually every patient encounter has to be documented to satisfy compliance regulations, then an eight-hour workday includes hours of electronic documentation. Many nurses are saying, “This is not what I signed up for.” Engagement—a synonym for empathic nursing encounters—struggles for space to make a difference.

“Compliance” includes conforming to acceptable boundaries and limits. No one is saying break the rules. No one is saying disregard boundaries. Rather one is saying relate to rules and boundaries empathically. But what does that mean? Even if the light is green, look both ways for emergency equipment or an inattentive driver running the light. Don’t be dead right. And as applied to empathy?

Empathy is about traversing boundaries between individuals. But these include not only boundaries between the self and the other, but boundaries between those in a position of authority and subordinates, between insiders and outsiders in communities, and between those who are insiders and those who feel left out—or are actually marginalized and have become invisible.

Humor and empathy versus cynicism

Cynicism and denial are the enemies of empathy. The empathy lessons are simple: Empathy up, cynicism down. Humor up, empathy up. Yet in the face of life’s challenges, setbacks, and struggles to survive, everyone gets cynical on a bad day.

Ground zero of cynicism and humor is Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoon. It is wickedly funny, because it expresses more than a grain of truth about dysfunctional, anti-empathic organizations.

In one classic example, the pointy-haired boss says that from now on the organization will assign job functions based on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test (MBPT). For those readers who may not know, the MBPT is the test that distinguishes introversion and extroversion, thinking and feeling, and related categories. The boss continues: “For those of you who do not have a personality, one will be assigned by the human resources department.”[ii] I must say that I am deeply ashamed of myself—I can’t stop laughing.

In humor, stress and psychological tension are created by violating a standard—saying people in corporate cubicles have no personality—and then the stress is released in laughter by the mechanism of the joke such as a pun, double meaning, or violation of expectations.

Humor is closely related to empathy in that both humor and empathy cross a boundary between the self and the other. However, unlike empathy, in which the boundary crossing occurs respectfully, with acknowledgement of the other person’s contribution or struggle, and with recognition of humanity, in humor the boundary between self and other is crossed with aggression, put down, or (in other cases) sexuality. The rule? The more objectionable the joke is, the funnier it is. The put down, “If you do not have a personality, one will be assigned by HR” is indeed wickedly funny; but it is also deeply debunking of the corporate world (and shaming of the individual), in which people come to feel like a gear in an inhuman mechanism.

So empathy for the long suffering inhabitants of corporate cubicles, whose personalities are at risk of being erased, does come to the surface after all. The laughter largely dissolves the cynicism. It is a commonplace in the organizational world that people function as replaceable cogs in a well-oiled machine. Therefore, the cartoon is an example of what not to do. Cynicism and shame drive out empathy; and, more importantly, driving out cynicism and shame create a space into which empathy stands a chance and can expand spontaneously.

How then does one drive out cynicism, shame, denial, and so on? The short answer is by calling it out, acknowledging it, interpreting it, and offering an alternative point of view. Not “alternative facts,” which have come to mean “spin” and “deception”; but an alternative perspective. It is now cynicism versus empathy in the organization.

For example: “Given the challenges we are facing, it is easy to become cynical. However, I have an alternative point of view. If we adhere to our commitments, then the way forward is clear. Not easy, but clear. We have to … remember who we authentically are, serve the customer, be inclusive, expand the community, be guided by our empathy (and so on). We have to live up to our commitment that everyone who comes in contact with the organization, even if we cannot completely solve their problem, is left whole and complete, treated with dignity and respect (and empathy).”

In the face of pervasive cynicism, it takes courage for a person to responds empathically. Such a person may be perceived as a threat to the prevailing, default attitude of “I won’t call you on your lack of authenticity if you don’t call me on mine.” Such a committed person is at risk in standing out from the crowd; but such a person just might provide the leadership, gather the power to make a difference, get the job done with grace and ease under pressure—and get a promotion.

One does not even have to stop being cynical, since it is so pervasive, but one has to adhere to one’s commitment to making a contribution, work to make a positive difference, and deliver value on one’s agreements.

Cynicism is shown up for what it is: taking the easy way out. The practice of empathy is hard work.

It is not only the executive suite, but also the front and back office and every part of the supply chain in between that are staffed by harried people pushed down into survival mode by a cruel gig economy where empathy is not a priority. Of course, empathy gets paid lip service. Please pardon the double negative—one dare not not pay empathy lip service.

However, all-too-often, empathy is too messy. It is too complex. We are not even sure what empathy would mean in an organizational context. We need results now. Suck it up. Get over it. Conform! Nor is there anything wrong with conforming as such. Submit your expense report on time. Even the customer wants to conform, if only he could get the product to function as designed. It is just that empathy is too time consuming, which means—it is too costly.

Yet never was empathy more important than when it seems there is no time for it. Positively expressed, as with most forms of resistance, the method of overcoming it is to call it out and interpret it. Once visible and explicit, it is less formidable.

The empathy of cross-functional teams, managing by walking around, making a contribution, building the bigger team, being inclusive of all the stake-holders, communicating goals and connecting the dots between individual accomplishments and the objectives of the entire organization—these create a clearing in which empathy shows up and makes a profound contribution to the success of the organization.

In addition, one’s employer is not one’s parent. Remember the sign in the common kitchen that says “Your mother does not work here—clean up your dirty dishes!”? Of course your mom told you that, too, and she did “work here” at home, and it still hasn’t snuck in.

Notwithstanding the rich comic possibilities, one’s employer and its leaders do indeed “work here.” Leaders provide powerful examples to whom we look for inspiration. This must give one pause about the state of leadership today. Just as children have to get empathy from their parents before they can give it to others, employees have to see and experience examples of empathy from their leaders to be effective in their own roles as individual contributors. The idea is not to be paternalistic, but to lead by example, the example of empathy.

The difference between banging on a stone and building a cathedral

Executives of all kinds have varying degrees of empathy and different attitudes towards it. It may sound like yet another burden that the CEO now also has to take the role of “Chief Empathy Officer.” This comes up for detailed discussion below in the chapter on the empathy application to “Business and empathy, capitalist tool.”

Meanwhile, when I am bold and ask executives what is the budget in the organization for empathy training and empathy consulting, they usually look at me with a blank stare or just say “zero.” However, when I ask what is the budget to reduce conflict, enhance teamwork, innovate and improve productivity, inspire participation, cause the staff to take ownership of the mission and honor their agreements, then the leaderships sees possibility where none had previously been present and makes it a priority to obtain a budget.

Simply stated, empathy training consists in surfacing the resistances to empathy, the pervasive fear and cynicism (and so on) in the organization that lurks just beneath the surface; interpreting the resistance, and driving it out: “It is perfectly understandable that you would be cynical, given what you have been through, but that is not who you (we) authentically are. Rather we are the possibility of [health, transportation, nutrition, education, retirement, housing, recreation, and so on (according to the mission of the organization)].”

What would it take to design agreements that overcome resistance and commit to aligning organizational and individual goals and then taking action to implement the agreements on an ongoing schedule? The empathy training consists in engaging in a sustained dialogue for possibility around agreements that work for everyone in delivering value.

