My friend Prue Memo asked me a few months ago, “Do you ever do guest blog posts?” I hadn’t yet, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t. She continued to tell me, “I would love to do a guest post about empathy.” I paused for a moment because I had been thinking about a post on empathy, but decided that it would be great to get someone else’s take on it. We chatted more about empathy and I was eager to have her post. What follows is Prue’s guest post on empathy. Thank you, Prue!
By Prudence Memo
I spend a lot of time training people to handle strong emotions (theirs and other people’s) when confronted by ‘difficult’ people. Managing your emotions isn’t always easy because other people (customers, co-workers, bosses) can seem, on occasion, to be enraging fools. But it’s a necessary part of being professional because being irate or anxious doesn’t help anyone manage relationships and gain cooperation.
Empathy is a great tool for managing conflict. It helps us to gain perspective and, when expressed verbally, works to calm other people down and stop them shouting at us. To limber my students up, I get them to practice empathising with the most recent ‘idiot driver’ they encountered (everyone has a recent idiot driver story in this town). I get them to brainstorm excuses for the other person’s problem driving. Were they late for their first day at their new job? Was their wife/girlfriend about to give birth prematurely and they really wanted to be there? Did they only pass their test last week and they are a really nervous driver?
None of these scenarios excuse dangerous driving, and the person who cut you up might just be a careless moron, but that’s not the point. Simply being actively curious about what led to the other person’s challenging behaviour can flip a switch in our heads. We begin to imagine what its actually like to be someone else, and our empathy circuits light up. When we feel empathy with someone, it’s harder to act contemptuously towards them. Even where we disagree, empathy makes a respectful exchange more likely. Humans have an inbuilt ability to empathise and, as the idiot driver exercise shows, we can consciously evoke empathy if we try.
Unfortunately, we also have the ability to disconnect our empathy circuits when we decide someone doesn’t deserve our understanding, or even our respect. This tends to happen when people trigger negative emotions in us. Which is why learning to manage one’s emotional reactions is crucial in professional life, where we often have to collaborate with people who do or say things that annoy or provoke us. Which brings me to the point of this post. What I think I’ve seen around me over the last few years is a massive failure of empathy. Much of the internet is a showcase of aggression and harassment, many of our most popular entertainments revolve around humiliation and our politics are becoming harsher towards the poor and disadvantaged.
We have the impressive ability to empathise even with people we are only distantly aware of, as evidenced in charitable giving. However, our equally characteristic ability to casually decide that whole groups of people are unworthy of our empathy is frightening and corrosive. And it is this latter ability which seems to be increasingly dominant. Over the past three decades or so, our collective morality seems to have been shifting away from empathetic values like solidarity and compassion (which get dismissed as symptoms of weakness and naivety) towards a celebration of ruthlessness and competition.
Maybe this is a cyclical thing and the values pendulum will swing back towards empathy again. I worry, though, that being complacent about the current trend might lead to it becoming entrenched. And I believe we sorely need more constructive engagement, given the massive social and environmental problems facing us. If individuals can decide to be more empathetic, why not societies? If all of us (including parents; teachers; politicians; religious and cultural leaders) consistently choose to frame empathy as a virtue, and encourage its practical expression, maybe we can transform the current norm of bad-tempered engagement into something more constructive. We need to talk about empathy.