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Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 2): Individual Provider and Receiver (of Empathy)
Empathy is trending. As we engage with provider empathy, the pendulum has swung far enough for a backlash against empathy to be emerging.
Empathy with negative emotions and suffering is difficult. From a purely selfish perspective, empathic data gathering about the negative experiences endured and survived by other persons can be, well, negative. Negative experiences such as loss, hostility, intense rage, sexual danger, sadness, sleep deprivation, fear, and so on, are not welcome by anyone even as a less intense vicarious experiences. One fears getting the full-blown experience, not merely vicariously experiencing a sample or trace. The would-be empathizer is at risk of being overwhelmed, inundated, or flooded by emotional upset. The person’s empathy is on the slippery slope of empathic distress; and the empathy is at risk of breakdown.
The language is telling. If one is hit by a tidal wave, then one is going to be “under water.” Kick your feet, make swimming motions with the arms, and rise to the surface to try to catch your breath. While an empathic response is easier said than done, expressing the suffering of the survivor in a simple and factually accurate statement can open the way to containing the suffering and getting unstuck. Dial down empathic receptivity and dial up empathic interpretation and understanding.
People committed to providing empathy to other people resist their own commitment to empathy for several reasons. As soon as a person makes a commitment—in this case, a commitment to practice empathy—then all the reasons why the commitment is a bad idea, unworkable, unreasonable, or just plain absurd, show up. There is no time. It is too expensive. No one is interested. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, now seems a lot more challenging and like a lot more work. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no possibility of it.
The would-be empathizer is vulnerable to a vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering. Indeed if one’s empathic data filter is not granular enough, one is at risk of being inundated by emotional contagion. This does not mean that the provider of empathy has to be a masochist, stuck on suffering. However, it does mean being vulnerable to a sample of the suffering. It does mean opening oneself up to a sample of the other person’s upsetting experience. It does mean being receptive to that which the other finds so upsetting, but doing so in a regulated and limited way. Hence, the need for training.
The training consists in interrupting and accepting one’s own feelings and letting them be. Practice is required in order to increase one’s tolerance and learn to be with uncomfortable feelings.
One key to forming a humane relationship with anyone who is upset: Vicariously getting a taste of the upset, experiencing vicariously the other’s fear or anger. Acknowledge the experience as valid. Accept the experience, not as good or fair, but as what one has indeed experienced.
One celebrity academic claims that in empathy the better part of emotion is reducible to emotional contagion. What the world needs to practice is not empathy, but rational compassion. As if one had to choose between the two! The world needs expanded empathy and more compassion of all kinds.[i]
A vicarious experience is essential data as to what the other person is experiencing; but if one is distressed to the point of upset by the other’s upset, then one is not going to be able to make a difference. Paradoxically one is not going to be able to experience one’s experience due to being distracted by one’s own upset. One’s empathy has misfired, gone off the rails, failed.
Empathy is in breakdown. One has to regroup. Take a time out. Acknowledge that one is human. One does not always get it right, but that does not mean that one is less committed to empathy or helping the other. It is worth repeating that the empathizer may expect to suffer, but not too much—just a little bit.
The good news is that empathy, when properly implemented, serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy supposedly results in “compassion fatigue.” However, this work has repeatedly distinguished empathy from compassion.
Could it be that when one tries to be empathic and experiences compassion fatigue, then one is actually being compassionate instead of empathic? Consider the possibility. The language is a clue. Strictly speaking, one’s empathy is in breakdown. Instead of being empathic, one is being compassionate, and, in this case, the result is compassion fatigue without the quotation marks. It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue,” which is a nuance rarely noted by the advocates of “rational compassion.”
No one is saying, do not be compassionate. Compassion has its time and place—as does empathy. We may usefully work to expand both; but we are saying do not confuse the two. Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experiences of the other person; compassion tells one what to do about it, based on one’s ethics and values.