In particular, overcoming resistance to empathy, expanding empathy, is on the critical path to eliminating or at least reducing organizational conflicts and dysfunctional behaviors. When staff, executives, stake-holders, and so on, expand their empathy for one another and for customers, they are able to deescalate confrontations and negativity; they avoid provocative and devaluing language; and they are able to head off dignity violations, all of which reduce the conflicts that literally suck the life out of organizations.

When employees appreciate the possibilities of empathy, they even try to replace office politics with professional behavior. Staff get more done because they can concentrate on doing their jobs, working smarter, and serving customers and coworkers rather than struggling with departmental politics.

In addition, expanding empathy—overcoming resistance to empathy—is on the critical path to building teams. Empathy is the foundation of community, and the team is nothing if not a community. In empathy, people practice giving acknowledgment and recognition for their contribution to the success of the team and the organization. Being inclusive does not always come naturally or easily to us humans, territorial creatures that we are. We oscillate between closeness and distance like a pendulum.

However, no organization can succeed without including every contributor and turning him or her loose to do the job at hand. Even in hierarchical organizations, where departmental boundaries are rigid, empathy works to demonstrate that good fences makes good neighbors but that gates are needed in the fences through which empathy can be practiced.

Expanding empathy is also on the critical path to innovation and enhancing productivity, because people feel gotten for whom they are as a possibility and as a contribution. They stop withholding and working in quasi-competitive isolation. When they get in touch with one another as possibilities, the business results take off.

Successful leaders know the importance of drawing on the talents of every contributor. When employees get a sense of how their role and contribution fits into the whole, they work to deliver on their commitments.

That is the key to improved productivity. People are generous in sharing their ideas for process and product improvement, because they feel confident their contribution makes a difference and is recognized. For example, two workers are going through the same motions, making the same gestures. An empathic milieu makes the difference between the one, who is banging with a hammer and chisel on a chunk of stone, and the other, who is building a cathedral. The worker’s gestures are exactly the same. The one is sentenced to hard labor; the other participates in greatness.

Notes

[i] Jodi Halpern. (2001). From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Scott Adams. (1996). The Dilbert Principle. New York: Harper Business.

The Natural Empath Meets the Good Samaritan

A person can regulate his or her empathy up or down by crossing the street. The empathy lesson is that if you can cross the street to avoid the beggar, regulating your empathy down, then you can cross the street (as well as use other methods) to expand your empathy, regulating it upward. So don’t tell me that empathy cannot be dialed up or dialed down with practice. That’s the point: practice.

Crossing the street is what happened in another story with which many readers are already familiar. The story of the Good Samaritan, one of the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, tells of two people who crossed the street, and one who did not. In the story, a traveler was waylaid by robbers. He is left for dead by the side of the road. The first two persons—the Levite and the priest experienced empathic distress, and, crossed the street, passing by the victim. 

The Samaritan, however, was not overwhelmed by the victim’s suffering. The Samaritan perceived the suffering; he had a vicarious experience of the suffering that did not over-stimulate him with suffering and cause empathic distress. The Samaritan saw a fellow human being; recognized the suffering humanity; and he decided to get involved.

Multiple empathy lessons are available here. First, to regulate one’s empathy, cross the street. This is an edgy and confrontational way of putting it, but it is literally accurate. Cross the street away from the neighbor to “down regulate” your empathy, and experience less empathic distress; and cross the street towards your neighbor to expand your empathy in the direction of creating an inclusive community of persons, who recognize the value of cooperation. 

The empathy lesson is that the vicarious experience does not have to be overwhelming. Rather, with practice, one is able to shift one’s focus from suffering to neighborliness; one is able to shift one’s attention from suffering to making a difference and enhanced self-esteem, expanding community and shared humanity. 

Crossing the street is not the only way to reduce one’s chance of empathic distress or responding empathically. One may imaginatively changes places with the survivor and reflect that one would want the other’s help if one were in a similar predicament. One may spontaneously and without thinking act impulsively to be helpful, because one’s upbringing has made such responsiveness a habitual practice. (I believe this was the case with the Samaritan.) One may reflect, “I am safe and the survivor is no danger to me and it is my turn to help out.”

Or, on the contrary, one may make a devaluing judgment such as “The guy deserved what he got.” Such a judgment would be inaccurate—and in this case it would literally add insult to injury—but such thoughts do occur among by-standers. The passers-by may have just been hard-hearted. One person’s empathy is another’s antipathy. The language speaks volumes.

The empathy lesson consists in distinguishing such a devaluing thought; acknowledging that thinking is profoundly different than acting and should not be confused with it. The empathy lessons is to take action coming from one’s authentic commitments to building community through empathy, not devaluing thoughts. 

This story is an empathy lesson that also instructs us in the difference between empathy and compassion. The Samaritan’s empathy told him what the other person was experiencing; his compassion (and ethics) told him what to do about it. 

This bears repeating: empathy tells one what the other person is experiencing; compassion (and ethics) tell one what to do about it. 

We are usually taught to devalue the behavior of the Levite and the priest; and surely they do not win a prize. Yet in an alternative point of view, they were all-too-human. Seeing all that suffering embodied in the survivor, they just couldn’t take it. They succumbed to empathic distress. 

They experienced a breakdown of their empathic receptivity, and were overwhelmed in a kind of instant empathy fatigue (not compassion fatigue). 

In an alternative reading of the parable, the would-be rescuers dial down the granularity of their empathic receptivity, so as not to be too sensitive to the suffering, even as they get a sample of the suffering, which is needed to inform their humanity. 

The Good Samaritan, who is a seemingly infinite source of insight, is called to his empathic neighborliness by the distress of the injured traveller. The traveller who had fallen among thieves and was beaten near to death creates the possibility of empathic community by his loss of human well-being. He has been reduced to a lump of suffering, broken, physical pain. 

The Samaritan rescues the traveller; the traveller humanizes the Samaritan, calling him not just to the role of an altruist doing a good deed (though that occurs too), but to his possibility as a human being in relation to another fragile, suffering, dependent human being. 

The stricken traveller, by his very being, gives the Samaritan his own humanness. This occurs precisely in making the Samaritan a neighbor in answering the question, “Who is one’s neighbor?” Such was the trick question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus, to which this parable is the response. 

The Samaritan gives humanness to the distressed traveller in an intervention that defines them as part of the same community of fellow travellers—neighbors—on the road of life.

In an alternative retelling of the story suppose that the Levite and the priest were “natural empaths,” biologically predisposed to be sensitive to the pain and suffering of other people. They were endowed with a certain “delicacy of empathy,” and they feel the suffering of the world deeply. Perhaps too deeply. Some people report: “I am a natural empath—and I suffer because I feel the pain of others too acutely. I started out being empathic—but people took advantage of me—and even when they didn’t, I was just too empathic; I got overwhelmed with sensation and sucked dry—the result was burnout, compassion fatigue. Nice guys finish last—so do empathic ones.”  

Thus, the lament of the natural empath. 

Empathy becomes a burden, because the world is filled with so much suffering. Yet if the person uses avoidance to “down regulate” their empathy, the person feels guilty because the individual believes that what she is doing is unkind, thoughtless, lacking in fellow feeling, and—unempathic. 

So the natural empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is over-whelmed by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or over-whelmed by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics. 

These statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy. The empathy lesson for the natural empath is to be more flexible about her ethical standards, while attempting to tune down her empathic distress.

