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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

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.

Top Ten Empathy Lessons: Trends for the New Year 2018

Here are Empathy Lessons for the New Year ahead. You know what would really interest me? To hear from you (dear reader) what is your empathy lesson? Future73nbcroppedWhether inspired by this list or your own experience over the winter holiday or living into the future: what is your empathy lesson? (My contact data is at the bottom of this post. Let me hear form you.) Meanwhile, my top ten (10) trends in empathy lessons for the New Year 2018—this is a count down list (think: Letterman)—are as follows:

  1. Empathy deserts grow; empathy lessons struggle to get traction: Under late modern digital global capitalism, empathy is a means, not an end. Capitalism organizes empathy along with workers and production processes. Yet many workplaces are empathy deserts in spite of the appearance of mangers with published “open door” policies.[i] Key term: empathy desert.

One’s humanity withers in the desert. So if you find yourself feeling dehumanized by your job, maybe you work in one of those, regardless of the prevailing rhetoric.

Instead of the industrial supervisor shouting orders to his workers, who curse under their breath and conform, managers employ therapeutic strategies to create a convivial environment of trust, relatedness, sociality, loyalty, and care. Happy people sell. Happy people write more software code with fewer bugs. Happy people who happen to be medical doctors see more patients an hour for more hours. Happy people deliver projects on time, on budget. Value creation in the late capitalist economy is a function of the exchange of emotion and empathy.[ii]

Yet the boss is not necessarily a paragon of empathic understanding. On the contrary, it’s “by the numbers,” “get your numbers,” and if you don’t get your numbers, your days are numbered. And if you don’t have any numbers, that itself is a bad sign, and we will find some for you. Relations with coworkers and superiors can be Machiavellian—and conflict-laden. The guy who said, “We don’t need more data; we need expanded empathy” was counseled out. Truth be told, successful business requires data and empathy; and both have their uses.

Today empathy is trending. Everyone is “talking the talk” of empathy. What could be better than empathy? But “walking the walk” of empathy arouses resistances, which are a major point of engagement in a similarly titled chapter.

The empathy lesson? Coming from empathic understanding—identify upsets and breakdowns. Do so in the spirit of expanding relatedness and community. Identify the unfulfilled expectation, thwarted commitment, or undelivered communication. Restore what is missing, especially if it is empathy, to complete the expectation, commitment, or communication.

In other words, clean up your own act: if you owe something to another person—whether money, an overdue library book, a promised email response, or a borrowed lawn mower—arrange to pay it back. If you have lied, acknowledge the lack of integrity to the other person; and take action to repair the damage done. Asking forgiveness does not just mean the slate is wiped clean and the perpetrator is free to commit boundary violations again. It means the person asking forgiveness tells the truth about what he (or she) did. It means being prepared to deal with the cost and impact of one’s inauthenticities and integrity outages.

This creates a clearing for success with empathy by cleaning up inauthenticities: Take action assertively to repair disruptions in relatedness and communication by acknowledging your contribution to the disruption. A person cannot relate authentically—that is, empathically—to people while being inauthentic in other areas of his or her life. People have to compartmentalize in order to survive the day; but empathy is the one area where compartmentalization is least effective. The inauthenticity around empathy in one particular area tends insidiously to spread to other areas.

Challenging as it may be, creating a foundation of authenticity is actually the first step in recovering and expanding one’s empathy, one’s power in relation to empathy, and the authentic relatedness that empathy makes possible.

Absent such a foundation, a person is simply not ready to engage empathically. Even if readiness was established up front, it can be lost along the way. Go back to step one. Those who are unwilling to do so may drop off at this point. Empathy is simply too hard; but any other approach is built on sand. No matter how good the following recommendations may be, if one does not establish a foundation of authenticity for empathy, a clearing for success, one is putting buttercream frosting on a mud pie.