Most providers of empathy find that with a modest amount of training, they can adjust their empathic receptivity up or down to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. In the face of a series of sequential samples of suffering, the empathic person is able to maintain his emotional equilibrium thanks to a properly adjusted empathic receptivity. No one is saying that the other’s suffering or pain should be minimized in any way or invalidated. One is saying that, with practice, regulating empathy becomes a best practice.
However, the good news is sometimes also the less good news.
The other person’s suffering reminds one of one’s own suffering.
The other person’s anger reminds one of one’s own anger.
The other’s failures evoke one’s own setbacks.
The other’s self-defeating behavior is plainly evident to any third party, but one’s own self-defeating behavior seems to continue with regularity in tripping up oneself.
Rarely does a person say, “I want to be empathic in order to confront my own personal demons.” Rarely does one say it, but that is what is needed. That is the work of expanding one’s empathy. As in the fairy tale, one must spend three nights in the haunted castle, fighting the ghosts of one’s past and confronting the illusive specter of one’s blind spots.
Anxiety, depression, fragmentation, and the dehumanization dwelling in the dark side of human nature loom large before discovering the buried treasure of one’s own emotional resources in the face of upsets.
The thinking and practices that created empathy breakdowns are insufficient to overcome them. The thinking and practices that created resistances to empathy are insufficient to transform them. To get one’s power back in the face of resistance to empathy, something extra is required.
Expanding one’s empathy in the face of one’s own resistance to empathy requires something extra. Expanding empathy requires expanding authenticity, so the person who would practice empathy has to confront and clean up his own emotional contagion, conformity, projection, egocentrism, devaluing judgments and opinions, and the tendency of communications to get lost in translation. This clean up requires acting to repair disruptions in relatedness and repairing misunderstandings and miscommunications with other people by acknowledging one’s own contribution to the breakdown. It requires picking up the phone or requesting a meeting. It requires showing up, engaging, and acknowledging how one acted to cause the upset or breakdown.
Instead of emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and mistranslation, one enters the empathic cycle, engaging with openness towards the other person in receptivity, understanding of possibilities, taking ownership of one’s meaning making so that the other person is left free to be self-expressed, and responding in such a way that the other person is left whole and complete.
This means accepting the consequences of one’s deeds and mis-deeds. That is the first step—and every step—in recovering one’s power in relation to empathy. One might not get what one wants. However, what one is going to get is unstuck—and the freedom to be empathic in relationships going forward.
Everyone wants to get empathy, don’t they? Speaking of a recipient’s resistance to empathy sounds like resisting rainbows and colored balloons. What’s not to like? Empathy is what everyone really wants, isn’t it? Well, not always. Resistance to empathy—that it exists—is the basic empathy lesson of this chapter.
Emotional closeness leaves a person vulnerable to disappointment. The would-be recipient of empathy is ambivalent and vulnerable about being intimate with the other person, inhibiting the recipient’s empathic relatedness. The result is resistance to empathy.
People want approval from other people. People want approval for their opinions and behavior. People want agreement. Life is definitely easier, at least in the short run, if one is surrounded by people who agree with one rather than disagree.
People especially want agreement when they have something to be disagreeable about. They want agreement when they have a complaint. However, empathy does not lead off with approval and agreement.
Empathy leads off by being quiet and listening. In the face of chronic complaints and self-defeating behavior, being empathic often takes an open and inquiring stance that the other person may usefully take a look at any responsibility or potential blind spots he may be holding onto as the source of the complaint. It seems like “mission impossible,” since the blind spot is precisely that which, by definition, one does not know and that to which one can get access only through sustained self-inquiry. Doing the hard work of undertaking an inquiry into one’s own issues is, well, hard work. That results in resistance to empathy.
Resistant or not, people want to be understood. People want to be gotten for who they authentically are. People want other people to know how they have struggled to succeed and overcome adversity.
Yet, in hoping to be understood for who they really are, people are asking, not so much for agreement as for empathy.
People assert that they want to be understood; yet they do not want to be understood too well.