Some people are skeptical that “natural empaths” are all that they say they are. Natural empaths in their natural state assert that they feel overwhelmed and distressed by other people’s thoughts and feelings. I see no reason to doubt such statements. However, to some critics, a redescription of the natural empath asserts that the latter are “irritable” and “hypersensitive.” 

Empathy is recognizing and understanding the other’s perspective and then communicating that understanding to the other person. Someone who is unwittingly, even helplessly, swept along by the other’s feelings is not really being empathic. Over-identification, not empathy?[i]

The way out of this apparent impasse is to consider that the natural empath does indeed get empathic receptivity right in empathic openness to the other’s distress, but then the person’s empathy misfires. 

Whether the misfiring is over-identification, resulting in empathic distress, depends on the description and redescription. Standing on the sidelines and saying “Try harder!” is easy to do. Where is the training the person needs when they need it?

The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—natural empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case. 

Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive natural empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathy in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Instead of complaining about not being pre-disposed to empathy, get up and do the work of practicing empathy, which for most persons means “up regulating,” expanding their empathy. 


[i] Lou Agosta, (2018). Empathy Lessons. Chicago: Two Pairs Press: Order empathy books click here: https://rb.gy/avwkb7

Review: Galileo’s Middle Finger: Speaking Truth to [Transgender] Power – and Power Talks Back

A scientist has not been burned at the stake in over 350 years – and even then it was Giordano Bruno, not Galileo. Find out how Professor Alice Dreger (PhD) become an advocate for survivors of intersex sexual reassignment surgery and she becomes a strong candidate to be burned in effigy by those for whom she was advocating.

This is a reposting of a book review from 2015, now included as a podcast (originally recorded on April 29, 2015 with Alice Dreger, PhD, Professor of Medical Humanities, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine).

With transgender dynamics, identity, politics, and everything exploding in the headlines, the need for empathy around sexual identity and related issues is even more urgent and timely today than when originally broadcast.

Join me for a conversation with Alice Dreger about the conflict between scientific evidence and some interpretations of social justice and “empathy” (in quotation marks). Dreger starts out as a graduate student exploring the condition [previously] known as “hermaphroditism,” people born with sex organs that are ambiguous as to male or female, now called “intersex.”

GalileoCoverArt
 Galileo’s Middle Finger

In reading the text books studied by her medical student husband, she discovers the interventions performed to “normalize” people sexually into the two canonical categories of male or female. The parents usually follow the recommendations of the physician-surgeon who are articulating a supposed community standard that one’s genitals should unambiguously be either male or female. Dreger discovers that many of the people whose genitals were surgically transformed were subsequently lied to about their natal [birth] sex by well-intentioned doctors and well-intentioned parents following the well-intentioned doctor’s guidance. Thus, the road to hell. Find out what happens when Dreger’s research surfaces evidence that does not align perfectly with the interpretation of a social justice agenda.

This is a powerful and disturbing work. Dreger delivers a compelling narrative. A penis smaller than a person’s adult thumb or clitorises larger than one little finger, according to (some) conventional wisdom, have got to go. I am not making this up. The standard procedure was to surgically “delete” the offending member and surgically construct [some version of] the female genitals. This will, of course, resonate with Freudians everywhere as something motivated at the deepest levels of the unconscious. Not so Freudian is the proposition that if sex assignment from male to female and the raising of the infant as one rather than the other sex is the consequence, so be it. (Dreger is not interested in Freud in this text – that is my hobby.)

Dreger marshals evidence that people whose genitals are not surgically transformed as infants – but who have non-standard but otherwise healthy functioning genitals – are not worse off than those whose genitals were modified, and in many cases flourish. In at least one case, where the boy could not urinate standing up – and write his name in the snow with the stream of urine – due to the opening to the urethra being beneath the pen, the result of the surgery often produces a “cripple”. Yet the surgery continues to be performed. In other instance, the major concern expressed by the medical text books was that the child would become lesbian or gay. Ouch.

Dreger “goes to bat” for these intersex individuals, recovering their narratives out of medical records and journals where they had been documented as cases. She advocates for them. She lobbies, blogs, publishes in the popular press. Then the unintended consequences hit. Some of those for whom she is advocating don’t like some of the evidence Dreger publishes. It is not sufficiently “on point” about transgender issues being exclusively a function of a man’s brain born in a woman’s body or vice versa. The idea that a man could love himself as a woman and so want to become a woman does not compute.

As one might expect, research produces subtle nuances that require more than a sound byte or even a blog post. Suddenly Dreger finds herself the target of anger from the advocates for whom she was lobbying. It is not pretty. It gets ugly. Think self-righteous indignation as an expression of narcissistic rage and having one’s deeply felt values questioned by the evidence. There is no easy way to say it: some advocates of social justice seem to feel that the end justifies the means. The “means” include rampant forms of bullying and in-your-face confrontation, including charges of dubious ethical violations, invalid research, fictional claims about the researcher’s relations with his or her children and family, and the posting of toxic gossip on the Internet. The cause may be righteous, but the behavior is wicked and mischievous if not heinous.

Dreger survives and is vindicated. But then she begins to wonder if her experience of the collision of scientific evidence with advocacy and versions of its conventional wisdom was exceptional. Like most survivors she asks: “Is it just me?” It is not. It reminds her of the conflict between Galileo and the sedimented beliefs of the Church of his time.

A point that underlies Dreger’s work and may usefully be made more explicit: The facts of empirical science are fragile. Not only can they be shouted down by bullies, purged by tyrants such the Italian Inquisition of the 16th century, or simply ignored by the average person, the facts can also be set upon by academic, university, or institutional agendas more dedicated to building a corporate brand – and being financially well funded – than attaining an evidence-based version of the truth.

(An early version of this thesis, perhaps unknown to Dreger, is Hannah Arendt’s work on Truth and Politics. Not a historian of medicine but of political theory, Arendt makes the powerful point that if all versions of Euclid’s Geometry had been destroyed, mathematicians would still be able to recreate formal geometry out of the a priori forms of space and time; but if Stalin had really succeeded in purging all examples that such a person as Leon Trotsky had existed, then we really never would have heard of such an individual’s factual existence. Facts are fragile. )

A case in point. It is conventional wisdom since Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Wills (1975), that rape is primarily an act of power by the perpetrator (usually a man), not one of sex. While not primarily a scientific treatise, it becomes the basis for research that gathers sufficient evidence and the thesis “power not sex” becomes “conventional wisdom.”

Enter a young (male) scholar who has a strong hunch he can prove an exception to the rule. No, sometimes rape is motivated by sex. Sometimes a guy, who has no prospect that the intended woman would have sex with him (but who he desires sexually) decides to use force. This naïve academic sees a dissertation topic that is a cut above the usual scholarly drivel. A dissertation is delivered to that effect. Not only does all hell break loose – he is silenced by angry activists – but it gets worse. The phone rings. It is a prosecuting attorney needing help with a case.

The District Attorney is bringing charges against a perpetrator, an alleged rapist standing trial for his crime. The defense is arguing effectively that science has shown that rape is about power, not sex. The perpetrator could not possibly have been motivated to the crime by sex. Science says so. Wait a minute. Rape is never about sex? It is now a defense against rape that there was no other motive than sex?