  1. Empathy, capitalist tool: “CEO” now means “Chief Empathy Officer”: You heard it here first, and not for the last time. One can already hear the push back. This conversation shows up like another responsibility with which the head of the organization is tasked. As if she did not already have enough alligators snapping at various parts of her anatomy, now “CEO” no longer means “Chief Executive Officer,” but “Chief Empathy Officer.”

The things that cause people to excel at getting business results (beating the competition, solving technical problems, dealing with legal issues) do not necessarily expand one’s empathy.

Never is empathy needed more in business than when it seems there is no time for it. Building a business, growing a market, innovating in products and services, are all about building teams, networks of people, and communities. Empathy is at the foundation of community. Therefore, empathy is the foundation of business. Though business leaders hate to be tasked with yet another job, empathy has to start at the top if it has any hope of percolating up from the bottom. “CEO” now means “chief empathy officer.”

When I 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, then they see possibility and make it a priority to obtain a budget.

At the risk of over-simplification, 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. Interpret the resistance: “It is perfectly understandable that you would be cynical, given what you have been through, but that is not who you (we) authentically are.”

  1. Empathy’s “dark side” strikes back: “Machiavellian empathy” emerges as a growing threat to empathic empathy. When those in the executive suite are surveyed, some 60% of executives believe that their organizations are empathic, whereas 24% of their employees agree.[iii] An empathy deficit?

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was famous for saying that it would be best if the leader—the Prince, in his day—was loved, but it is essential that he be feared. Machiavelli never actually said that the ruling Prince must be perceived to be empathic, even as he ruthlessly wields power behind the scenes. But that is what he implied.

In the context of politics, Machiavellian empathy refers to business people and politicians who present themselves as being empathic while manipulating, spinning alternative facts, and double dealing behind the scenes. Machiavellian empathy shows up in business, too. If managers are not in touch with their empathic abilities, they are counseled to “fake it till you make it.” Most never “make it” and continue “faking it.”

Whether or not one authentically understands the experience of the other person is less relevant to the Machiavellian empath than scoring points on a check list of concerned behavior.

If the corporation were a machine, which is a well-worn but all-too-accurate metaphor, empathy would be the lubricant that keeps the various parts working together without overheating. The number of corporations that are “over heating” and “going up in flames,” with dramatic news hitting the global media, is one index of those experiencing the most severe empathy breakdowns.

The explicit symptom is predictably a revenue shortfall, but behind the headlines lurk dysfunctional relationships, cynicism, a culture of bullying and shaming, loss of authenticity, lack of leadership, and lack of empathy.

Even the cynical sales person understands the value of taking a walk in the customer’s shoes, if only to sell him another pair. The wise (and empathic) sales person understands that in any business that allows for product differentiation or distinctions in service level agreements, building a relationship with the customer is the royal road to solution selling.

Strictly speaking, Machiavellian empathy takes nothing away from empathy’s intrinsic benefits and uses. Even if one wants to present the appearance of being empathic for propaganda purposes while continuing to operate with dubious business practices the behind the scenes, reality has a way of catching up with appearances.

It is not entirely fair, but when a person with psychopathic tendencies—once again, wanton lack of respect for boundaries, cruelty to animals, and a willingness, even eagerness, to inflict pain on others—grows up in poverty, the person often runs afoul of the criminal justice system. The person ends up in prison.

In contrast, when such a person grows up in affluence and gets an education in business, the person often becomes a hard-charging, “type A personality,” and a successful executive. The person ends up in the corner office. When psychopaths go to work, or get elected to political office, the result is sometimes snakes in suits (the title of a book cited in the endnote).[iv] We observe, and not for the last time, that the things that create success in business, do not always expand our empathy.

Amazon said it was a wonderful place to work. Then the New York Times got some employees to comment on the record about “mean” behavior.[v] Uber was disrupting the disrupters and creating the Gig Economy, which supposedly set us free. Then the CEO, Travis Kapernick, got unwittingly interviewed on camera by a driver.[vi] Bullying is not just for high school kids anymore; it has always lived in the business world, too. Still, there is no guarantee that the Machiavellian empath will slip up and document his or her own inauthenticity; but it just might happen.