People do not want to take too close a look at how they have contributed to their own struggle and effort. People do not want to face directly how they have contributed in self-defeating ways to their own frustration and stuckness about which they so loudly complain.
People want the recognition of their humanity that comes with empathy; but not the unmasking of their own blind spots, which requires getting out of their comfort zone.
Let’s face it. People can be difficult. People are disagreeable. People are contrary. People are ornery. People are rude and discourteous. People push and shove. People often forget to honor their agreements. People lie. People are overly aggressive. People are overly sexed. People are under-sexed. People smell bad. Is it any wonder that people do not want to get close to other people? Is it any surprise that people develop resistance to being empathic towards other people?
This is a case of you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. People, that is. Yet there is no such thing as a person in isolation. A person by himself is not a survivable entity. That is true of newborn babies. That is true of children of tender age, who require years of guidance and education. Likewise, that is true of adults, though in more nuanced ways.
The “I” is a part of the “we,” and the “we” a part of the “I”
Early prehistoric humans needed a companion to tend the campfire and stand guard against predators (or hostile neighbors) while the other(s) rested. The basic male and female pair was an inseparable requirement for procreative success.
Propagating the species to build a community against the ravages of infant mortality was a priority requiring skills to cooperate with one another socially. For most of recorded history (and before) children were the equivalent of a pension plan for aging parents; and in many parts of the world today that continues to be the case.
Domination and control of individuals in community based on physical strength and violence coexisted alongside (and contended against) forms of cooperation, leadership, and community-building based on the skillful use of language and symbols to exercise power based on motivation, persuasion, inspiration, inclusion, and enlightened self-interest.
The point is not to tell a “just so” story about the origins of civilization, but rather to acknowledge that, not only is the individual a part of the community, the community is also a part of the individual. This bears repeating. The “I” does not only belong to the “we”; but the “we” is a part of the “I.” We carry within ourselves a readiness for community, a readiness for relatedness, a sense of inclusion in community; and if there is no one else to talk to, we talk to ourselves.
The empathy lesson? Empathy is the foundation of relatedness, and resistance to empathy is resistance to relatedness. People are born into “relatedness.” Empathy is about participation with others. Empathy is about relatedness with other people and who these others authentically are in their strengths and weaknesses, in their possibilities and limitations. Even when a person is a hermit, all alone, he is alone in such a way that his aloneness depends on the basic condition of his being a creature designed for relatedness. Being unrelated is a privative form of relatedness; and being alone is a deficient form of relatedness. Paradoxically, nonrelatedness becomes a way of relating for some.
Given that resistance to empathy on the part of the would-be recipient of empathy is pervasive, what is the recommendation? Ask yourself: What is coming between myself and the other person who is offering empathy? Perhaps fear of being misunderstood is a factor. Fear of being let down is another factor. Fear of being vulnerable gets in the way. Fear of disappointment is a consideration.
What do all these factors have in common? Fear. Fear is front and center. However, there is something else further back behind the fear. Less obvious but highly significant. What would a person have to give up in order to be receptive to the gracious and generous listening being offered? Behind the fear is attachment—attachment to suffering.
Suffering is sticky
For people who are survivors, whether of the college of hard knocks or significant trauma, allowing themselves to experience another’s empathy takes something extra. Many people who fall short of a clinical label of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) have an area in their lives in which they are engaged with their suffering in an intimate way. You know the saying: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer”? So it is also with suffering. In order to survive suffering, many people have decided to keep it close to them. They are attached to it. Overly attached? One thing is for sure. Suffering is sticky.[ii] Letting go of the suffering through the soothing experience of empathy seems like a risky proposition to people who feel fragile and vulnerable.
Consider PTSD. (We define our terms.) In an attempt to master the consequences of the life threatening experience of trauma, the organism (the human mind/body) keeps the fear, anxiety, and pain split off from being experienced as one’s own. Yes, one was present when the assault happened, the violence was perpetrated, or the train wreck occurred.
