A World Without Empathy?

“Empathy is so yesterday” was the headline of an article in Sunday’s Boston Globe. A scary thought not only for personal relationships, but for workplace relationships, all communication and, frankly, all human interaction.

The article’s author, Keith O’Brien, shared new research findings that, despite the endless opportunities to connect and update people about every detail of their lives, today’s college students are “40% less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.” (University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research study).

Apparently today’s college students know more and care less.

If the study is right, then is declining empathy the reason why we’re seeing more frequent incidents of bullying?  Is lack of empathy to blame for the increase in hate-mongering and rage-filled communication (or is political calculation more to blame for that)?

Beyond empathy’s role in creating a society in which we want to live, being empathetic is critical to success…in just about everything.   You can’t lead without relating to your followers.  You can’t manage without thinking about your team members, their strengths, needs and motivation.  You can’t introduce a new product without understanding who will want to buy it and why.  You can’t persuade an audience to adopt your point of view, without first understanding — and respecting — what that audience feels about your topic and you.

And beyond understanding our followers, team members and customers, we need to actually care about them; relate to their joys and pains.

Aaron L. Pincus, professor of psychology at Penn State says, empathy is “not just putting oneself in another’s shoes.  It’s truly grasping what they’re experiencing…Your emotional state will move in a direction more similar to the person you’re empathizing with.”

Here are just three eminders for those of us who’ve already graduated college (so not represented in the grim current statistics), but who may not always exude empathy:

  1. When preparing to engage in a difficult conversation, we need to push beyond our own frame of reference (and anxiety) to anticipate how what we have to say will be heard — and felt — by the other person.
  2. When looking to boost performance or productivity, make the goal personal and relatable to each member of the team.  It’s not good enough to focus on what would motivate us, rather what will motivate them in their situations, with their needs and wants.
  3. Genuinely care about the people you work with and not just their title, organizational role and responsibilities.

Personally, I care deeply and can’t imagine living in a world without empathy.

2 Responses to “A World Without Empathy?”

  1. Interesting post, Beryl. Lots of research coming out on burnout and decreased empathy, especially in medicine — training in mindful communication seems to help.

  2. Beryl Loeb says:

    Love the concept of “mindful communication.” Mindful implies being present and interested in the moment. Tuned in to not only yourself but others and the situational context. Thoughtful and with intent. Great!

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