Is this then the ultimate cynical moment? Is this the reduction to absurdity of empathy? If empathy is about setting boundaries, where is the boundary? The limit to Machiavellian empathy is Lincoln’s famous saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” Ask Travis Kapernick. Ask Bernie Madoff and Michael Milken.[vii]

  1. Empathic response is an act of imagination, not agreement: Positively expressed, empathic response means giving the other person back his experience in such a way that he recognizes his humanity in the experience. However, agreement is often what people want in expressing their unhappiness or describing the setbacks in life that they have experienced.

After giving an account of some dramatic encounter, the one person turns to the other with a significant pause in order for the other person to respond with a heartfelt, if not empathic, agreement and approval. One often turns to the other person to get validation that the experience conforms to one’s own preferred interpretation. One uses the spontaneous response of the other to guide how one really feels about what occurred. This does not rule out that one person is often looking in advance for a particular reaction and to “get a rise” out of the other.

The scenario is complex; and the “get a rise” is not necessarily what a gracious empathic understanding or receptivity is going to provide. “Tough love” shows the other what he does not necessarily want to confront. Sometimes so does “a rigorous and critical empathy,” specially when the latter is framed in a way that recognizes and respects the other’s struggle.

The bridge between the cynical present and an impossible-to-envision future is empathy. The empathic moment is the act of imaging a different world, a future world of expanded empathy, in which the community expands inclusively.

Different viewpoints are available with regard to one’s action, including the perspective of one’s adversaries. One forms an opinion by engaging the issue from different perspectives. One makes present to the mind the perspectives of those who are absent or even opposed. That is, one represents them. This process of representation adopts the points of view of those who have different standpoints.

Thus, empathy is closely related to what one can imagine about the other person in relationship to oneself. An empathy that does not include the other fails the definition of empathy. This especially applies when the other is at odds with oneself. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. The empathic response is an act of imagination.

  1. If you have “compassion fatigue,” maybe you are not empathic enough: It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue.” Could it be that people who are experiencing compassion fatigue, but claim to be in a break down of empathy, are actually in a break down of compassion?

If one is trying to be empathic, but one is experiencing compassion fatigue, maybe one is doing it wrong. Maybe one is practicing empathy “wrongly,” with inadequate skill, precision, completeness, or finesse; and one needs a tune up for one’s empathy.

One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have had mixed results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and related tasks. This is all excellent, and the use of empathic methods is making the world a better place in all these situations. So keep it up. There is nothing wrong with being nice and so on: do not be “unnice”! But paradoxically something is missing—empathy.

The empathy lesson “not more empathy, expanded empathy” indicates that if one subtracts empathy from compassion, then one gets sympathy, reaction, burnout, compassion fatigue, which end up giving empathy a bad name. Now I do not wish to give anyone a bad name, who is committed to empathy, compassion, or making a difference is overcoming human pain and suffering. On the contrary, I acknowledge and honor one and all. The battle is joined; we are all on the same side; but we want to deploy our limited resources wisely.

Expanding one’s empathy requires an engagement with one’s own inauthenticities around empathy.

Expanding one’s empathy requires engaging with one’s own resistance to empathy. Until we engage with our own resistance to empathy we will remain stuck in our blind spots, breakdowns, burnouts, and compassion fatigue. In order to expand one’s empathy, one needs to engage with applications of empathy in the tough cases—stress and well being, bullying, business, and gender and romance. Engaging with these implementations is essential to consolidating the mastery of one’s practice of empathy—practice, practice, practice.

  1. Empathy and humor are closely related, and converge even further: Both empathy and humor create and expand community. Both empathy and humor cross the boundary between self and other. However, empathy crosses the boundary between individuals with respect, recognition, appreciation, and acknowledgement, whereas humor does so with aggression, sexuality, or a testing of community standards.

