LEARNING TO WALK IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES: Empathy is not only one of the key abilities linked with great leadership, it is the new hit wonder for everybody. It will improve your career, your bank account balance and your life. But what is it? And can we improve our capacity for it?
Just like the Christmas tree, the gummy bear and the Vokuhila hairdo (check out pictures of players in the German soccer league, the Bundesliga, in the 80’s if you are unsure of what that is), the word empathy comes from Germany. Or rather it was introduced into the English language by the psychologist Edward B. Titchener as a translation of the German term Einfühlung used by the German philosopher Theodor Lipps.
The German word literately means ‘Feeling into’, and this is exactly what happens in empathy. We feel into each other’s emotional life. When a colleague, friend or family member is sad, we have the ability to vicariously feel what the other is going through. Empathy is – simply put – ‘the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes’.
Of course we can never know exactly what the other is going through. As with all good things in the world there is a limit. You can’t feel it like I feel it. If you experienced the world exactly as me, you would in fact be me. When we are having dinner, you can never know what the fish tastes like for me. But you can imitate the feeling of delight I have when I am eating it.
Can we train it?
Some researchers suggest that mirror neurons are the neural mechanism behind this amazing capability. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire not only when you yourself do an act, but also when you see someone else doing that act. Mirror neurons are, however, outside our conscious control. If empathy was only about mirror neurons, there would be no deliberate empathy – and there would be no way to train it. Research supports the view that empathy is something we can at least partly control and train. According to one group of theories, empathy is a simulation process by which we imitate the feelings of others.
We come to have similar feelings like another person, simply because we are equipped with a similar mental machinery. If I can imagine what it is like to be you in your current situation, I can feel what it is like to go through this situation for you because I have a capacity for feeling emotions that (hopefully) in many ways resembles yours. This is a powerful tool.
But there are some road blocks on our way. Someone else’s shoes rarely fit us.
If I have to imagine being you, I have to be able to inhibit all my own beliefs and desires about the world, and take on yours. This is not an easy task. Numerous experiments show how we are egocentrically biased.
Empirical evidence reveals risk of self-projection
Empirical evidence from psychological studies shows that knowledge possessors tend to assume that others possess the same knowledge. Simulation so to speak invites the risk that one’s own genuine mental states will contaminate the process so we project our self-perspective onto the other.
Let me give you an example from a study of the prediction of hypothetical states of hunger and thirst. Participants were asked to predict the feelings of a described group of hikers lost in the woods with neither food nor water. They made these predictions either before or after vigorous exercise, which presumably made them thirsty and warm. Those who had just exercised were more likely to predict that the hikers would be more bothered by thirst than by hunger.
The study concluded that people predict how others feel by imagining how they themselves would feel in their situation, and so they are not able to immediately inhibit their self-perspective. We need to keep this in mind, if we want to improve our ability to empathize.
4 ways to improve empathy:
- Set yourself aside. Try inhibiting your own beliefs and personality and adopt the view of the other.
- Ask questions. The more knowledge you have about the background and situation of others, the better your ability to take their view.
- Use your imagination. Imagination is a power of the human mind to reckon with and a key stone in empathy. Use your capacity for imagination to understand what a situation feels like for the other without getting yourself caught up in the feelings as your own. Empathy is other-directed. It is about imagining being the other, not about how you would feel in that particular situation.
- Practice. Practice. Practice. Empathizing is harder than you think, so try as often as you can to deepen your empathic understanding of others. At meetings, dinners, everyday conversations try to set aside your own view of the world, and take a dive into the feelings of the other.
Goldman, A.: Simulating Minds. The Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience of Mindreading. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006)
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