On April 21, 2018 former first lady Barbara Bush was laid to rest. She was 92, the wife of our 41st President and the mother of our 43rd. Two former Presidents, Barbara’s son, George W. and Obama shook hands with the clear aim being the consolation at the death of a mom. The photo dispells the very title of today’s show – the death of empathy. But not really.
Empathy, as a widespread, viral-like experience may not be dead, but she’s on life-support. Greater Good Magazine, produced by the University of California at Berkley, defines empathy like this…
The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.
Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats. Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves. Research has also uncovered evidence of a genetic basis to empathy, though studies suggest that people can enhance (or restrict) their natural empathic abilities.
Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.
Psychology Today tells us 6 things about empathy that may help our conversation.
Empathy and sympathy aren’t synonymous. According to them we feel sympathy for others when we identify with their situation. But that feeling – sympathy – doesn’t necessarily connect us to that person or what they’re feeling. Proven by the fact that we can be sympathetic to somebody’s situation and have no idea about their feelings or thoughts. Sympathy rarely urges us to take action – except for writing checks to make donations. Sympathy, according to Psychology Today, doesn’t build a connection. Empathy does. As they write, “Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy involves feeling with them.”
Empathy isn’t intuition. Research has shown that it’s both unconscious and it’s also supported by what’s going on in our brain. Neuroscience reveals that when we see others in pain it activates the parts of our brain that register pain. It appears that empathy is feeling, brain chemistry and physiology. Much of it stems from our ability, or lack of ability, to employ systematic thinking to read others.
Empathy engages specific neural circuitry in our brain. Our ability to mimic and mirror others is a capacity that takes place in specific areas of the brain.
Empathy is learned. The capacity for it is in us, but we learn it. All of us who have raised kids know that little kids have a difficult time regulating their emotions. Infants learn from the adults who surround them. Identifying with them helps kids learn to regulate their emotions. Being swept up in somebody else’s emotions isn’t empathy, by the way.
The capacity for empathy varies by individual. Today we hear a phrase that’s reasonably new to our vernacular, emotional intelligence. Sometimes you’ll hear it referred as EQ. It’s our ability to know what we’re feeling, to distinguish it from other emotions and to our emotions to better inform our thinking. Our EQ can make it harder or easier to be empathetic. Clearly, the more connected we are with our own emotions, the greater it seems our capacity to feel for others. But it’s also about our connectivity with others, not just ourselves. People who are isolated and loners may be less likely to display empathy than those who are well connected socially.
Empathy might be about more than just the individual. Some researchers have found that empathy depends on “what others are willing or able to tell about themselves.” In other words, the person for whom we feel empathy is as important as we are, the person feeling empathy.
In a study of Dutch school children, they found that kids were more empathetic when reminded by a teacher to “be a good classmate,” but that empathy declined when it came to choosing sides for a game. Friends who were chosen last and were upset about it were comforted; mere classmates who felt this way were labeled “crybabies.” Social convention and contexts play a role in how empathic a person is in a given situation, regardless of the individual capacity for empathy.
Hopefully, that provides you with a bit of insight and more food for thought about empathy. I confess it’s a deep subject filled with nuances that I don’t claim to fully understand. Truth is, I’m just knowledgeable enough to be dangerous about how it works, but I’m plenty smart enough to know the power of empathy. And I’m a lifelong practitioner.
Just here let me interject a thought or two about something that’s congruent with empathy. Observation. Presence.
By observation, I mean paying attention. Noticing things. Noticing people. I used to think this was universal. I’ve learned it’s not. And yes, I’m empathetic to people who don’t easily and naturally notice things. I’ve no idea how to help anybody improve it necessarily, but I’m thankful it’s not hard for me.
I grew up hearing about elite athletes who had various physical skills. The one skill I envied most was speed. I was quick, but I was never fast. I’m built more for comfort. 😉
The kids who could run fast fascinated me. How could they do that? I had no idea. My feet and legs just couldn’t do it.
At some point, I heard TV commentators or somebody talk about a professional athletes vision. They didn’t mean the athlete needed no glasses. They mean the player could see things others couldn’t, or could see them more quickly. I grew up hearing it applied mostly to football running backs and quarterbacks. Well, I knew I had that because I knew I was a noticer. I didn’t think about it. It was just some auto-pilot thing that I never thought about really.
Later in life, in business, it became very clear that it was one of the very limited super powers I had. My retailing career started early and ended about a decade ago. Largely, my success in retailing was because I noticed things. Every little thing.
Every day I go to a local gym. It’s a national chain and it’s a large complex. This particular chain seems to enjoy moving managers around frequently. I’ve never known a manager to be in one place for more than months. This is important because I’m always curious to see what changes if any, the new replacement will make. FYI, they rarely do anything different than the last, as least as far as I can tell. But I’m just a customer, so what do I know?