Here “aggression” includes language that people would find insulting. Therefore, be careful. The aggression or sexuality in question is usually presented in such a way that it creates a tension by violating social standards, morals, or conventions to a degree that causes stress short of eliciting a counter-aggression against the teller of the joke.

Substituting humor for empathy can work in some situations, but in others it can create a breakdown in the would-be relationship. You know how the more objectionable the joke, the funnier it is?

The result is either the release of tension through laughter or a failed joke and a shameful, if not scandalous, situation on the part of the joker. Indeed when the violation of the social convention, moral, or standard is such that the target of the joke experiences a dignity violation, then the joke arouses anger or even rage, not laughter. The caution flag is out.

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 the organization will assign job functions based on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. For those readers who may not know, the MBPT is the famous 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.”[viii] 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—in this case against insulting the lack of personality of the corporate cog—and then the stress is released in laughter by the mechanism of the joke such as a pun, double meaning, or violation of expectations.

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.

After a day at the office, people often feel as if their personality had been erased.

So a trace of empathy for the long suffering inhabitants of corporate cubicles does come to the surface after all. That is what Scott Adam’s Dilbert longs to express. It is a common place in the corporate world that people function as replaceable cogs in a well-oiled machine. Therefore, in this case, the cartoon is an example of how not to expand empathy. Cynicism and shame drive out empathy; and driving out cynicism and shame create a space into which empathy 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 cynicism versus empathy.

Empathy is the foundation of community in a very deep way, for without empathy we would be unable to relate to other people. In being empathic with another person, one creates a community with the other person; likewise, with humor. Humor creates a community among the audience and joke teller as the tension is dispelled in the laughter. For more on creating community through jokes, I recommend Ted Cohen’s Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, which also contains some really funny jokes.[ix]

  1. Train and develop empathy by overcoming the obstacles to empathy: People want to know: Can empathy be taught? People complain and authentically struggle. People say, “I just don’t get it—or have it.” The short answer is: Yes, empathy can be taught.

What happens is that people are taught to suppress their empathy. People are taught to conform, follow instructions, do as they are told. We are taught in first grade to sit our seats and raise our hand to be called on and speak. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is good and useful at the time.

No one is saying, “Jump up and run around screaming” (unless it is recess!). But compliance and conformity are a growth industry and arguably the pendulum has swung too far from the empathy required for communities to work effectively for everyone, not just the elite and privileged at the top of the pyramid. The lesson? If a person can contract his or her empathy, the person can also expand it.

Now do not misunderstand this: people are born empathic, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do math and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not expand our empathy or our community. It does not help that rule-making and the drum beat of compliance seem to be growing by leaps and bounds.

Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the resistances are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. That is the training minus all the hard work.

The hard work? Remove obstacles to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, narcissism, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, denial, competing to be the biggest victim, and injuries to self-esteem—and empathy spontaneously expands, comes forth, develops, blossoms. Yes, empathy can be taught.

  1. Health insurers promise empathy, do not deliver, and continue to collect monopoly rents. The empathy gap widens. Health insurers maintain a firm grip on the market for empathy-related “behavioral health” services without actually providing any. This is the only candidate trend from the last two years that I am repeating, since it is still accurate but a work in progress—and, unfortunately, picking up even more speed, going in the wrong direction. The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”)—reportedly to be terminated with extreme prejudice at any moment—promised to equalize benefits for medical benefits such as annual physical health checkup (including $800 worth of blood work) with mental health services such as psychotherapy. At the risk of being cynical, I don’t know if the reader has tried to collect lately or services rendered. The war stories, pretexts for nonpayment, and simple violations of their own rules—e.g., timely response—by insurers continue to mount. One feels a certain dissatisfaction with the lack of solutions. What to do about it? In spite of claims to the contrary, the recommendation from insurers seems to be: “But your majesty, the people have no mental health benefits. Then let them pay cash! And then let them eat cake.”