Yet in another sense, one was not present. One was not there, at least not as a conscious being. In being overwhelmed in the moment, one immediately took oneself out of the experience as an immediate reaction and survival mechanism. The traumatic experience remains unintegrated with one’s other life experiences, spinning in a tight circle of repetition.
The circle of repetition is split off from the person’s awareness and everyday life, remaining isolated—“sequestered” is the technical term for it.[iii] Suffering lives. The pain is real. Suffering itself becomes a kind of “comfort zone,” but only in the limited sense that it is isolated and separated from the awareness of the person trying to live his life.
This in no way diminishes the struggle or suffering of the survivor. Yet letting go of the suffering through the soothing balm of empathy shows up like a risky encounter with the unknown. For most people, the unknown itself is fear inspiring. The unknown is as fear inspiring as the suffering itself.
One keeps coming back to the suffering in the hope that it might be magically shifted. One keeps coming back to it like an exposed nerve in a toothache. Yes, it still hurts—ouch! The suffering starts to dominate one’s whole life, and one builds one’s life around the suffering, trying to manage and contain the uncontainable. One says, “I know my own dear little suffering up close, and it is a comfort to me in its own way—it gives me all these secondary gains—even though the impact and cost is staggering in the long term—yet I cannot let it go.”
We cycle back to empathy and its many dimensions in the context of suffering as an uncomfortable comfort zone.
How to be empathically responsive to the struggling individual and his “dear little suffering” requires an empathic listening of remarkable finesse and timeliness.
Empathy can help people get out of their comfort zone, in this case a place of suffering, in a safe and liberating way. When empathy gets an opening, empathy shrinks the trauma the way interferon is supposed to shrink tumors. Empathy sooths the accompanying suffering and reduces the stress.
The survivor is able to let go of the attachment to suffering, and engage with new possibilities. No guarantee exists that the outcome of the new possibilities will be favorable; many risks await; but the individual is no longer stuck.
In summary, we have engaged with resistance to empathy from three perspectives. We have explored overcoming resistance to empathy in the organization, in the individual providing empathy, and in the individual receiving empathy. In each case the empathy training consists in driving out obstacles to empathy, reducing or eliminating the resistance, so empathy can spontaneously grow and develop.
The organization drives out empathy by enforcing conformity to an extensive and contradictory set of rules, whose complexity is such that at any give time, the individual is technically (though unwittingly) in violation of one of them.
Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s career; and humor is closely related to empathy; so humor becomes a powerful way of regulating empathy, expanding and contracting empathy in such challenging organizational contexts. Humor is a powerful tool against the arrogance of authoritarian domination. Both empathy and humor require crossing the boundary between self and other with integrity and respect, but humor offers additional opportunities for questioning the status quo, speaking truth to power, and creating the stress, suddenly relaxed by laughter, caused by expressing what’s so.
Empathy has a key role to play in organizations in reducing conflict, overcoming “stuckness,” eliminating self-defeating behavior, building teams, fostering innovation, developing leadership, and enhancing productivity. The empathy lesson is to use humor (and empathy) to undercut resistance to empathy in the organization. The lesson is that empathy is a source of creating possibilities, overcoming conformity through innovation, and leading from a future of possibilities.
Resistance to empathy on the part of those who provide empathy shows up as “compassion fatigue” and burnout. The word is a clue: compassion, not empathy, causes “compassion fatigue.” So much compassion, so little empathy. I hasten to repeat that the world needs both more compassion and more empathy. Peer group dynamics, collegial support, and self-care are required to recharge the emotional resources of those routinely providing empathy to others.
Regular self-care, including exercise, nutrition, quality time with family/friends, is on the critical path to survival and flourishing, managing the risk of experiencing empathic distress.
This makes the case for self-care and self-monitoring on the part of professionals of all kinds and first responders in health care, education, sales, leadership, public safety, customer service, and so on, whose empathy is a significant part of their role. Professionals take breaks and are on top of their empathy game; amateurs try to be empathic all the time (whatever that would mean), experience empathic distress, make it mean they lack empathy, and quit. Those who do not take care of themselves, then blaming empathy when they get burned out, are committing a kind of malpractice of empathic engagement (in the literal, not pejorative sense of the word). Like a helicopter, empathy is powerful and complex, so it requires regularly scheduled maintenance lest something go wrong at an inconvenient time.