Since 1975 we have seen date rape and the use of incapacitating “date rape drugs” such as anesthetics facilitate the violation. Surely advocates and scientists can encompass the possibility that sometimes rape is about power, sometimes it is about sex, and sometimes, it is both (p. 125). Don’t be too sure. There is a deep lesson about human nature here. Constant dialogue is needed to keep people in rational communication without distortion and manipulation. The desire to be righteous and justified is pervasive and extends across all political spectrums. The ability to listen has rarely been in such short supply.

Another case. Napoleon Chagnon writes an innovative and disruptive work of anthropology (Yanomamö: The Fierce People). He argues that Margaret Mead’s vision of a peaceful coming of age in Samoa in a sexually liberated version of a hippie-like commune may not be the only paradigm of the life of native indigenous peoples. (Mead herself was subjected to a debunking, the factual basis of which turned out to be, shall we say, less than rock solid.) The Yanomamö in South America are more like warring bands of Hobbes’ “war of all against all” or the tribes of the Peloponnesian peninsula, with Achilles throwing a narcissistic fit – “I stole her fair and square” – because Agamemnon took his plundered woman.

Chagnon is a virtual Dreyfus Affair in the American Association of Anthropologists. Alfred Dreyfus (you may recall) was stripped of his epaulets, his campaign badges ripped off his chest, and he was banished to Devil’s Island (my metaphor, not Dreger’s). Years later, Chagnon is vindicated (as was Dreyfus) and “rehabilitated.” But only after years of upset, suffering, and the monumental expense of mounting a defense against false accusations as recounted in his My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. The bottom line? According to Dreger, in addition to the political infighting, wicked and mischievous gossip, and an alleged series of narcissistic injuries unintentionally committed by Chagnon against colleagues, it was politically inexpedient to represent indigenous peoples as warlike.

Dreger documents in detail the appalling political intrigues, plots misfired and rebounding onto the heads of the perpetrators, and the narrow mindedness of academics who ought to have adhered to scientific standards rather than tit-for-tat gamesmanship. Dreger’s work is definitely a page turner, reading like a spy novel or an account out of Kafka’s The Trial. Speaking personally, it made me paranoid at points. I felt discouraged at the alternating narcissistic rage and petty retaliation enacted for real or imagined slights to which both scientists and advocates for social justice seem all-too-prone.

The drama goes on. It escalates. Maria New, MD, is a celebrity woman’s doctor of long service and, at least initially, significant distinction. Dr New advocates that early stage pregnant women take dexamethasone (off-label, though FDA approved to prevent miscarriage) when the parental profile shows a one in eight chance that the female fetus may have congenital adrenal hyperplasic (CAH)). Basically CAH means that the baby might be a “boyish girl” if left untreated. Heavens to mergatroid – a lesbian? But since there were never any controlled studies of the consequences of taking dexamethasone (dex), it is not clear if the cognitive impairment, the deformed genitals, other anomalies, were due to the action of the drug or whether the drug was simply ineffective for its off-label use.

Dreger believes she has an “open and shut” case of an ethical violation that research subjects were not informed that they were participating in what amounts to a experiment, a far cry from a “safe and effective” treatment. The FDA oversight representative embedded in the research teams raises a number of red flags. Her career is ended on a pretext, and Dr New transitions to a different university without so much as a warning in any file.

One thing is for sure. Taking the case to the FDA and the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP) reveals a level of indifference, human clumsiness, and subtle, unexamined conflicts of interest and self-dealing that again approach’s Kafka’s The Trial. Appalling. By the way, if ones want to receive this treatment during early stage pregnancy with the hope of dialing down the masculinization of the fetus, it is still legally available from Dr New and her associates, though Dreger has made it her project to dominate the Google listings with warnings about the risks of the treatment.

Dreger’s point is that the use of dex to influence the process of masculization of the fetus is experimental as used off label (the “on label” use is not to treat CAH, but to prevent miscarriage, for which it seems to be effective). The women to whom it was given to treat CAH were never told and never signed an informed consent form to participate in what was basically an experimental use of the drug. “Safe and effective” remains unproven for CAH, and evidence to the contrary is emerging. However, what really put the kabash on the treatment with dex is that it has been branded an anti-Lesbian drug. More good news. It is not as bad as thalidomide; but possibly another DES fiasco in the making.

In conclusion, Dreger offers reflections inspired by the Founding Fathers of the early days of the United States and such politician-statesmen as Benjamin Franklin. No stranger to risk, Franklin was both flying a kite in a thunderstorm and building a structure of government capable of correcting its own errors (not on the same day). Thanks to such men, we are all better off than Galileo when speaking truth to power. Free scientific inquiry needs a free social and fair political space to flourish. Justice requires access to accurate facts and a way of testing evidence that distinguishes fact from fiction The truth is vulnerable to the influences and distortions of the social organization of power.

Granted that a scientist has not been burned at the stake for over 500 years, that is no reason for complacency. I could not help but think that Professor Dreger was well on the way to being a candidate, though admittedly the burning was “in effigy.” Bad enough! There have been many ruined careers and damaged lives due to bullying and political abuses. Dreger bemoans the “push down” of the press and investigative journalism – in short, the decline of the press beneath the pressures of a publishing market in distress, the Google-ad-industrial-complex, and on the Internet no one knows you are a dog. While the Internet is a multi-edged sword and sends fear into the hearts of tyrants everywhere, it is easy to abuse. It is a dubious format for rational discourse and evidence-based anything. That should not stop one from posting her or his peer-reviewed research (this is not an example of that) but it means one must also mount the soap-box on a regular basis and speak truth to power.

Alice Dreger. (2015). Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. New York: Penguin.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The Evidence: Empathy is Teachable, Trainable, Learnable

This essay is an excerpt from Chapter Four of the book Empathy Lessons. This essay is motivated by the need to debunk the position that the practice of empathy is vague and fuzzy and cannot be taught, that you either have it or you don’t. Bunk. I am addressing scientists, researchers, health care professionals who dismiss empathy as not scientific of evidence-based.

Substantial evidence is available that if you practice empathy, you get better at it. A bold statement of the obvious? Indeed. Yet the requirement to marshal the evidence is a significant one, even if it is often a function of resistance to practicing a rigorous and critical empathy. Key term: resistance to empathy. Overcome the resistance to empathy and the practice of empathy spontaneously and naturally comes forth. [See Empathy Lessons and other books by Lou Agosta on empathy: https://amzn.to/2S0ISPr.%5D

Evidence-based empathy

Even if one understands “evidence” in the most narrow and rigorous sense, substantial evidence is available from peer-reviewed research and publictions that empathy training is effective. The implications for evidence-based empathy training are direct. Empathy works. Some of this material may seem difficult or complex; but it is important to engage with it, because it undercuts the subtle resistances to empathy that dismiss empathy in the misguided belief that there are no evidence-based peer reviewed publications.

The first example is an empathy intervention so short that it passed the Institutional Review Board (IRB) criteria for the use of human subjects. The study was complete before people had a chance to drop out. An advertisement went out for people to receive a complimentary, free screening and short intervention for “problem drinking.” In fact, only problem drinkers responded. 

The people were divided randomly into groups and given either an immediate check up with confrontational counseling that directed them to stop drinking; or the subjects were given a check up with motivational interviewing that used client-centered counseling and did not try counsel changing the client’s behavior, but in the manner of motivational interviewing explored the person’s motives with him or her. Motivational interviewing employs empathic methods of listening and questioning and, in this example, becomes a proxy for empathy.