Future73nbcropped2. Empathy is the secret sauce in sexual satisfaction: Empathy is the new love. It is what people fundamentally desire – to be gotten for who they authentically are. When one person’s desire aims at the other person’s desire, then desire begets desire. The desire of the other’s desire is precisely the empathic moment. Sex goes better with empathy, providing access to the kind of kindling that transports the couple into a raging conflagration. The empathy lesson is that one takes off one’s inhibitions with one’s clothes, undressing one another.

While love is a many splendid thing, empathy is what is required to get off with another person. The “secret sauce” is when one partner gives permission to be turned on, and the other partner is inspired to accommodate. Then the Hollywood cinema cliché of sky rockets and fire works fits the moment. The recipe is about facilitating and sustaining such a state to create a peak experience . The secret sauce is empathy.

Desire unleashes a runaway process of desire between the partners that works something like the Dutch tulip craze of the 1630s, only in sexual favors. Like a speculative market bubble, desire becomes desirable because it is desired. But does such “irrational exuberance” in desire then threaten the entire relationship between the partners the way the housing bubble threatened the world economy? Certainly there are risks to the relationship in unleashing a sexual inferno. It requires a certain ego strength to let go and be vulnerable. In the case of sexuality versus economic bubbles, organism and ultimately pregnancy tend to moderate the runaway process. Meanwhile, the partners are willing to try to read the clues and do what the other wants the partner to do to the other person. A synchronization of desires occurs. The other can see through one to one’s desire. One can see through the other to the other’s desire. That’s the empathy lesson. This is starting to sound a lot like empathy.

And THE number one empathy lesson trending in 2018 (drum roll, please):

  1. Empathy is the ultimate anti-bullying antidote: Bullying is abroad in the land.       Bullying is all about violating the boundaries between the bully and the target—personal, physical, emotion; empathy is all about establishing and reestablishing boundaries between self and other. Empathy is the antithesis of bullying. Wherever empathy lives, bullying has no place. When you think about it for two seconds, so is parenting, teaching, and being a traffic cop—all about setting boundaries.

At least initially, establishing boundaries is not about having empathy for the bully; it is about being firm about damage control and containing the bullying. Ultimately the bully benefits even as the community is protected from his perpetrations; but more in the manner of a three year old child, who, having a tempter tantrum, benefits from being given a time-out in such a way that he cannot hurt himself or others.

Kids in middle school have usually developed some empathy for those on the “inside” of their peer group. The developmental milestone for them is to be expand their definition of “inside” and widen the circle of caring, making more of “them” into “us.” The many different kinds of bullies, bullying, and possible responses on the part of children, students, teachers, parents, and administrators will not be repeated here. Suffice to say: if it’s mean, intervene.

Empathy versus bullying is receiving much needed attention in middle and high schools; but it is also a significant factor in business and politics.

Bullying is not just for high school “bad boys” anymore. In politics, Mr. T. returns tit for tat in a verbal salvo against “Little Rocket Man [LRM].” LRM man remains true to his name and fires a real missile test across Japan in the direction of the central pacific. Under a future scenario that is not hard to envision, a miscalculation leads to a fail safe situation, which does not fail safely. A nuclear exchange escalates, resulting in burning cities that put enough particulate matter into the upper atmosphere to create a twenty-five year long “nuclear winter,” causing a species extinction. The human species ends; it was just a bad idea anyway. Come on, guys, we can do better than that. This is not an inevitable outcome.

However, a word of caution: it seems really to be the case that LRM would rather see the people of the North eat grass rather than give up the nuclear weapons. These people might have something to say about that at some point, or maybe not. But if shooting starts, head for the bomb shelter, it will be too late for empathy to make a difference, except perhaps much later on for the survivors, if there are any.

Meanwhile, the empathy lesson: empathy deescalates anger and rage: When people do not get the empathy to which they feel entitled, they start to suffocate emotionally. They thrash about emotionally. Then they get enraged. The response? De-escalate rage by acknowledging the break down—it seems you really have not been treated well—clean up the misunderstanding, and restore the empathic relatedness. Empathy does many things well. One of the best is that empathy deescalates anger and rage.

