Empathy is most often explained as the ability to understand and share the thoughts or feelings of another. It’s an attempt to step out of your own shoes and better understand the other person from their point of view.
Is it a muscle we can train? Is it a form of emotional intelligence? Is it an ability you’re born with?
For one, empathy is perceived as a powerful tool in leadership to increase productivity, morale and loyalty. It’s also perceived as key for human-centered innovation, helping organizations to stay relevant. It seems worthwhile to get to the bottom of what practicing empathy actually means.
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into three categories:
- Cognitive Empathy as the ability to understand how another person feels and what they might be thinking. It can make you better at communicating with them, because it helps you to relay information in a way that best reaches the other person.
- Emotional Empathy as the ability to relate to the feelings of another person. It helps you build emotional connections with others.
- Compassionate Empathy goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves us to take action, helping out in any way you can.
Empathy is associated with emotional intelligence, rather than IQ and rationale thinking. Ironically such definitions as the above, and multiple other descriptions out there, are a rational interpretation of what empathy is or how it can be experienced.
This raises the question: how can these rationale explanations help us to practice a non-rational ability like empathy?
Let’s explore some topics which might help us understand better whether practicing empathy requires more than a rationale understanding. For example, does it require us to manage our own state? Could it be that we’re not always capable of practicing the same amount of empathy, depending on context, or the way we feel or think at a certain moment in time? Aren’t we all programmed in some way to think rationally, and does this impede us to be empathic?
A Beginner’s mind
In everything we do, we usually strive to become good at it, become experts. Whatever knowledge and skills we have built up, we tend to identify ourselves with our strengths. It gives us meaning about who we are and why we exist. It also creates a frame of reference, a filter through which you interpret any type of information you come across. Our brains naturally look for patterns. We like the feeling of having some kind of grip of what happens around us. Loosening this grip, feels like giving way to uncertainty and insecurity. Having a strong grip contradicts with trying to perceive reality from another’s point of view. That would mean, letting go of your own point of view. To what extent can we step out of our own personality to avoid any bias from it, when practicing empathy?
We can find some guidance in the teachings of Zen Buddhism. ‘Shoshin’ is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner’s mind’. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. It’s well explained in ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’, a book of teachings by the late Shunryu Suzuki (a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the US).
A beginner’s mind, is a mind of compassion, it starts with acceptance of yourself as-is, the current situation and the other person. This means not allowing yourself to look for appraisal and confirmation of your knowledge and abilities, not judging another and not fighting against the current situation. The latter can even mean feeling impatient, this means you’re fighting against time. Acceptance means an alert but relaxed mind. This beginner’s mind enables you to consciously direct all your attention outwards, and perceive every important detail and any emerging possibility, when attempting to grasp another’s point of view.
This is great insight from a more philosophical standpoint. Can we make it more real, more scientific, more tangible? What happens in our brains when we have a ‘Beginner’s Mind’?
Elastic vs analytical
The future belongs to the ‘Elastic Mind’ argues best-selling author Leonard Mlodinow in his book “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World”.
Leonard Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist and author recognized for groundbreaking discoveries in physics, and a passion for making science accessible and interesting to the general public.
Mlodinow explains Elastic thinking as a bottom-up cognitive style that frees the mind to generate and integrate novel ideas. While logical analytical thinking is useful for solving problems we have encountered before, elastic thinking allows us to successfully understand and respond to change.
When you are engaged in very focused activity, rational/logical thinking is important. Your filters for novel ideas are turned up high, which results in a narrow range of possible solutions, often very conventional. Your focus will also keep you from questioning your assumptions. This way of thinking helps you to get from A to B to C, like programming does. It’s linear and based on reasoning. It seems there’s only one factual truth in the end.
On the other hand, when your mind is relaxed, you can play with the idea of a new paradigm. You don’t necessarily follow the rules but you’re able to create rules. Your mind can wander to new territory, and stumble upon novel ideas, and new ways of looking at things, without being worried about failure. This is also called the ‘Default Mode’ of the brain. The default mode network (DMN) is a network of interacting brain regions that is active when a person is not focused on the outside world, measurable with the fMRI technique. That’s why it is often fruitful to think intensely about an issue, and then take a break in which you engage in a mild physical activity, but are not mentally focused — as when jogging or in the shower. Or to work out intensely, and then let your mind wander as you cool down and have some water. Similarly, researchers have found that quietly pondering an issue after intense intellectual activity during the day, can allow for original ideas. When you’re intellectually exhausted, your cognitive filter lowers and you have access to the millions of associations you’re making in all the substructures of your brain.
It’s like focusing intensely on a question before going to sleep. During your sleep, you process this question, and when you are barely awake, in a Theta to Alpha stage of your brain, you might see some new connections answering your question. These answers came from your Elastic Thinking during your sleep and during waking up.