Strictly speaking, the counselor facilitated a dicussion with the client of what might happen if the client either did or did not stop (reduce) drinking. A third group of clients was wait-listed, for control, without intervention. Motivational interviewing is a client-centered intervention that relies on empathic listening, questioning, and responding. 

Both groups that received intervention resulted in a 57% reduction in drinking within six weeks, and the result was sustained at 1 year. However, there was one dramatic finding. The lead researcher and author (William Miller) reports: “Therapist styles did not differ in overal impact on drinking, but a single therapist behavior was predictive (r = .65) of 1-year outcome such that the more the therapist confronted, the more the client drank.”[i]

This bears repeating: the more confrontational the counselor, the more the client drank. If one starts with a confrontational approach rather than empathy, one is headed for trouble. 

In another study, perspective taking was practiced in which the other person was imagined to be a neighbor or a member of one’s own community rather than a stranger.[ii] This examines empathic interpretation, though the study does not use that terminology. Practice perspective taking, it improves. 

Other practitioners have developed exercises that focus on specific groups such as doctors of individuals with autism. This expands empathic understanding, though, once again, the terminology is different. Other experiments conduct explicit training in mentalizing, specifically, teaching participants in the training about associations between target facial expressions and emotions.[iii]

In a separate study, a large meta analysis by the Cochrane Library that reviewed fifty-nine peer-reviewed studies with 13,342 participants of a motivational interviewing intervention based on empathy for substance abuse over against other active interventions or no intervention and produced a similar result: motivational interviewing helped people cut down on drugs and alcohol.[iv]

Still, the debate goes on. 

Is the empathic questioning, the back-and-forth conversation, in the motivational interview that causes something (attitude, hope, fear, and so on) in the client to shift? Or do people convince themselves? Or do they just get better informed? Or do they stop blaming themselves and feel better, and so they “self medicate” less with alcohol or street drugs? 

Lots of questions. No easy answers. Yet when something is so effective across so many studies and researchers are still skeptical, then one has to say: “Okay, skepticism is proper and scientific. Yet nothing is wrong here; but there is something missing—empathy.”

Let’s do the numbers. 

Evidence shows that those who train and practice being empathic succeed in expanding their empathy. Educational programs that target empathy have a demonstrably positive effect on empathy skills, according to peer reviewed studies.[v]

Another case in point: a meta analysis of 17 empathy nursing courses in an educational context indicated statistically significant improvement in empathy scores in 11 of the 17 studies (and non statistically significant improvements in the other 6). Similar positive outcomes were reported when medical students, training to be doctors, were included. When nurses and medical students work at practicing empathy; and they get better at it. How about that.[vi]

A disturbing factoid: The empathy of persons studying to become physicians peaks in the third year of medical school according to measures applied periodically (as reported by Dr. M. Hojat and his colleagues at Thomas Jefferson University).[vii] Empathy expands; but then it seems to contract. The suspicion is that the burnout occurs in the “college of hard knocks.”

Use it or lose it? The stereotype of the harried medical doctor, seeing twenty or thirty patients a day, is increasingly accurate. As the MD (or other health care professional) is pushed down into survival mode, empathy is not improved or expanded. Hear me say it, and not for the last time, the things that make us good at the corporate transformation of American medicine, improving productivity and efficiency, do not expand our empathy. This does not mean that empathy and efficiency are mutually exclusive. It means we have to get better at balancing quantity and quality in both business and empathy. 

In another example, training sessions directed at aggressive adolescent girls in a residential treatment center showed the benefits of expanded affective empathy. Affective empathy is the automatic dimension of empathy (“empathic receptivity” in my definition) that is perhaps hardest to influence.[viii] Parental effectiveness training (PET) was demonstrated to move the participants from below facilitative on the Truax Accurate Empathy Scale up to or beyond the facilitative level. “Facilitative” means knowing how to get things done. That is, the outcome is that the parent’s empathic effectiveness was expanded.[ix]

The effectiveness of empathy training is not limited to the affective dimension. A team at the University of Toronto produced a meta analysis of twenty-nine articles, using seven different approaches to empathy training. All the studies except two (93%) had positive outcomes, improving the cognitive component of empathy (86%). These studies were distributed as follows: education (24%), nursing (14%), therapy (7%), medicine (21%), social work (3%), psychology (7%), human service (7%), couples (10%) and divorcees (3%). Regardless of the training method, individuals expand their empathy when they practice or engage in effortful training.[x]

In another study, some 42 couples involved in a romantic relationship completed a five week empathy training program. The change in empathy was assessed by measured analyses of variance. The assessment reproduced the positive results of earlier findings. The training produced reliably increased empathic interaction between the partners. Scores on three empathic measures improved over a follow up six month period.[xi]

Further evidence that empathy is trainable is available in “The Roots of Empathy” (ROE). This is a formal program developed by Mary Gordon and colleagues in Canada. 

First started in 1996 and introduced into U.S. schools in 2007, the ROE program has been featured on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the USA. ROE aims to build more peaceful and caring communities by expanding empathy in children.[xii]

The program targets elementary school classes, and consists of weekly visits to the class room by a new born baby and the baby’s mother for an entire school year. The group sits in a circle and the mom and baby interact, accompanied by a conversation about the life of the baby, biologically, psychologically, and socially. 

The empathy lessons are elementary—unless you do not happen to have ever been exposed to a baby or the empathic care of one. Babies cry when they are hungry or wet or cold; they coo and gurgle and giggle when they are content and happy. 

Some lessons are elementary; some, sophisticated, engaging with human development, of which the baby is Exhibit A, as the baby grows throughout the school year. 

The roots of empathy are present in front of the class: the baby. The powerful presence of the baby calls forth the emotional resonance, natural curiosity, and wonder of the children. The baby provides the empathy lessons, in effect being the teacher. The baby provides the opening for conversations with the children about human development, socialization, and building a community. The vast majority of human beings are naturally inspired to care for a baby. Whether people know how to deliver such care effectively is a separate issue, requiring separate training. A complex species, these humans: human beings are naturally empathic just as they are also naturally aggressive. 

At the heart of this kindergarten through 8th grade program is the goal of dialing down aggressive behavior patterns in children at an early age, in particular, curbing bullying (about which more in an entire chapter below). For example, roughly 160,000 children miss school every day “due to fear of an attack or intimidation by other students,” according to the National Education Association. 

The program also documents an 11% improvement in standardized achievement tests for the class that is exposed to the Roots of Empathy intervention.[xiii] This is definitely not a predictable result. It should put us in touch with the humbling sense that there are many things that we do not even know we do not know. 

When kids get the empathy to which they are entitled, they study harder and work smarter. When bullying is reduced, kids are less fearful, are less distracted, have more fun, and are able to study. When they study harder and smarter, they get improved scores.

The results of the program are “over the top” positive; and since this is the age of evidence-based everything, the program also spend a lot of cycles gathering key metrics on the results of the roots of empathy. A randomized control trial was conducted. 

Findings indicated that children who had participated in the program compared to children who had not, were more advanced in their social and emotional understanding on all dimensions assessed. These included emotional understanding, perspective-taking, peer acceptance, classroom supportiveness, pro-social behavior and characteristics. Concomitant reductions in aggressive behaviors and increases in pro-social behaviors (e.g., helping, sharing, cooperating) were noted. 