Turns out. Quite a lot. For example, I’m a clean freak when it comes to a retail experience. That includes shops, restaurants, and my gym. This gym has an outside cleaning crew that comes frequently. They move the dirt around pretty well. They don’t clean much, but they approach their work with all the vigor of 15-year-old hound dog on a hot Texas summer day. At least weekly (likely much more often), I think of about what I’d do in the first hour if I were to run the place! I’d pull an all-hands-on-deck cleaning jamboree. I’m daily amazed at how little attention is paid to things that I don’t deem “details,” but things that are just basic, good business. Lately, my pet peeve is the hand sanitizer dispensers being empty. Or the paper towel dispensers being empty. Inexcusable. But that’s the noticer and the business guy in me. I can’t help it. Well, maybe I could, but I don’t want to.
Presence isn’t just being in a particular place. You may prefer words like focus or concentration. Or the phrase, paying attention. Once again, my lifelong profession of being an operator, a retailer, proves the point. Constantly I would preach and train employees to be present with each shopper. Have you ever gone up to a counter of a store, or walked into a store and been ignored? The person behind the counter isn’t helping another customer. They’re just indifferent to the fact that you’re standing there. They’re not present. That lack of presence hacks you off (it should). Again, inexcusable.
Let me pick on my gym again. You walk in, go up to the counter and type your phone number into a keypad, then put your finger on a little reader that identifies you are who you say you are. Some days – in fact, most days – there’s a friendly person who greets me. But the funny thing is when the manager and her apparent right-hand person are behind the counter, they’re engaged in conversation and they never look up at me. It’s fine. But I think about that leadership – or lack of – and wonder how long it may be before I have to find another location to visit. Of course, I’ve only been a customer for 15 years or so, so what do I matter, right?
Hopefully, you can see how these two things are congruent with empathy – observation and presence. If I’m like the manager of my gym, busy with whatever I’m busy with and immune to notice a client 3 feet away, then how empathetic am I liable to be? Not very! And if I can’t or won’t notice the client 3 feet away then how can I possibly be present with and for them? In my mind, I’ve fired this manager more times than I can count. She may be spectacular at filling out reports back to corporate. I suspect she’s really good at the stuff corporate cares about. She just sucks at observation and presence. I’m betting she lacks empathy, too. 😀
Okay, let me pull back the curtain in case you didn’t fully understand my snarkiness there. Truth is, I’m empathetic toward the manager of my gym. This woman is a mature 40-ish lady who I’m sure has competencies important to her role. But my business acumen and my empathy make me aware that she’s following leadership at the corporate level who likely measure and care about some things, while thinking other things – the stuff I’ve pointed out – aren’t quite so urgent. That’s fine, of course. They can be wrong. Because I know I’m right! 😉
I see her in her office on her computer. Quite often. Sometimes the door is closed and it’s evident she’s on her phone. I’ve been a customer for long enough to have seen this movie before. She’s on the phone with management. She’s completing reports. She’s doing what corporate wants. And in a few months, when her replacement arrives, they’ll do exactly what she’s doing. They always do. Nothing will change so far as my experience as a customer. The machine will just keep on rolling until something drastic causes leadership to implement a change. I’m always (and easily) empathetic with folks who are carrying the water of leadership, even if leadership can’t find their way out of a wet paper bag.
It’s illustrative of why empathy may be dying. Lack of understanding. Lack of tolerance for others. And I’m not talking about tolerating bad behavior or foolishness. I’m talking tolerating a gym manager who has to please a boss who may have skewed priorities. It’d be easy for me to hacked. Given my business background, I likely am more frustrated by this than the average gym member. Mostly, I feel badly for the company because I know things – their performance – could be so much better! Nothing is stopping them from being better except their own willingness to commit to it. But it’s their company and they can run it as they see fit. And that introduces another part of this that I think about…judgment.
Now before you go off thinking judgment is a bad thing consider driving your car to work. How do you determine the route you’ll take? How do you approach an intersection where the light turns yellow? What about your approach at a 4-way stop? When do you decide to get gas in your car? Do you wait until the light comes on? These are all judgments you make. You assess what’s going on and figure out how you’ll react. That’s necessary judgment.
I notice, or judge that my gym has some issues that could be easily fixed, but they’re unimportant to management. What I don’t do – again, this comes naturally easy to me – is infer that this is being done simply to make my life miserable. I don’t harshly judge the gym manager as inept. I rather doubt she is. She could easily satisfy corporate AND be a great noticer who creates a remarkable facility. And she’d likely stand out from her peers. But she’d have to deploy greater effort and concentration. She’d have to notice things she’s not necessarily rewarded by corporate to notice. She’d have to do things they clearly don’t reward. That means she’d have to be fully cooperative with corporate while being a contrarian at the same time. I realize that’s not easy. Doable, but not easy. I wish for her sake she’d find a way because I know it would make her top notch and remarkable.