The same thing happens when you intensely read a book with some new insights, these insights will come out of your brain in a different way, connecting to other things, in a later stage. Elastic thinking is where you make all those new connections that allow for creativity. Analytical thinking is where you filter out only what seems to be immediately useful connections and knowledge at that moment. To be creative, you need both, making the most unexpected connections and making sense out of them. But it’s important to be aware of when you need which one.
As with getting out of your own shoes, and understanding another’s point of view, especially a point of view completely novel to you, you need to be able to lower your cognitive filter and allow for all kinds of associations and connections to be made, without clinging on to them with your analytical mind. That’s exactly why talking with each other at the end of the day, when we’re intellectually a little exhausted, over a beer to lower your cognitive filter even more, sitting in a low-lit cosy place without distractions from your mobile (no focus triggers), in the company of someone you trust (no threat = no focus), can lead to the best most empathic conversations, because you have all the necessary requirements for Elastic Thinking. Next time, try to remind yourself not to have all the answers and be the expert, but have a beginner’s mind and good ears. You’ll notice you’ll have the best advice or responses ever, and they will pop out of nowhere.
Now we have a philosophical understanding of what our mindset should be when practicing empathy, and we have some idea of what this means in relation to the way we think and how our brain functions. Let’s have a closer look at that moment of listening. We need something tangible that helps us manage ourselves when we want to deeply listen to and understand another. Some way of looking at the act of listening that can help us become more conscious of ourselves when we listen.
Theory of U
In his book “Theory of U”, Otto Scharmer explains how to lead from the future as it emerges. It is a process built on decades of research at MIT, helping individuals, teams and organizations through a shift in consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness.
Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer in the MIT Management Sloan School and founder of the Presencing Institute. In his ‘Theory of U’, Scharmer explains 4 levels of listening necessary for effective leadership:
The first level refers to what he calls ‘downloading’. When ‘downloading’, you are only listening to get your existing opinions and ideas confirmed, including your judgements. This way of listening shuts you off from different points of view which threaten to undermine your current thinking. You’re basically listening from the perspective of your own habits, your expertise, your frame of reference. Even if another point of view might sound logical, you still tend to confine your thinking to your own logic.
The second level refers to ‘factual listening’. You’re allowing new data to come in, as long as it makes sense and it’s factual. This is listening with an open mind, you’re noticing differences, you’re open to outside-in perspectives, but only if it’s logical.
These first two levels of listening are very much related to analytical thinking. They only accept information when it can be interpreted to fit an existing logical way of thinking. It’s very hard to accept or understand something new, something different, something out of your comfort zone, out of your own emotional world, out of your habitual thinking. It builds further on what’s already there in your mind.
The third level is what Scharmer calls ‘empathic listening’. This is listening with an open heart, seeing the world through another person’s eyes. It’s similar to what Daniel Goleman explains as emotional empathy. You’re listening with an open heart. This level of listening can already be characterized with a lower cognitive filter. There is more elasticity to this way of thinking, it’s driven by emotions. The risk is still to project your own familiar emotions on the situation when personifying with another, and letting your own personality interfere. This means it can still trigger your own programming, and thereby limit you in understanding another beyond your own emotions.
The fourth level of listening is called ‘generative listening’ from the future wanting to emerge. This is listening with an open will, holding the space for possibilities to emerge. Compassionate Empathy starts with ‘generative listening’. It’s the most elastic way of listening, stepping out of your own shoes with ‘A Beginner’s mind’. It opens up all kinds of possibilities, thoughts will surface without crowding the space. This way of listening with an alert but relaxed mind allows you to pick up on any details, any nuances, which help you to deeply understand another and create a new reality.
What is empathy and how can we leverage it?
Empathy seems to be more than a better way of communicating with another. It’s more than feeling the emotions of another. Empathy is even more than only the glue between us. Empathy is the start of creation. It’s one thing to understand it rationally, but it is so much more powerful when you start practicing it consciously. Being aware of the state you’re in, the kind of thinking you’re applying, the level of listening you’re doing, the extent in which your own personality, maybe even your own ego is cluttering the space needed for new insights, ideas and solutions to emerge is the basis of creative leadership.
Empathy is not something we know, it’s something we can be. But only if we’re prepared to understand and accept ourselves first. It’s the only way to accepting and understanding another, and opening up the door to creating a better world together.
Neurobiology of Compassion
The Neurobiology of empathy and compassion is being studied at UC San Diego, employing state-of-the-art neuroscience technologies, to identify and map brain activity created by empathic behavior, quantify the factors promoting or inhibiting compassionate behavior and then design new methods to increase empathic signals in the brain.
William Mobley, associate dean of neuroscience initiatives, is a long-time advocate for the empirical study of compassion. “People talk about compassion, but almost no one has ever studied how it exists in the brain. We want to find the irrefutable scientific data that validates the immense power of compassion, identify and understand its biological underpinnings and then use that knowledge to teach new doctors, benefit current ones and, most importantly, improve health care for everyone, patients and providers alike.”