Empathy, and what it’s not
Empathy is not a feeling. It’s a commitment.
Empathy is a commitment you make to get someone—to accurately grasp the inner landscape of another individual’s perceptions, and to interact with this individual in a way that is consistent with this understanding.
Empathy requires effort and curiosity.
The presenter who creates beautiful, curiosity-provoking slides for his presentation empathizes with his audience. He gets the people he serves. He sees his presentation as an opportunity to delight and surprise them.
Feelings follow empathy. They reflect that one person has rightly understood and joined another. But it all begins with a commitment to know and understand. It begins with effort.
The Listening Organization
Listening organizations are the most engaging organizations on the planet. Non-profit organizations, corporations, and universities that listen attract people because they get the people they’re trying to serve.
Listening organizations study us with Cousteau-like fascination. They engage us because we sense that they get us, know us, and understand what makes us tick.
Ace Hotel, Apple, and Starbucks study their clientele and create experiences for them that resonate at a personal, meaningful level. But they have to listen to do this well. So do you.
The DMV doesn’t get us or care to get us. They’re not listening.
What tools can you use to listen to the people you serve?
Surveys and focus groups alone won’t suffice as listening activities—not if you don’t dig deeper. Understanding the truth about people is an art. This is why one of the least effective ways to find out what people really want is to ask them. View content and data as windows through which we can better understand people. Look through the glass, not at it.
Listening organizations don’t merely collect feedback. They invest resources to decipher meaning—a commitment that reveals the depth and authenticity of their interest in us.
You strive to engage people each day. How do you listen to them, and, more importantly, how do you intuit meaning?
Empathy’s 3 Enemies
A group of researchers in the mid-1990s used electrodes to monitor individual neurons in a monkey’s brain. They were able to identify precisely which neurons in the monkey’s brain fired when the monkey ate a peanut. What happened next led to a new understanding of the brain and empathy. When the monkey watched a researcher eat a peanut, the exact same neuron fired within its brain as when it ate it. Noting the reflective nature of the neurons, researchers coined them mirror neurons. Later studies revealed the same neurons in humans.
These neurons within our brains not only mirror actions, they mirror others emotional states. Think of an experience when someone seemed to truly empathize with your emotional experience, whether it was one of joy or sorrow. If we could peak into both of your brains in that moment, we would see that the brain sequences in your brain synced with the sequences in the other person’s brain. One is a mirror of the other.
The good news is that our brains empathize naturally, but only when we’re truly focussed and engaged. My mirror neurons won’t fire, for example, if I’m composing an email while my child shares a story with me. She will rightly conclude I lacked empathy for her story and, to some degree, for her.
Increase focus by warding off distractions—Empathy’s Enemies. There are, of course, many I could list. Here are three common ones:
1. Infatuation with my agenda.
2. Preoccupation with extrinsic pressures: follow protocol, get through the material, preserve fidelity.
3. Anything with a screen.
Make it easier for your mirror neurons to glow. Fend off the Empathy’s Enemies. Only then will others recognize that you see them.