For those individuals who want empathy or think that they want empathy, but then change their minds, resistance to empathy confronts readiness for empathy. Some people simply would rather not be understood. For them, being understood has resulted in bad outcomes. They have been manipulated, used, even abused.
In such cases, the would-be empathizer has to “dial down” empathic receptivity, in which the communication of affect looms large, and “tune up” empathic interpretation, in which one cognitively processes what it might be like to take the other’s point of view. Once a person feels safe, the person will be willing to risk exposing and exploring the vulnerabilities that got the person stuck in the first place and need working through to get the person moving again into a flourishing future of possibilities.
In conclusion, empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? A lot. People can be difficult—very difficult—why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy—emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip, messages lost in translation and devaluing language—are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding, possibilities of flourishing, enhanced humanity, relatedness, and building community.
[i] Empathy is now a major publishing event. There is a wave of books on empathy—popular, scientific, political, and scholarly. For example, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy explores empathy between humans and higher animals; J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap considers empathy and social justice from the perspective of Ignatian Humanism; Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, 800 pages long in hardcover (don’t drop it on your foot!) channels Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of a global consciousness, now including the politics of empathy; Jean Decety’s Social Neuroscience establishes correlations between sensations, affects, and emotions using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) as a kind of x-ray for the soul, exploring the relation between empathy and psychopathy (with his colleague Kent Kiehl); Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy considers the role of empathy in cruelty and disorders of empathy such as psychopathy and autism. Thomas Farrow’s (ed.) Empathy in Mental Illness drills down scientifically on the disorders of empathy in all their profound differences. See also: Susan Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (Yale 2018); any collectioin on social neuroscience by Jean Decety; William R.Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding (WIPF and Stock, 2018); Cris Beam, I feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 2018); Jodi Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, (Oxford, 2001); David Howe, Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Leslie Jamisom, The Empathy Exams (Essays) (Graywolf, 2014); Thomas Kohut, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (Routledge 2021).
[ii] I discuss this proposition in detail in Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 53, 55, 117, 190.
[iii] Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
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? Whether 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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]
- 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.
- 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.”
2. 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):
- 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].
[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
This work aims to be educational in a brain-storming way about the role of empathy in the community and the market for empathy services. Hanna Holborn Gray has said that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” I hereby also add: The intention of education is to expand one’s empathy. Amazingly enough that is not as comfortable as many people might imagine, which brings up to the first trend – resistance to empathy.
10. Resistance to empathy grows and is acknowledged. I may be a tad late with this one, since it is actually front section news in the New York Times, but just in case you have been living in a cave: Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? Yet people can be difficult – very difficult – why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy – emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip and devaluing language – are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding and building community.
9. Empathy is not an on-off switch; it is rather a dimmer or rheostat (and the public debate acknowledges this). Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable to burnout and compassion fatigue. The risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one is doing it wrong. The listener may get a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or problem, including their suffering, so the listener suffers vicariously, but, strange as it may sound, not too much. As noted, if one is over-whelmed by suffering, one is doing it wrong, and one needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. Empathy is like a dimmer – tune it up or tune it down. Empathy is like a filter – increase the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or decrease the granularity (i.e., open the pores) and get less. That is the whole point of a vicarious experience – and training one’s vicarious experiences as distinct from merger or over-identification – to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being overwhelmed by it. Empathy is not so much an on-off switch as it is a dimmer or rheostat to gradually turn the lights up or down – gradually expand or contract the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. This point is completely missed in the otherwise engaging and spirited public debate feature in the New York Times where Hamid Zaki identifies empathy with compassion – and – how shall I put it delicately? – it is a conversation of deaf persons about the importance of listening from that point onwards[see http://tinyurl.com/gwmfpxp%5D. The recommendation? Listen, interpret the resistance and apply conflict resolution principles – identify and express grievances, invite self-expression, apply the soothing salve of empathy to the narcissistic injuries, elicit requests/demands, propose compromises / action items, iterate – until resolution.