In particular, teachers rated three child (student) behavior outcomes (physical aggression, indirect aggression, and pro-social behavior). The Roots of Empathy program had statistically significant and replicated beneficial effects on all three child behavior outcomes.[xiv]

Peer reviewed research is compelling, but equally compelling are market dynamics: organizations are voting with their dollars that empathy is trainable. 

People with chronic life style diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, asthma, and so on, enjoy statistically favorable outcomes when their physicians show empathy—a fancy way of saying people “get better.” 

Relying on such evidence, a company called “Empathetics” has been founded to train medical doctors in expanding their empathy. 

Using intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University, Empathetics, Inc. trains physicians in expanding their empathy through the use of biofeedback. 

The CEO, Helen Riess, MD, delivered a Ted Talk about the value of empathy in health care.[xv] Dr. Riess and her colleagues at Mass General performed a meta analysis of the effects of empathy on all kinds of diseases. 

Dr. Riess (and her colleagues) report on randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in adult patients, in which the patient-clinician relationship was systematically monitored and healthcare outcomes were either objective (e.g., blood pressure) or validated subjective measures (e.g., pain scores). Those doctors (and related professionals) that scored higher on the empathy screening tests had demonstrably better patient outcomes than those with lower empathy scores. 

Three trials included patients with diabetes, two included patients with osteoarthritis. Other disorders included fibromyalgia, oncology, lower respiratory infection, osteoarthritis, hypertension, smoking, somatic complaints, and asthma. The median patient sample size was 279 (range: 85 to 7,557). That’s a lot of people. 

In summary, empathic doctoring produces favorable results. Patients get better compared with those whose doctors who do not score as well on the applied empathy scale. A word of caution. Correlation points to a significant path to improved outcome through empathic relatedness, but, at least in the context of this study, correlation is not causation.

Using the language of evidence-based medicine is trending. The “effect size” of empathy is so large that it overwhelms any confounding variables that might be hiding beneath the surface of experience. Thus, empathy fits right in with the trend. The results are compelling. Applying empathy in interacting with the vast majority of people is like using penicillin to treat the vast majority of significant bacterial infections. Applying empathy in interacting with people is like using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane. If you don’t do it, you are headed for trouble. 

Common factor, empathy, in social healing practices

Psychotherapy is regarded as an example of a social healing practice. Psychotherapy is a conversation for possibility between two persons, one of whom is dealing with difficult personal issues and emotions and another person who is committed to making a difference through empathy. 

Experience shows that physical disorders, injuries, and lesions get elaborated psychosocially. This is not just hypochondria or imaginary disorders that are “in someone’s head.” This is lower back pain, migraines, life style disorders such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, and irritable bowel that are aggravated by job, family, and relationship issues (conflicts, stresses, upsets) in a person’s life. Nutrition and exercise are behavioral practices that positively affect health, but can be difficult to influence. 

People have different ways of expressing their pain and suffering. When an investigation of the person’s life indicates that non-biological factors are contributing to the person’s decline or distress, then it is useful to engage an alternative point of view on pain and suffering. It is useful to undertake an inquiry without making too many assumptions that one knows what is actually going on. It is useful to have a conversation for possibility. 

The first person to undertake such an inquiry of whom we have any record was named “Socrates.” His student, Plato, wrote down what Socrates had to say, the most famous statement of which was that he knew only one thing: “I know that I do not know.” Socratic’s approach was so powerful that he was able to undertake fundamental inquiries that challenged his own inauthenticities and those of the persons with whom he engaged in dialogue. His questioning led to insights about basic values of truth, right and wrong, pleasure and enjoyment, and the organization of the community. The example of Socrates inspired talk therapists of all kinds—not to mention religious leaders, politicians of integrity, and educators in diverse disciplines. 

The word “empathy” does not occur in Plato’s dialogues with Socrates, who instead spoke of being a “midwife” of ideas. When a friend of mine read this account of Socrates as a midwife, he shared with me an anecdote from when he was a medical student. He was walking through the hospital maternity department one evening after class. As he passed an open door, one of the patient’s called out to him. She was in labor and she asked his help. As he told me candidly, at that time in his medical training, he knew nothing about childbirth. Thus, as far as he was concerned, the qualification of Socratic ignorance was satisfied. 

My friend asked the woman how he could help. She asked to hold his hand. He thought to himself, “Now this I know how to do!” He held her hand for awhile. She pushed and pushed. The result was a healthy baby boy. How or why the woman was left alone, and what further help arrived was not specified. 

My friend cited this as an example of empathic understanding that just shows up spontaneously. In his recollection this was an example of empathy at a moment of crisis to which no words were adequate. I would say the woman was training him in being empathic, and the empathy lesson worked just fine. 

Socrates did not claim to produce original knowledge himself. But he acted as a midwife for others, who were trying to give birth to sustainable, viable knowledge. In terms of empathic understanding, Socrates exemplified the commitment to new possibilities as opposed to conformity. Socrates made the case for dwelling in the comfort-zone stretching, discomfort of open-ended inquiry in the face of “being right.” He helped his dialogue partners give birth to ideas of their own and distinguish those ideas that are viable from those that are still-born. 

Socrates enjoyed a special relationship with his students and colleagues. He had a special rapport that was a combination ofidealization and affection that set him apart from many of the other teachers of his time, called “Sophists.” The latter were masters of argumentation and rhetoric for hire. 

The sophists were perhaps the original purveyors of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Socrates’ relationship with the sophists in the community was not positive. He spoke truth to power in such a way that those in power were deeply threatened. Some of those in authority came to fear and hate him. 

Eventually Socrates was indicted and convicted, in a trial of questionable merit, of a crime against the state, corrupting the youth. For reasons that are still controversial today, Socrates decided to drink the hemlock instead of fleeing into exile, becoming a martyr to prejudice and political intrigue. 

Nevertheless, the principles that Socrates espoused have become the basis for talk therapy—and overcoming resistance to empathy. To engage in therapy with human beings in their struggle with emotional pain and suffering requires: providing a gracious and generous listening and an authentic human response; inquiry into possibility and open-ended questioning; an alliance between the therapist and client against the disorder and suffering against which the client is struggling; and an understanding of cultural context and community. 

Amid an alphabet soup of therapeutic approaches today, the Socratic method of inquiry stands out as a common factor. It is challenging to try to find something in common between cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization routine (EMDR), rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), psychodynamic therapy, psychoanalysis, existential and humanistic psychotherapy, and so on. 

“Common factor” is an idea given credibility by Jerome and Julia Frank in their book on Persuasion and Healing.[xvi] The Franks debunk not only psychoanalysis, but also many of the alternative therapeutic approaches. The Franks’ position is that the beneficial results of therapy are a function of persuasion and suggestion. The therapist is applying his or her own empathic and emotionally generous personality in the context of the trusted relationship, committed to healing, to persuade the client to alter his habitual life practices in the direction of behaviors that are adaptive, accommodating, and empowering. The hypnotists called it “the rapport”; modern practitioners, “the therapeutic alliance.” 

However, the point here is not to back into an advertisement for empathy. Rather the point is to look at what actually happens in stage one of therapy whether it is CBT, DBT, or one of the diverse talk therapies. Each of these interventions, after establishing a framework around schedule and fee, takes steps to deepen and expand the client’s “in touchness with” his or her own experiences. In DBT this is called “mindfulness”; in psychoanalysis, “free association”; in CBT and REBT, identifying and “interrupting the pathogenic thought”; in existential-humanistic therapy and ACT, “radical acceptance” of what’s so. 