Without empathy, people lose the feeling being alive. They tend to “act out”—misbehave—in an attempt to regain the feeling of vitality that they have lost. Absent an empathic environment, people lose the feeling that life has meaning. When people lose the feeling of meaning, vitality, aliveness, dignity, things “go off the rails.” Sometime pain and suffering seem better than emptiness and meaninglessness, but not by much. People then can behave in self-defeating ways in a misguided attempt to awaken a sense of aliveness.

“Empathy is oxygen for the soul” is a metaphor. But a telling one. When people do not get empathy—and a short list of related things such as dignity, common courtesy, respect, fairness, humanity—they feel that they are suffocating—emotionally.

People act out in self-defeating ways in order to get back a sense of emotional stability, wholeness and well-being—and, of course, acting out in self-defeating way does not work. Things get even worse. One requires expanded empathy. Pause for breath, take a deep one, hold it in briefly while counting to four, exhale, listen, speak from possibility.

The empathy lesson? Set boundaries. Look for balance. Be responsible. Own it. 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).” Just maybe there is a lesson here for international relations too. A good fence makes for good neighbors. But there is a gate in the fence. And over the gate is a sign that says “Empathy.”

NOTES / REFERENCES / CONTACT DATA / COPYRIGHT

[i] Roman Krznaric. (2104), quoted in Belinda Parmar.(2014). The Empathy Era: Woman, Business and the New Pathway to Profit, London: Lady Geek: 91. Parmar does not cite a page in Krznaric, and I have not been able to find it so far.

[ii] Tristam Vivian Adams. (2016). The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy. London: Repeater Books: 56–77.

[iii] William Gentry. (2016). Rewards multiply with workplace empathy, Businessolver: http:// www.washingtonpost.com/ sf/brandconnect/businessolver/ rewards-multiply-with-workplace-empathy/ [checked on 03/31/2017].

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld. (2015). Inside Amazon: Wrestling big ideas in a bruising workplace: The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions. The New York Times, August 15, 2015: https://nyti.ms/1TFqcOG [checked on June 30, 2017].

[vi] Alynia Selyuk. (2017). Uber CEO apologizes over video of dispute with Uber driver. National Public Radio (NPR) All Things Considered: http://www.npr.org/2017/03/01/5179 88142/uber-ceo-apologizes-over-video-of-dispute-with-driver [checked on July 2, 2017].

[vii] According to Forbes: Milken made his billions in leveraged buyouts in the 1980′s, only to be sent to prison in 1989. He pleaded guilty to securities fraud after the government agreed to drop criminal charges against his younger brother, Lowell, and then served 22 months. The one-time Drexel Burnham Lambert executive has charted an entirely different course ever since and is a well known philanthropist.: https://www.forbes.com/sites/luisakroll/2012/10/26/billionaires-and-former-billionaires-who-have-spent-time-behind-bars/#6b7b75 b32107. Meanwhile, more breaking news, as this article is being written, some 49 men stand accused of sexual misconduct in various workplaces extending from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood production company (from which he was fired) through venture capital firms to restaurant businesses: https://www.nytimes.com/ interactive/2017/11/10/us/men-accused-sexual-misconduct-weinstein.html?_r=0. The problem is that, while it is good that this abuse is finally coming out, it has been hidden in plain for years and years. See Harry Markopolis’ (2010) statement in a different context above, “no one would listen” [also the title of his book]. Where is Lord Acton when we need him? He is the one who said: “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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

[ix] Ted Cohen. (1999). Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Contact data: LouAgosta@gmail.com

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project, this post and all posts and content of this site

 

Empathy Lesson One: Empathy is different than compassion

Most people believe that empathy is compassion. I routinely ask the people in my empathy training classes to ask five of their acquaintances, “How do you define empathy?” and to do this without saying what they think empathy is. The respondents

Image of Buddha

The world definitely needs more compassion, but compassion is distinct from empathy

routinely report back with a story about altruism, charity, niceness, and prosocial behavior. “Prosocial behavior” is an action or intervention that helps one’s neighbors in deeds and words. And, heavens knows, the world needs more compassion. However, compassion is distinct from empathy. This series of posts will say how.

