Skip to main content

Discovering Empathy

Empathy Killers

 EmpathyQuote-300x263By Louise Altman, PartnerIntentional Communication Consultants 

I didn’t plan on writing about empathy this week. I got “hooked” while reading Nicholas Kristof’s compelling New York Times article, Where is the Love, over  “Thanksgiving” weekend and knew I needed to revisit the topic.

In the article Kristof writes about the pushback he’s received from many readers in his recent pieces on food stamp recipients, prison inmates and the uninsured.  Writing about hungry children, Kristof shares a comment from a reader who protested, “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

While non-American readers of this blog may not relate to the public “debate” over government policies that produce such human misery and conflict here in the States – most of us can recognize the stunning lack of empathy some of Kristof’s readers display. Where is the love? Where is the empathy, indeed?  Since empathy is often a precursor to love – we begin there.

If you look behind every strong anti-empathy feeling – fear, anger, rage, frustration, resentment, disappointment, hurt, and hostility – you’ll find beliefs. Beliefs are the activators of feelings – and they drive all of our behaviors and decision-making.

Some beliefs are empathy-killers

I talk about empathy in all the work that I do. In discussions about empathy in the workplace people often claim “my co-workers just don’t have any empathy.” These are statements of belief – not facts.  What my workplace discussions often reveal is how much people act on those beliefs without any question or attempt to substantiate their claims. Ample scientific research has shown that we’re “hard-wired” for empathy. Without it, we could not engage in successful social cooperation – essential to our survival. While some of us may have developed more or less of it as young children, the roots of empathy are present, even if dormant.

I consider empathy to be an enabling emotion – a door-opener to allowing deeper feelings to emerge – compassion, love, sadness and grief.  Allowing, even inviting empathy to our emotional table is often a powerful motivator for kindness and acts of caring. Empathy is our key to opening to a bigger and far more complex world than many of our obstructive beliefs will allow.

Unless we’ve experienced serious brain or psychological trauma or are born with neurological impairments, impediments to our emotional empathetic responses are more likely to be found in our minds.  Beliefs play a major role in directing emotional responses which result in feelings like empathy.

Kristof rightly laments the many chilly comments his readers offer in response to his presenting facts about millions of people who are hungry, imprisoned and unable to get health care.  Reading some of the comments you wonder – what beliefs drive such hard feelings and judgments?

Here’s a sample:

A reader from Washington bluntly suggests taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.   This drastic and Dickensian response seems packed with a knot of beliefs. “Irresponsible” parents need to be punished to name one. You can imagine some of the other beliefs that take this person’s thinking to such an extreme level. Feels very much like anger, perhaps even rage, drives thinking like this – and reinforces beliefs in the process.

In response to Kristof’s story about an uninsured man (a lifelong smoker) who delayed seeing a doctor who then discovers he has colon cancer, a reader writes, What kind of lame brain doofus is this guy? And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?”  Maybe this reader believes that people who smoke deserve what they get? Perhaps this unfortunate man waived his rights for care in the mind of this reader when he waited too long to see a doctor? Comments like these aren’t rational or balanced. They’re driven by strong emotions that are characterized by a lack of understanding (of self and others) and harsh rules for human behavior that leave little room for empathy.

Cynicism is one of the greatest empathy killers. Most cynical attitudes are jammed pack with hardened beliefs and potent unexpressed emotions. It’s often a form of psychological self-protection against hurt, disappointment, sadness and most important – fear.

In his remarkable book, The Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, author Charles Eisenstein writes, “The cynic mistakes his cynicism for realism. He wants us to discard the hopeful things that touch his wound, to settle for what is consistent with his lowered expectations. This, he says, is realism.”

The lenses of cynicism can become a habituated reaction to uncontrollable events in the world around us. When we are cynical we lack conscious awareness of what we feel and so have great difficulty imagining what others are experiencing.  This emotional state clouds our thinking process and saps our ability to make rational choices.

The Push-Pull of Compassion 

Our beliefs and the attitudes (think of attitude as the “atmosphere of your beliefs) play another important role in allowing or blocking feelings like empathy and compassion.

Compassion researcher Emiliana Simon-Thomas refers to compassion as a push-pull. According to Simon-Thomas It turns out that feeling safe is a precondition to activating biological systems to promote compassion. In the face of another person’s suffering, the biological mechanisms that drive our nurturing and care-giving can only come online if our more habitual “self-preservation” and “vigilance-to-threat” systems (e.g. fear, distress, anxiety and hostility) are not monopolizing the spotlight.”

When we become aware of the beliefs, judgments and assumptions that create walls of self-protection we can turn off our habituated self-defensiveness.  As we face anything (a person, idea, behavior) that triggers us emotionally, the greater our awareness of the beliefs driving  the trigger – the more ability we have to turn-off the threat systems activation and turn-on or at least allow the natural flow of positive feeling that can lead to very different perceptions – and actions.

I am aware that reading Kristof’s article pushed all of my hot buttons. I was triggered to frustration and anger by government policies that marginalize the lives of millions of people who suffer needlessly in a land of plenty.  But what triggered me even more was the lack of empathy that I believed characterized so many of the readers’ comments.

When I am calm and rational, I recognize that even the harshest critics deserve my empathy. And although I may not always get there – it’s a very worthy goal. It’s likely that we won’t agree on solutions or even on the “facts,” but that does not have to prevent my attempts towards understanding and empathy

Because I do believe that empathy is one of the most essential qualities of a civilization, I am motivated and compelled to develop my empathetic muscles to higher levels. Reading Kristof’s column it’s clear that we cannot, as Einstein famously said, “solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

The great motivating question for me – and for Kristof’s readers is what kind of civilization are we – and where do we see ourselves in the future?  And without empathy – what are our chances?

To some minds, empathy is a radical idea – heresy in the face of reality. But as Charles Eisenstein writes, “When things fall apart, the hopelessly radical becomes common sense.”