give and take

January 28, 2019

We are often told that when it comes to communication skills, listening is every bit as important as talking. The ability to listen, process, and respond to what other people are saying is one of the primary ways in which we learn and acquire knowledge, and it is also highly important in terms of building trust and establishing relationships. Both of these are crucial skills sets for a manager or
a leader.

But listening involves much more than just hearing the words. We also have to be able to understand the intention and meaning of those words. ‘How’ things are said is often more important than ‘what’ is said, and that extends to non-verbal cues such as body language as well. I once sat in on a meeting where a manager was asked about the financial performance of a project he was running. He spoke confidently and clearly, giving us all assurance that the project was on track and running within budgetary limits. The only problem was that the moment he began to speak, his face flushed bright red. He was of course lying.

Those kinds of cues are easy to spot. Harder to interpret and understand are signs of discomfort or distress, perhaps unrelated to the subject of the conversation, which may be affecting the other person’s cognitive judgement. Then there are a whole range of other issues around culture, personal background, education, and so on that affect a person’s worldview. No two of us see the world in quite the same way, and sometimes those differences in understanding lead to confusion. We think a person is saying one thing, when in fact they mean another.

One way of getting over these differences is to use empathy, the ability to see and hear things from the perspective of the other person. What is going on in their mind when they are speaking to you? What is their mental framework, and how does it differ from your own? What is the real message they are trying to get across?

the nature of empathy

Most people have some ability to empathize with others, although research has shown that people with conditions related to autism tend to score lower on tests of empathic understanding. (There is also some evidence that women are more naturally inclined to empathy than men, who are more likely to take a process-oriented view of the world.) Empathy itself probably stems from our natural desire for ‘belongingness’, to feel part of a peer group or kinship group, which in turn feeds into our own sense of self-worth. Neuroscientists have established several points in the brain that seem to be the sources of empathic understanding, and there is a close neural relationship between empathy and trust. Our brains are hardwired to understand other people, because it is only through understanding them that we can trust them and build the social and professional relationships we need.

Empathy exists on several levels. The two most important are emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. In the first, also known as affective empathy, we respond to cues about other peoples’ emotional states. If they are sad, we are sad for them; if they are happy, we share in their happiness. This happens at a largely unconscious level, and indeed, particularly in the case of sadness, we may even empathize against our will; we may not ‘want’ to feel sad, but if we are in the presence of someone who is sad, we cannot help but be affected by this. Emotional empathy appears to develop when we are very young; studies have shown that children as young as two years old will be come distressed if other children are distressed around them.

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is a conscious process whereby we deliberately put ourselves into someone else’s frame of reference and try to understand what they are feeling or thinking. This form of empathy has been understood and discussed for a long time. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith (more famous as the author of The Wealth of Nations) stated that ‘to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish actions…and indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.’ Smith’s contemporary, philosopher David Hume, agrees with this and noted further that we are more likely to be able to empathize with people who are similar to ourselves and also in close physical proximity. We can understand how our neighbors think and feel, but when it comes to people from another culture on the far side of the world, many of us will struggle.

barriers to empathy

What hinders us from empathizing with other people? The principal barrier is lack of knowledge. If we do not know who the other person is, what their background is, where they come from, how they were reared and educated and so on, we will find it more difficult to understand their mindset. As a consequence, we cannot expect to meet someone for the first time and immediately empathize with them, at least, not unless we have first done a great deal of background research on that person. Generally speaking, empathy takes time to develop, and requires us to invest in building a relationship so that we can learn more about people. That is every bit as true in the business and professional world as it is in personal life.

Cultural differences, as Hume indicated, can form an important barrier to empathy. Because people from other cultures do not do things they way we do them, or do not think the way we think, we struggle to understand who they are. We become confused by small visual cues. In Anglo-Saxon cultures, smiling is seen as an important way of establishing trust, but in some Slavic cultures, the opposite is true; people who smile too much are distrusted, as excessive smiling is seen as a way of ingratiating oneself with others. Body language means different things, as do words. Take the case of a foreign business manager, arriving in Britain for the first time and having a conversation with their local counterpart. At the end of the conversation the British manager says, ‘We must have lunch some time.’ The foreigner could be forgiven for thinking this is an invitation to lunch. In fact, it is the opposite; it is a form of dismissal. ‘We must have lunch’ really means, ‘We will never have lunch.’