8. Empathy is too important to be left to the psychologists. For psychologists empathy is by definition a psychological mechanism. For example, identification or transient identification or projection plus introjection (or visa versa) or mirroring or mirroring plus recognition of the other or inner imitation or motor mimicry. (This list goes on and this is not complete.) And while there is nothing wrong with psychological mechanisms or neuropsychological narratives built around their operation in the cerebral neural cortex and basal ganglia, there is something missing – empathy. So what then is empathy? Very short definition: It is being in the presence of another human as a human being with nothing else added. This [big word trigger alert] is the ontology of empathy – being in the presence of the other individual without anything else added. (This is called “ontology” – the study of being and ways of being, and it is definitely not psychology.) For example, Heinz Kohut, a psychiatrist from a time when psychologists were either psychoanalysts (or behaviorists), had a definition of empathy as vicarious introspection. This has an key ontological dimension as Kohut says “the idea of an inner life of man and thus of a psychology of complex mental states, is unthinkable without our ability to know via vicarious introspection – my definition of empathy […] what the inner life of man is, what we ourselves and what others think and feel life of the other individual would be inconceivable without empathy” (Kohut 1977: 304). The point is that empathy is both deeper and broader than a psychological mechanism – it is the basis for relatedness between individuals. Without empathy, no relatedness. Empathy grants being to relatedness. This matter of being with the other individual, in turn, becomes the foundation for community in an expanding circle of inclusion. As soon as one adds diagnostic categories, labels, arguments – which, admittedly, can be required in some contexts – empathy mis-fires, relatedness goes missing, and resistance to empathy expands. Thus, an empathic conversation is frequently challenged to find the equilibrium between using categories and distinctions to access the experience of the other individual while being with the other and being receptive to the vicarious experience of their suffering (or joy) as another human being.
7. Life coaching gets traction as empathy consulting. Empathy and life coaching intersect (again). The reason an Olympic athlete has a coach is not because she is not good at what she does. Positively expressed, people get a coach when they want to take their game – their performance – to the next level. Many people are already good at what they do and are committed to expanding their results in one area or another such as career, relationships, physical well-being, contribution to community, or peace of mind, in which their experience indicates something is missing. People get a therapist when they want a diagnosis or when they are pushed into survival and need to find a way out. Nothing wrong with that – indeed it can be critical path to transforming suffering into productive results. However, there is good news here – many people are not suffering but have an area in their lives that needs work to provide the results to which they are committed. This is where empathy is oxygen for the soul and can facilitate breathing easier in climbing the stairs to self-satisfaction in accomplishment. Yes, performance may usefully be measured “by the numbers” with meaningful data, but you don’t just need data, expanded empathy is required too.
6. “Hug a stranger” becomes an empathy trend. I am not making this up – well, okay, in a way, I am. The human body is the best picture of the human soul. So hugging another person is not just an emotional and physical but also a spiritual gesture. In this case, hugging and the “space of hugging” starts a journey of discovery that gives us access and reveals that there are far fewer strangers in the world – possibly none – then we at first imagined. I learned about this trend from Stone Kraushaar who distinguishes the physical embrace – the hug [with permission] – between two people from the “space of hugging,” which (on a good day) opens up a whole universe of empathy, sharing, transforming, building community, and being with mutual humanity. While acknowledging that hugging is not empathy, in the context of Stone’s work (and pending book), it is – in the deep sense of being in the presence of another human being without anything extraneous being added or subtracted. So if you see people walking down the street stopping for conversation, asking permission, breaking out in spontaneously hugging one another, you will know they have been engaging with Stone’s provocative proposal. You just might see yourself and encounter your own humanity in another in a new way you had not previously imagined. The empathic point is that you start by thinking these other people “out there” are strangers but when you get to know them well enough to be comfortable with a hug, you and they belong to the same community – you are not strangers after all.