I’m talking about the kind of judgment that disrupts empathy – the judging people do when others don’t do what they want them to do, or what they think they should do. That’s what happens we “should” people. “You should (fill in the blank with whatever we’d like people to do).”
Selfishness is the culprit. Roll it all up and that’s the enemy. Selfishness. We’re entirely too focused on ourselves. And what we want. Or what we think we need. As long you fit into that by giving me what I want, then I’m good. But the second you start to roll in a way not in keeping with what’s best for me, as I see it, then I’m hacked. And you’re a bad person! Me? Well, I’m a victim of your bad behavior, poor choices and unwillingness to do what I ask. So long, Empathy. It was good considering you briefly, but you’re in my way now!
His name was Rocky. Like all Westies (he was a White West Highland Terrier; commonly called Westies) he’d cock his head when he was puzzled. You may be puzzled, too. I often am. Which is why I’m always asking questions. And I’m great at it – asking questions, that is. By the way, I lost Rocky a few years ago and he gave me quite a lot. I gave him a lot, too. In a word, love!
Today’s question is pretty stinking ancient, but it’s not as ancient as another question that is asked more, “What do you have to give me?” Flip it and let’s not think about ourselves from a “getting” perspective but from a “giving” perspective.
But let’s start with keeping score. I’m competitive, but I’m not a scorekeeper. I’m am blessed. Grateful.
I’m a baby boomer, born in an old-school era. Where kids could ride in the back of a pickup truck through town. And not be pulled over by cops.
I’m an American. A country with tremendous opportunities and freedoms.
I’m blessed with a ton of empathy. I was emotionally intelligent before I even knew that was a thing.
I’m an INFJ. Highly intuitive. Introversion (I), Intuition (N), Feeling (F), Judgment (J) — and it’s a blessing. I own it. Long ago I learned I might as well because I’m unable to change it.
I’m candid. And that’s a blessing, too.
I’m a speed freak. Okay, blessing and curse somewhat. No, much more a blessing.
Knowing who you are and how you have to roll isn’t keeping score. But there’s more.
You also have to know what you’re afraid of. We all have a ton of fear! Life has absolutely been terrific at teaching me that fear is THE culprit that spoils success. It paralyzes people. It gives people an excuse. Tons of them. It stops us before we even get started. And it’s almost always tied to somebody. Somebody close to us. Somebody we love. Somebody who may love us. Or may just say they do.
Fear causes us to hide. It feels safe, but it’s deceptive. Dangerous. It lulls us into behavior that wrecks any opportunities we have to achieve, grow and reach a higher capacity for our lives. Fear is a nasty, ridiculously effective enemy.
Why then would we wrap it around our shoulders like a comforter on a bitterly cold night?
Because it feels good. Sorta like eating half a dozen glazed donuts. Or one of those 2000 plus calorie concrete ice cream shakes from Sonic.
Because it seems like we’re convincing ourselves that we’re protecting ourselves. Operative word is, “seems.” Looks are sometimes deceiving.
What has this got to do with figuring out what we have to give? Everything.
Let’s look at this from your perspective. You’re no different than the rest of us. You want to be special. You want to feel like you’re valuable. To somebody. In some way.
That can fuel narcissism, an unhealthy focus thinking you’re all that and more — where you’re diluted thinking you’re somehow more special than everybody else. So you live your life intent on showing us the movie that is your life feigning interest in others only so you can get more attention for yourself. It’s all about you when you’re narcissistic. Let’s not likely you because you’re not paying me, or anybody else much attention if you’re really that self-centered. Unless you think there’s something we can do to shine a brighter light on you. And my little light runs on two AA batteries so I’m no help at all. 😉
You’re special. But you’re no more special than me, or anybody else. Do you really think we all have value? That we all have the potential to bring value to the world, in some way? Come on, be honest! That’s the problem with unfair, harsh judgment and prejudice. This has nothing to do with the actual value provided because clearly there are people who don’t provide value. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them. It just means, for some reason, they choose not to deliver. They decided not to give. Maybe they decided they’d just focus on taking. Too busy doing that to give anything of value to others. It happens.
It’s why people grow discontented. And suffer envy. Jealousy. It’s why you get sucked into measuring yourself by what’s going on with other people. In spite of the truth that what’s going on with them has no bearing on you and your life. Unless you let it. Which is stupid.
Your neighbor pulls a brand new Tesla into their driveway. Suddenly, you and your Toyota feel inferior. Like a failure. Just another instance of the dangers of comparing yourself to anybody else. Their Tesla has nothing to do with you…but suddenly it does. Because you let it. We need to stop it. And it’s hard. Really hard for some of us.
