The empathy imperative

Nov 01, 2018
Empathy isn’t only helping us connect with the feelings of others, it also hones our own self-awareness, aiding us in building and nurturing healthy relationships.


When asked about artificial intelligence (AI), Amos Tversky, psychologist and long-time collaborator of Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kahnerman, replied, “We study natural stupidity.” Tversky wasn’t saying that humans are stupid, only that we have a propensity for emotional reasoning. Indeed, it is this ‘emotional stupidity’ and emotional intelligence (EI) that sets us apart from machines. 

Despite rapid advances in emotional recognition algorithms, it is unlikely that machines will manage to simulate the most human of EI skills – empathy – any time soon. Why? Because empathy requires both feeling and imagination. It is the ability not only to understand others’ perspectives but to attune emotionally to them so that we ‘feel’ what they are feeling. Like a social radar we use to read the mood of a room, or the political currents of an organisation we enter, empathy is a uniquely human skill. And while at times it seems akin to a sixth sense, empathy, through focused effort and regular practice, can be learned. 

To ‘feel’ the feelings of others, we must first channel our own. This begins by learning to recognise visceral signals inside our own body and what they are telling us. What feelings do the physiological signs preempt? What triggers them? By honing our self-awareness in this way and learning to quieten our inner chatter during interactions with others, we can gradually form a base for empathetic social-awareness.

For those who find this a challenge, here are a few suggestions to help with one-to-one collegial interactions.

  • Take an active interest in the experiences and the concerns of colleagues and be ready to reciprocate. 
  • If a colleague seems emotionally burdened, show a healthy concern for their wellbeing.
  • Be ready to listen if they care to share. Do so with compassion and without judgement and without trying to ‘fix’ them.
  • If you feel that an experience from your past might help, offer to share it, but curtail talk about yourself. Remember this is about their circumstances, not yours.
  • If values differ widely, to attune, you might try some method acting. For example, if a colleague is distraught at the loss of their cat but you are not a pet lover, you might revisit how you felt at the loss of a loved-one of your own. But maintain a healthy objectively so as not to exacerbate the situation.
  • If you simply cannot attune to what the person is feeling, rather than avoid reflecting altogether, consider saying something like, ‘I can’t imagine how you are feeling.’

Empathy requires practice. Observe people interacting in different social settings whenever possible. Pay attention to how their moods change and learn to identify related emotional cues. Avail of every opportunity to practice your listening and emotional response skills, particularly with friends and family.  

Here are some tips for developing empathy in work-groups:

  • At meetings, avoid excessive note-taking. Instead, focus on the speakers and what is going on around you. Make occasional eye contact. Observe how others respond to their facial expressions, body language, verbal cues and tone of their voices. Notice how these signals relate to the thrust of the meeting and the mood in the room. 
  • Pay attention to timing, particularly when you are contributing.
  • Observe others that you consider naturally possess empathy.
  • If you continue to have difficulty, consider engaging the help of a trusted mentor.
Through developing empathy, we learn to appreciate difference, embrace diversity and nurture healthy relationships with those around us. Any time invested in developing this competence is time spent future-proofing our careers, not only towards AI but against potential relationship blunders.