This “getting in touch with” is also the first step in becoming more empathic, and so highly relevant to empathy training. One has to be in touch with one’s own experiences in order to appreciate how the other person shows up in one’s vicarious experiences of that other person. In short, empathy is a common factor shared by virtually all approaches to talk therapy. 

The problem is that grouping empathy with “common factors” has become a way of dismissing empathy. All the interventions share empathy. It occurs on all sides of the multi-dimensional equation, and so empathy itself cancels out. Empathy falls out of the equation—and out of the discussion. 

I suggest an alternative point of view.

What if empathy were the very process that was creating the benefit—and the very equation itself—for each of these supposedly distinct interventions? What if empathy were the very thing that was creating the clearing for EMDR, ACT, and so on, to be effective in the person’s shifting out of stuckness, attachment to suffering, emotional disregulation, self-defeating behavior, or repetitive enactment? 

What if empathy was not the idle wheel, falling out of the equation, but the drive shaft? What if the techniques of CBT, DBT, ACT, EMDR, and so on, were themselves so much formal scaffolding, providing a ritual framework for the dynamics of the empathic relatedness to have its effect? 

Following the baton or dancing light in EMDR would be something to keep the client distracted while he was verbally expressing his experience of the trauma into the gracious listening of the therapist. 

Filling out the paperwork, the surveys, and the homework of CBT would be so much busy work designed to keep the client’s mind off of his anxiety and depression for long enough for the therapist’s empathic responses to the client’s issues to have an impact. 

The breathing in and out of mindfulness, literally a metaphor for empathy as oxygen for the soul, would be a useful holding pattern enabling the client to get in touch with his experience so he can communicate it to the therapist and be “gotten” for who he is as the possibility of radical acceptance in empathic understanding. 

The “tough love” of DBT and the group skills back-and-forth would be a useful distraction for the client’s intolerable emotions until the therapist was either able to get it right with his empathic interpretation or the client exhausted the payer’s twelve approved sessions. Then, in every case, the empathic exchange as it occurs in the conversation between therapist and the client would be what is making the difference. 

More work is definitely needed on this hypothesis. Nor is it likely to be an “either/or” matter. CBT’s “trigger log,” “dysfunctional thinking report,” and “daily thought record,” are useful exercises. Highly useful. It is just that, absent empathy, the CBT process is indistinguishable from dental work—and then the client does not even do the “homework.” What would an evidence-based comparison between empathic and alternative interventions even look like? 

The client comes in, and the therapist greets him with a standard human response, using all her abilities to understand and grasp that with which the other person is struggling. Is one supposed to compare being empathic with being rude? With being hard-hearted? With being confrontational? With misunderstanding the other person? With being stone-faced and unemotional? All of these are possibilities. The stone-faced option has actually been tried, but not with adults presenting for therapy. Presumably because it would be a short session. The adults would not stand for it, and most (possibly excepting the masochistic) would get up and walk out. 

However, it has been tried with infants in the context of attachment studies. When infants are briefly presented with a “still face,” a blank face from which emotion has been removed on the part of care-takers, who are usually warm and welcoming, the infants become noticeably upset. Some start to fuss; others, to cry. So do most people, whether in personal or experimental situations such as being on “candid camera.” Babies and children of tender age are people, too, and I suggest that their response is an example of a standard human one, albeit without any grammatical use of language, and typical of what one might expect from adults.

What is clear is that an overwhelming number and diversity of psychotherapy approaches engage in the use of empathy. This is so even when these interventions allow empathy subsequently to fall out of the equation as a “common factor.” 

Even if the approach in question devalues empathy as a narrow psychological mechanism, it has to endorse its use, because when empathy is absent, generally, positive outcomes are also absent. Those few interventions that devalue empathy—electro shock therapy (ECT), shaming, jail, capital punishment, collective shunning—begin by paying it rhetorical lip service. The result? The amount of aggregated experience that indicates that empathy is an effective intervention is vast and arguably sufficient to overcome any hidden, confounding variables. 

Judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a essential role; however, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. As noted, the issue is that  there are some interventions such as penicillin and using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane that seem to limit or even defy the gold standard. It would be unethical not to give someone penicillin if they were infected with an infection serious enough to require such treatment, since it is a matter of historical accident that penicillin was invented prior to the “evidence based” paradigm shift. And, as regards using a parachute, that case is the reduction to absurdity of not using common sense as a criteria in deciding what counts as evidence. What is going on here? The answer bears repeating for emphasis: The effect size is so large that it outweights and overwhelms any hidden confounding factors and so rises to the level of evidence (without quotation marks). [xvii]

The “effect size” is a function of the facts—the evidence—that there are so many examples and so much experience that penicillin works—that parachutes work—that the risk of one’s over-looking some other confounding variable is vanishingly small. It really was the penicillin, not (say) the effects of the alignmnet of the planets hidden behind the penicillin.

Likewise, with empathy. The use of empathy in human relations is demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health world in question that not to apply empathy would be like not prescribing antibiotics against a bacterial infection. Empathy has been effective in shifting the suffering and transforming the psychic pain throughout history. The criticism of empathy has usually been that it results in burnout and compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed, and people allergic to it excluded, or the results will be unpredictable. 

In conclusion, the critical path lies through empathy training: empathy is not an on-off switch but a dial/tuner that requires training to get it just right. Examples of peer-reviewed publications exist in which empathy was shown to be effective (in comparison with less empathy) in correlating with favorable outcomes in diabetes, cholesterol, and the common cold (?!) and are cited in the bibliography (and will be further engaged in Chapter Six of Empathy Lessons).[xviii] Expect this work to expand and gain traction in other areas such as psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

In short, not to begin with empathy would be like jumping out of the airplane without a parachute or not providing penicillin when the infection was bacterial. If you are jumping out of an airplane, use a parachute; if engaging with struggling, suffering humans, use empathy. 


[i] W.R. Miller, R.G. Benefield, J.S. Tonigen. (1993). Enhancing motivation for change in problem drinking: a controlled comparison of two therapist styles, Journal of Consultative Clinical Psychology, June; 61 (3): 455-61: 455. 

[ii] Jay S. Coke, Gregory Batson, Katherine McDavis. (1978). Empathic mediation of helping: A two-stage modelJournal of Personality and Social Psychology 36(7):752–766. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.36.7.752; Mark H. Davis, Laura Conklin, Amy Smith, Carol Luce. (1996). Effect of perspective taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 70(4), Apr 1996: 713–726.

[iii] Ofer Golan and Simon Baron-Cohen. (2006). Systemizing empathy: Teaching adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism to recognize complex emotions using interactive multimedia, Development and Psychopathology 18, 2006: 591–617. DOI: 10.10170S0954579406060305; J. Hadwin, S. Baron-Cohen, P. Howlin, and K. Hill. (1997). Does teaching theory of mind have an effect on the ability to develop conversation in children with autism? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 27: 519–537. DOI:10.1023/A:102582600 9731.

[iv] Geir Smedslund, Rigmor C. Berg, Karianne T. Hammerstrom, Asbjorn Steiro, Kari A Leiknes, Helene M Dahl, Kjetil Karlsen. (2011). Motivation interviewing for substance abuse, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, May 11, 2011, Issue 5: CD 008063. DOI: 10.1002/12651858.CD008063.pub2.