I get it. I’ve been there. I’m a baby boomer. We grew up chasing and pursuing it hard.
You know what I love about minimalism, the tiny house movement and all the talk about frugal living? Because they’re congruent with how I really see the world. Chasing materialism goes against everything I believe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with owning a Tesla, or a Bentley if that’s what you want. Just leave me alone if I don’t follow you down that path. ‘Cause those don’t matter one whit to me. I love the margin that affordability offers. Enter my admiration for those things like minimalism.
That may not feel good to you. That’s fine. Just don’t gauge my life by your measuring stick. And don’t expect me to gauge my life the way you may gauge yours.
It’s freedom. It’s a start toward lowering your fears, too.
Your lifestyle holds you hostage. You “need” so much money. Well, you think so. Because you’ve got stuff. Your stuff owns you. And man is that a rotten place to be. Crowded, too.
Focus on yourself. Stop focusing so much on yourself. It’s the paradox of contradiction. The zig and the zag. The Yin and the Yang.
Besides regret, what are you afraid of?
I’m afraid of losing people who matter to me. Because I know that’s likely as I grow older.
Most of us have people-based fears. We don’t want to disappoint somebody. We want somebody’s approval. Or respect. It’s likely our parents or a spouse. But honestly, it’s like your neighbor’s Tesla. It’s got nothing to do with you, but it’s also got everything to do with you. It’s YOU. Not them.
We get things wrong in our own head, which is why I’m so fascinated by our brains and our minds. New flash: what you think matters! We’ve talked about that quite a lot here inside The Yellow Studio. For good reason. What we think and what we believe changes things. Changes everything.
Back in episode 5001 – the first episode of this new iteration of LTW – I talked about a book that I hadn’t yet read, “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One,” by Dr. Joe Dispenza. Well, I started reading that book last week. When I’m finished I’ll do a show about what I learned so you can learn it, too. But I’m far enough into it to confirm what we all know is THE difference maker. How we think and what we believe.
It’s so fundamentally valuable because it determines our actions. And how long we’ll stay with something to make it work. It’s the linchpin to our success. In anything.
That matters because it’s at the heart of today’s topic, the question – What do you have to give?
You may think you have nothing. You may even believe that. Well, then you’re right. Not technically, but practically. First, you have to find value in yourself so you can determine where you can provide value to others.
For instance, there are many things I’ve learned about myself. Things that are natural, normal and feel just right for me. Because that’s how they are in my life, I can discount them and think, “That’s not so special.” Wrong.
Yesterday news broke that Lindsey Buckingham was quitting Fleetwood Mac. They’re planning a new tour. Depending on the news report you choose to believe, he quit or was fired. In his place will be two guys I really like. Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty’s band. And Tim Finn of Crowded House. Frankly, neither of them will be able to pull off being Lindsey Buckingham in my opinion, but that’s 3 guitar players who are all insanely good guitarists. Put a guitar in their hands and you get magic. Put a guitar in my hands and you’ve got a big bag of nothing!
But put me in touch with somebody who trusts me and is willing to share their troubles, and I’m a rockstar. I thrive on deep conversations. I love them. I love being a shoulder people can lean on. I don’t shy away from it. It’s who I am.
Just because you’re good at something…and it comes easily and naturally to you doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. You have to get past that kind of faulty thinking. Mike Campbell is a killer guitar player. According to Tom Petty, when he first met Mike it was clear Mike was a natural. So because he’s a natural and it’s easy for him we don’t think he’s good? Wrong. We all bow to his prowess. He’s terrific. You are, too — at something!
The crux of it is to figure that out. And to think of our contribution. What we have to give!
Put that upfront. Not what you need. Not what you want to get. But what you want to DO. What you have to give. Something that is naturally easy for you that is valuable. Not necessarily in terms of money (but maybe). Something that other people likely already see in you. If you’re young, maybe they don’t yet see it, but you do. Or you suspect it’s what you’ve got to give.
Magical things start happening. We get less focused on ourselves and more focused on others. We increase our gratitude for what we’ve got, growing less focused on what we lack. Our energy is elevated as we’re doing what feels right, and natural for us. The more we do it, the better it gets. The more expansive things become.
It doesn’t have to be some “save the planet” type deal. It just has to be “save the moment” type deals. I can spend an hour or more on the phone listening to somebody’s troubles and ask some questions along the way to provoke deeper thought – and hopefully to help provide greater clarity – and I’m foolish enough to think I’m going to change somebody’s life (that’d be wonderful if it happened). I am practical enough to know that I’m very likely changing a moment though — and that’s what I have to give. And I’m good with the bigness of that.
You just gave me quite a few moments. I hope I changed them in a positive way for you. That was my goal all along!