Cultural differences lead to uncertainty about other people and what their behavior really means. The same is true of different social and educational backgrounds, which themselves lead to forms of sub-culture within cultures. Children who receive education from expensive private schools will be able to empathize easily with each other, but might struggle to empathize successfully with pupils from poor state schools. Again, uncertainty about who the other person is and how they think becomes a barrier to understanding, and hence of empathy.

Sometimes, these barriers to understanding are deliberately erected. People may refuse to empathize or understand other people, very often for reasons based in fear. The refugee or ‘migrant’ crisis in Europe over the last few years has led to a great deal of barrier-setting. Rather than trying to understand why refugees from war, poverty, and environmental degradation are trying to get to Europe, many people choose instead to ignore the reasons for their flight and concentrate instead on keeping them out. Sociologists refer to this as the fear of the ‘other’. People who do not look like us or think like us or share our beliefs are a threat to the status quo, and must be kept out. From this perspective, empathy is dangerous; if we stop and try to understand the mindset of the refugees, we might begin to sympathize with them, and then weaken our resolve and let them in.

practising empathy

As noted, empathy is very valuable when establishing trust and building relationships, so how can we become more empathetic? How we can improve our ability to empathize?

There are psychologists and consultants who offer empathy training, which purports to help us become more empathic, but there is no real evidence that such training works. Studies have shown that people who have undertaken empathy training and then take empathy awareness tests score pretty much the same as they did before training.

Improving our ability to empathize has to come from within ourselves. Experience is one important factor; the more we learn about the world and about other people, then generally speaking, the easier we find it is to empathize. Exposure to diversity is particularly important. Getting to know people from other backgrounds and walks of life and from other cultures helps us to better understand them, and that helps us to empathize with other people from similar backgrounds and cultures. Looking at my own experience, I am better able to empathize with people from India than I was twenty years ago, simply because I have worked in India, studied Indian culture and history, and had many Indian colleagues and clients. I am not an expert by any means, but I am better able to understand and empathize than someone who has never travelled in India and whose only exposure to Indian culture is chicken tikka masala (which was invented in Britain in any case).

Open-mindedness is also crucial, and that is an attribute that probably most of us need to improve. By open-mindedness, in this case, I mean simply opening up and being willing to try to understand other people. The artificial barriers we erect to keep out the ‘other’ need to be torn down; instead of walls, we need to build bridges. The first step in empathy is being willing to empathize. Of course, this may not always be easy. We need to overcome our fears, both real and imagined, and perhaps take a few risks in order to get to know other people. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the reward is worth the risk.

can there be too much empathy?

At first thought, the response to this question would seem to be known. Lack of empathy and understanding of other people is a critical problem in both business and society. In business in particular, we are often so focused on ourselves, our careers, our goals, our needs, that we give insufficient thought to other people.

But in trying to empathize with others, it is possible to go too far. Cognitive empathy can lead us to forget our own frame of reference and worldview and start to adopt that of the other person. The most extreme example of this is Stockholm syndrome, whereby kidnap victims begin to identify with their kidnappers and share their values. But again in business settings we can see how particularly charismatic managers or leaders will persuade others around them to change their perspective and adopt the views and ideas and values of that charismatic figure. There are obvious ethical issues here. So long as the influence is exerted for benign ends, we could say that no harm is done, but all too often the charismatic figure is engaged in projects that are harmful to the organization, such as corruption.

When empathizing, we always need to reserve a degree of objectivity. We must understand the other person’s position and know why they are saying what they are saying if we are to truly understand them. But we must also reserve judgement until we fully understand their meaning. Sense-making requires us to put what they are saying into the context of what we already know and analyze it fully to see how valid it is. Failure to do this can lead us to make errors of judgement that could be just as dangerous as not listening at all.

Empathy is a powerful thing, and those who can master the skills of empathy can gain great insights and learn much about other people, and themselves. But empathy, like communication, also needs to go both ways. If you can empathize with others but they cannot empathize with you, then lack of understanding will persist. Be empathetic, but also be open and honest so others can empathize
with you.