5. 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 last year that I am repeating, since it is still accurate but a work in progress – and, unfortunately, picking up speed, going in the wrong direction. The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) – reportedly to be terminated with extreme prejudice as this piece is about to be posted – 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.”
4. Medical doctors “get it” – empathy is good for your health. Empathy gets traction as an evidence-based intervention. “Evidence-based everything” is the gold standard in medical and so-called “behavioral health” interventions; and that is as it should be (Jeremy Howick, (2011)). The “gold standard” of the “gold standard” is double-blind testing, which works especially well in the cases of drugs in which one can indeed “double-blind” the test so that neither the researcher nor the recipient knows who is getting what pill. While judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a role, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. But here is the issue: There are some interventions such as penicillin and using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane that seem to limit or even defy the gold standard. It would be unethical not to give someone penicillin if they were infected with an infection serious enough to require such treatment, since it is a matter of historical accident that penicillin was invented prior to the “evidence based” paradigm shift. And, as regards using a parachute, that case is the reduction to absurdity of not using common sense as a criteria in deciding what counts as evidence. What is going on here? The answer: The effect size is so large that it outweights and overwhelms any hidden confounding factors and so rises to the level of evidence (without quotation marks) [Howick: 5, 11]. The :effect size” is a function of the the fact – the evidence – that there are so many examples and so much experience that penicillin works – that parachutes – work that the risk of one’s over-looking some other confounding variable is vanishingly small. It really was the penicillin, not (say) the effects of the alignmnet of the planets hidden behind the penicillin. Likewise, with empathy. The trend here is that research will emerge that puts the use of empathy in human relations as demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health contexts in question that not to apply empathy would be like not prescribing antibiotics against a bacterial infection. Empathy has been effective in shifting the suffering and transforming the psychic pain throughout history. The criticism of empathy has usually been that it results in burnout, compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed or the results will be unpredictable. Regarding empathy, see the discussion above about empathy not being an on-off switch but a rheostat that requires training to get just right. Examples of peer-reviewed publications exist in which empathy was shown to be effective (in comparison with less empathy) in correlating with favorable outcomes in diabetes, cholesterol, and the common cold (?!) and are cited in the bibliography (see M. Hojat et al, (2011), John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), David P. Rakel et al, (2009)). Expect this work to expand and gain traction in other areas such as psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, not to begin with empathy would be like jumping out of the airplane without a parachute or not providing penicillin when the infection was bacterial. Curiously enough, among medical doctors, psychiatrics are alleged to be “lagging adopters”; among psychologists, those specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy are – note that Arthur Ciaramicoli claims to have it both ways (in a book (2016) that I wish I had written).
3. The culture of empathy taps into the power of empathy. Empathy gets in touch with its own power and becomes self-aware as being powerful. This is (and would be) completely unpredictable. At least initially that looks like the culture of empathy partnering with assertiveness training, fair fighting, and being self-expressed. The culture of empathy gets traction in conflict resolution, building community, setting limits to the anti-empathic methods of bullies; and this trend gets the attention that it so richly deserves. The CultureOfEmpathy [one word] is the web site and brain child of Edwin Rutsch, whose has literally interviewed dozens of empathy scholars and researchers (including myself) and is one of the most inclusive people I have ever met. Here is the issue: in fighting off bullies how does one do so in such a way that one does not become a bully oneself? The recommendation is direct: empathy is about setting boundaries between self and other and crossing boundaries between self and other in a way that enhances mutual understanding and community. No one was ever required by empathy to be a door matt. Since empathy works best and seems to require that people relate as equals in the matter of their humanity, the relation between empathy and power has always been fraught. It requires work. When the power relations as too asymmetrical or when force (violence) is being used to coerce an outcome, then a level playing field has to be reestablished for empathy to get traction. Then the empathic thing to do is fight back – self-defense is its own justification. Simple as that (though, as usual, the devil is in the details). Bullying – and related forms of aggression are the contrary of empathy – crossing boundaries in ways that generate misunderstanding and the dehumanizing aspects of shame and humiliation. Set firm boundaries.