Most people regard empathy as something like a switch that one can turn on or off. One has it or one hasn’t. Even books that promise to train you in empathy say that the book is going to tell you how to get it. Note this implies you haven’t got it. This is not a good way to regard your prospective audience or client. This series proposes an alternative perspective on the matter. Empathy is more like a dimmer – a dial that one can tune up or down – depending on the situation. This is not easy to do, which is why training and practice are needed.

You know how we can feed everyone on the planet, so that there should be no need for people to get sick and die due to starvation? Thanks to the Green Revolution, miracle seeds, and the economies of scale of agri-business enough food exists to provide everyone with at least a minimum level of nutrition? Yet people are starving. People are starving in the Middle East, Africa, and even in desperate parts of the inner city in the USA. People are starving because of politics (in the negative sense), aggression, prejudice, break downs in social justice, and break downs in community. There is enough food to go around, but it is badly distributed. Likewise, with empathy. There is enough empathy to go around; but it is badly distributed. Organizational politics, human aggression and narcissism, stress and burnout, attempts to control and dominate, all result in empathy “going off the rails.”

Therefore, I and the proponents of empathy with whom I align do not call for “more” empathy, but rather for “expanded” empathy. The difference is subtle. Saying “we need more empathy here,” implies the person lacks empathy and that is an insult. In the extreme cases – serial killers, psychopaths, people on the autistic spectrum – they do in fact lack empathy in a technical, diagnosable sense. However, in most cases, people have a significant empathic ability with which the individual may be out of touch at a given moment or in a particular situation. Their empathy is implicit and is waiting to be expanded. Therefore, the call goes out for expanded empathy – to leverage that grain of sand of empathy that already exists and develop it, if not into a mountain, at least into large hill of empathy. Experience indicates that calls for “more empathy” result in a breakdown of empathy because the call is experienced as a dignity violation. “Are you saying that I lack empathy? How insulting. Humpf!” Well, not exactly. I am saying that expanded empathy would make a difference in getting unstuck, reestablishing relatedness, and overcoming the challenges at hand. This may seem like a rhetorical flourish, and perhaps at some level it is that too; but it is really an accurate description of the subtlety of the human situation in which people assume their own point of view is right – and, therefore, is the empathic one. With that in mind, we acknowledge this is going to take some work.

One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have had mixed results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and related tasks. This is all excellent, and the use of empathic methods in these areas is making the world a better place, so keep it up. There is nothing wrong with being nice and so on. Pardon the double negative: don’t not be nice. But something is missing – empathy. Expanding one’s empathy requires an engagement with one’s own inauthenticities around empathy. Most people would rather not look at their own blind spots about empathy. Most people would rather not look at how their own empathy breaks down and fails. Expanding one’s empathy requires engaging with one’s own resistance to empathy. Until we engage with our own resistance to empathy we will remain stuck in our blind posts, break downs, burn outs, and compassion fatigue.

The courageous person knows fear but is not stopped by it. The empathic person also knows fear – fear of being vulnerable, fear of resistance, fear of rejection, fear of compassion fatigue. This introduction acknowledges the empathy of the readers – your courage in taking on the issues that you need to engage in order to expand your empathy and that of the community. “Courage” does not mean not being afraid or experiencing fear. It means being afraid and going forward in spite of one’s fear. Likewise, with empathy. The empathic person goes forward into authentic relationships individually and in the community in spite of fear.

The challenge up front is to get access to the foundation of empathy. The architect building a structure knows that the building has to be based on bedrock. You have to go down to what is stable and abides. If the foundation does not go down to bedrock, the structure can be magnificent, beautiful, and elegant; but it will inevitably crack, lean over like the leaning Tower of Pisa, and then fall over due to a faulty foundation. If human relations are the building and empathy is the foundation of the building., then we first have to explore what is bedrock on which the foundation is supported. And if one regards empathy as the foundation of human relatedness, we are in effect asking – what is the bedrock of bedrock? On what is empathy itself founded? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: Authenticity. Authenticity is basic to empathy. Without authenticity, nothing works. Not even empathy.