[v] C.T. Ozcan, F. Oflaz, B. Bakir. (2012). The effect of a structured empathy course on the students of a medical and a nursing school, International Nursing Review, Vol. 59, Issue 4, December 2012: 532–538. DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-7657.2012.01019.x.

[vi] Scott Brunero, Scott Lamont, Melissa Coates. (2010). A Review of empathy education in nursing, Nursing Inquiry: Vol. 17, Issue 1, March 2010: 65–74. 

[vii] M. Hojat, M. J. Vergate, K. Maxwell, G. Brainard, S. K. Herrine, G.A. Isenberg. (2009). The devil is in the third year: A Longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school, Academic Medicine, Vol. 84 (9): 1182–1191. 

[viii] E.V. Pecukonis. (1990). A cognitive/affective empathy training program as a function of ego development in aggressive adolescent females, Adolescence, Vol. 25: 59–76.

[ix] Mark E. Therrien. (1979). Evaluating empathy skill training for parents, Social Work, Vol. 24, no. 5 (Sep 1979): 417–19.

[x] Tony Chiu, Ming Lam, Klodiana Kolomitro, Flanny C. Alamparambil. (2011). Empathy training: Methods, evaluation practices, and validity, Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, Vol. 7, No. 16: 162–200. 

[xi] J..J. Angera and E. Long. (2006). Qualitative and quantitative evaluations of an empathy training program for couples in marriage and romantic relationship, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, Vol. 5(1): 1–26.

[xii] PBS staff reporter. (2013). Using babies to decrease aggression and prevent bullying. PBS News Hour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/using-babies-to-decrease-aggression-prevent-bullying/

[xiii] PBS staff reporter 2013.

[xiv] Mary Gordon. (2005). The Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child. New York/Toronto: The Experiment (Thomas Allen Publishers): 250–256.

[xv] Helen Riess. (2013). The power of empathy, TEDxMiddlebury: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=baHrcC8B4WM [checked on March 23, 2017]. See also: John M. Kelley, Gordon Kraft-Todd, Lidia Schapira, Joe Kossowsky, Helen Riess. (2014). The influence of the patient-clinician relationship on healthcare outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, PLOS, Vol. 9, No. 4 | e94207: 1–7 Helen Riess, John M. Kelley, Robert W. Bailey, Emily J. Dunn, and Margot Phillips. (2012). Empathy training for resident physicians: A randomized controlled trial of a neuroscience-informed curriculum, Journal General Internal Medicine. 2012 Oct; Vol. 27(10): 1280–1286. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-012-2063-z.

[xvi] Jerome D. Frank and Julia B. Frank. (1981). Persuasion and Healing: A Comparative Study of Psychotherapy. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1991. I express appreciation to Danny Levine, MD, for calling my attention to this outstanding contribution from the Franks. Also see my Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery (2015) for a critique of the psychopharmacological (psychiatric) approach in chapter three “Plato, Not Prozac!” (a title that I borrow from Lou Marinoff (2000), who I hereby acknowledge for his contribution). 

[xvii] Howick 2011: 5, 11.

[xviii] Howick 2011; M. Hojat et al, 2011; John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al 2014); David P. Rakel, Theresa J. Hoeft, Bruce P. Barrett, Betty A. Chewning, Benjamin M. Craig, and Min Niu. (2009). Practitioner empathy and the Duration of the common cold, Family Medicine 41(7): 494–501.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy is good for your health and well-being (The evidence)

Empathy is good for your health and well-being: Empathy is on a short list of stress reduction practices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathy in the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul. But do not settle for metaphors.

For evidence-based research on empathy, empathy and stress reduction, and empathy training you may start by googling: Antoni et al. 2011; Ciaramicoli 2016; Del Canale et al 2012; Farrow et al. 2007; Irwin et al. 2012; Maes 1995, 1999; Pollack et al. 2002; Rakel et al. 2009; Segerstrom and Miller 2004; Slavich et al. 2013 [this list is not complete]. 

You do not have to buy the book, Empathy Lessons, to get the research, but if you would like more detail see especially Chapters Four and Six in Empathy Lessons (click here to get book from Amazon).

[Also included are chapters on the Top 30 Tips and Techniques for Expanding Empathy, Overcoming Resistance to Empathy, Empathy Breakdowns, Empathy as the New Love, Empathy versus Bullying, and more.] 

The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Expanding empathy reduces stress; and reducing stress expands empathy. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being.  Here empathy is both the end and the means.

A substantial body of evidence-based science indicates that empathy is good for a person’s health. This is not “breaking news” and was not just published yesterday. We don’t need more data, we need to start applying it: we need expanded empathy.

Evidence-based research demonstrates the correlation between health care providers who deliver empathy to their patients and favorable healthcare

Well-being rides the wave of empathy

outcomes. What is especially interesting is that some of these evidence-based studies specifically exclude psychiatric disorders and include mainline medical outcomes such as reduced cholesterol, improved type 2 diabetes, and improvement in related “life style” disorders.

Generalizing on this research, a small set of practices such as receiving empathy, meditation (mindfulness), yogic meditation, and Tai Chi, promote well-being by reducing inflammation. These practices are not reducible to empathy (or vice versa), but they all share a common factor: reduced inflammation. These anti-inflammatory interventions have been shown to make a difference in controlled experiments, evidence-based research, and peer-reviewed publications.

Using empathy in relating to people is a lot like using a parachute if you jump out of an airplane or getting a shot of penicillin if one has a bacterial infection. The evidence is overwhelming that such a practice is appropriate and useful in the vast majority of cases. The accumulated mass of decades of experience also counts as evidence in a strict sense. Any so-called hidden or confounding variables will be “washed out” by the massive amount of evidence that parachutes and penicillin produce the desired main effect. 

Indeed it would be unethical to perform a double blind test of penicillin at this time, since if a person needed the drug and it were available it would be unethical not to give it to him. Yes, there are a few exceptions – some people are allergic to penicillin. But by far and in large, if you do not begin with empathy in relating to other people, you are headed for trouble.

Empathy is at the top of my list of stress reduction methods, but is not the only item on it. Empathy alongwith mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, spending time in a sensory deprivation tank (not otherwise discussed here), and certain naturally occurring steroids, need to be better known as interventions that reduce inflammation and restore homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research.

Biology has got us humans in a bind, since the biology did not evolve at the same rate as our human social structures. When bacteria attack the human body, the body’s immune system mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sickness behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years, and is basically healthy as the body conserves its energy and fights off the infection using its natural immune response.

Now fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not envision the stresses of modern life back when we were short stature, proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti Plain and defending ourselves against large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stressors of modern life—the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis—and the result is “sickness behavior”—many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression—but there is no infection, just inflammation. 

The inflammation becomes chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to “down regulate” the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as empathy reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor. When an angry—“inflamed”—person is listened to empathically—is given a “good listening” as I like to say—the person frequently calms down and regains his equilibrium. 

Empathy migrates onto the short list of inflammation reducing interventions. The compelling conclusion is that empathy is good for your well-being.

Bibliography, References, and Additional Reading

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Hobson, Peter. (2002). The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of Thinking. New York: Macmillan. 

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(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project