2. Empathy becomes known as reducing inflammation and restoring homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research along with mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, sensory deprivation and certain naturally occurring steroids (Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012)). Although an over-simplification, when the human body is attacked by bacteria, it mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sick behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years and is basically healthy as the body fights off the infection using its natural immune response. However, fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not imagine the stresses of modern life back when we were short proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti plain and fending off large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stress of modern life – the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis – and the result is “sickness behavior” – many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression – but there is no infection. The inflammation become chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to down regulate the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as those indicated above reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor for when an angry [“inflamed”] person is listened to empathically, they [often] calm down and regain their equilibrium. The trend here is that empathy migrates onto the short list. Now for something completely different …
1. A definable market for empathy software and business services emerges. Virtual reality (VR) software meets and expands empathic understanding. A company named Psious [psious.com] has developed a diverse set of applications for virtual reality goggles to simulate situations that psychotherapy clients may find anxiety inspiring such as flying on a commercial jet, public speaking, shots (e.g., with needles) at doctor visits and many more (see my Blog post on Psious (http://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq)). Two other companies that are a software initiative relating to empathy include Affectiva [affective.com], which automates Paul Ekman’s facial action coding scheme (see my blog post (http://tinyurl.com/hymj3mj)), and Empathetics [empathetics.com], not yet reviewed. From admittedly incomplete reports, the engaging thing about Empathetics is that its value proposition is to train medical doctors in empathy using biofeedback under a program licensing intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In addition, this medical initiative is distinct from but related to two companies (Business Solver and Maru/VCR) which call out “empathy” explicitly as a key differentiator in what they offer their business clients. Business Solver is branding an empathy monitor for business success in a human resources platform and related services. This includes the disturbing data point that some 61% if business leaders see their firms as being empathic whereas only 24% of employees do. What to do about it constitutes the bulk of the engagement. Maru/VCR has a database based on the Vision Critical Research platform that enables its clients to build customer communities and get access to breakthrough innovations and insights in market research.
0. Businesses “get it” – empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of commodities hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, some of the things that make people good at business make them relatively poor empathizers. Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is on the critical path for serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition [not exactly empathy but close enough?], building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. When the ontology of empathy exposes it as the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes nearly synonymous with expanding business. For example, building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, team building, are the basis for brand loyalty, employee commitment, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. Specific firms that have emerged – albeit in the context of an early market – to address these aspects of empathy in business and are called out in trend #2 above.
[These ten top trends in empathy for 2017 should be read in connection with the score for those from last year (2016) [see http://tinyurl.com/gub7pew]. And, yes, I know that there are actually eleven this year – bonus!?]
Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management Reverses Anxiety-Related Leukocyte Transcriptional Dynamics. Biological Psychiatry, 2011; 15: 366-372.
David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Yogic meditation reverses NF-kB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trail. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2013 March 38(3): 348 – 355.
Arthur Ciaramicoli, (2016), The Stress Solution. New York: New World Library.
Jodi Halpern, (2013), “What is Clinical Empathy?” J Gen Intern Med 2003 Aug: 18(8): 670 – 674.
Hojat et al, (2011), Physicians empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients, ACAD MED MAR; 86(3): 359 – 64: doi: 10.1097ACM.0b013e3182086fe1
Jeremy Howick, (2011). The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012). Mitigating Cellular Inflammation in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi Chih. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2012 September; 20(9): 764 – 722.
John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), The Influence of the Patient-Clinician Relationship on Healthcare Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, PLOS ONE [Public Library of Science], April 2014, Vol. 9, Issue 4.
Heinz Kohut, (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.
David P. Rakel et al, (2009),”Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the common Cold, Fam Med 41(7): 494 – 501.
Lou Agosta, (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery. London: Routledge.
_________ (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot.
__________ (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project