For those who simply cannot stand the suspense of knowing that empathy is not compassion and wanting then to have a definition of empathy, here is the proposal that will be developed in this series. Empathy is the form of authentic human relatedness in which one person is receptive in a vicarious experience to the experience of the other person in which this vicarious experience is processed further in understanding of the other person as a possibility [empathic understanding], appreciates the perspective of the other person from the other’s point of view [the folk definition of empathy as talking a walk in the other’s shoes], and responds in such a way that the other person gets her or his own experience back from the listener in a form that is recognized as one’s own. It will take some work to unpack these four dimensions of empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness. That is why this is a series. Stand by for the next exciting episode.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD

Empathy, Stress, Brain Science – the Movie!

Here is my short, half day course on Empathy, Stress (Reduction) and Neural Science delivered at the Joe Palombo Center for Neuroscience at the Institute for Clinical Social Work on December 03, 2016. The image depicted below is the punchline to a Richard Feynman joke about the cosmos – “It’s turtles all the way down” – in the case of neuroscience “It is neurons all the way down!” Granted that the joke is not funny if one has to explain it, the video provides all the background you need to laugh (one way or the other!) –

A famous person once said: “Empathy is oxygen for the soul.” So if one is feeling shortness of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy! This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience (“brain science”). For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. [This is an over-simplification, but a compelling one.] Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.

The session engages each of the following modules in the discussion segment, including suggested readings. Except for the first two topics, we can take them in any order and the participants will get to select:

  1. This is your mind on neuroscience – mirror neurons: do they exist, and if not, so what?
  2. Sperry on the split brain: the information is in the system: how to get at it
  3. The neuroscience of trauma – and how empathy gives us access to it
  4. MRI research: as when Galileo looked through the telescope, a whole new world opens

Presenter: Lou Agosta, PhD, is the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy, including A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015). He has taught empathy in history and systems of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and offered a course in the Secret Underground Story of Empathy at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Education. He is an empathy consultant in private practice in “on the forward edge in the Edgewater Community” in Chicago.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy, Stress (Reduction), and Brain Science – Fall Program

The image depicts a mirror neuron – the neurological basis for empathy – admiring itself in the mirror. But do mirror neurons even exist? If not, what is the underlying neural slide1implementation mechanism for empathy? At another level of analysis, how is empathy like oxygen for the soul, reducing stress and enabling possibility? Find out more here …

To register or for more info call Elizabeth Oller: 1-312-935-4245 or email: JosephPalomboCenter@icws.edu

Empathy, Stress Reduction, and Brain Science

A famous person once said: “Empathy is oxygen for the soul.” So if one is feeling shortness of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy! This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience (“brain science”). For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.

We will engage each of the following modules in the discussion segment, including suggested readings. Except for the first two topics, we can take them in any order and the participants will get to select:

  1. This is your mind on neuroscience – mirror neurons: do they exist, and if not, so what?
  2. Sperry on the split brain: the information is in the system: how to get at it
  3. The neuroscience of trauma – and how empathy gives us access to it
  4. MRI research: as when Galileo looked through the telescope, a whole new world opens

Presenter: Lou Agosta, PhD, is the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy, including A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015). He has taught empathy in history and systems of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and offered a course in the Secret Underground Story of Empathy at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Education. He is a psychotherapist (and empathy consultant) in private practice in “on the forward edge in the Edgewater Community” in Chicago.

Date: Saturday December 03, 2016

Time: 9 AM – noon

Registration Fee: $35

Location: to be provided upon registration: at or near ICSW at 401 S. State St Chicago, IL

Registration: Call Elizabeth Oller: 312 935 4245 or email: JosephPalomboCenter@icsw.edu