Empathy for others is a key element in the forming and maintenance of any professional and personal relationship. Without empathy, we find it difficult to understand the viewpoint and feelings of others. Without empathy, we can become detached from what really matters most to others.
What if we were losing the capacity for empathy? What if salespeople had no empathy for their clients? What if leaders had little or no empathy for their team members? What if team members had little or no empathy for their co-workers?
If empathy is at risk, relationships are at risk and this means the fundamental fabric of society… intentional trust relationships are risk.
I’ve been banging on for some time now that more and more people seem to be disconnecting from the immediate real world they live in. Watch the number of people walking our streets and travelling on public transport who have their ear phones plugged in – tuning into their own world and tuning the real world out. Have you noticed when you’re in professional or personal conversations, team meetings or family gatherings, how many people are constantly distracted and disengaged from meaningful conversations by the need to respond to audio alerts urging them to check and of course, respond immediately, to their social media, email, messages…
Well, it seems like my banging on and observations are supported by scientific evidence.
In a meta-analysis of 72 studies of 14,000 tertiary education students, researchers Konrath, O’Brian, & Hsing (2011) found that today’s tertiary students score about 40% lower in empathy than students did 20-30 years ago.
While cause and effect in human behavioural studies is difficult to validate, the researchers suggest that one contributing element in the reduction of empathy is most likely to be the decreased face-to-face contacts due to the Internet.
The researchers point out that “empathy seems to enable people to relate to others in a way that promotes cooperation and unity rather than conflict and isolation.”
Today’s corporate leaders, operating in a world of disruption, distraction and change, ought to place real and practical value on promoting empathy-based team discussions around stakeholder management.
Empathy-based team discussions are created through the process of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) which is a positive psychology process that starts with considering “When we are at our best… “. For example, leading a discussion with a team around the question “When we are at our best what problems do we solve for our clients and what opportunities do we create for them that makes their lives better?”
This is only one relatively easy and practical approach to developing more empathy-based management of stakeholders within an organisational setting. As the researchers point out, promoting an environment of cooperation and unity rather than conflict and isolation is certainly a desirable goal to be pursued in our professional and personal lives.
Another evidence-based process is to simply focus on your intentions for others – what you want for them, not just what you want from them, and then to establish what you can and can’t promise, and what you will intentionally take action on to live up to those promises.
There’s a moment in the record breaking film ‘Avatar’, that provides a meaningful insight to what empathy truly is. Neytiri says to Jake “I see you”… she sees more than his physical appearance and truly understands as best she can who Jake is, how he feels, what’s important to him.
OK… so kind of a mushy way to end a scientifically supported concept, but without doubt, empathy matters and unless we learn to switch back on to our real world, and switch off from the distracting and disengaging ‘on-line’ world, the decline of empathy will have significant and negative impacts on all of our professional and personal lives.