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Developing Empathy as a Business Skill

On September 15, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel in New York City on the topic of teaching ethics in business schools.

The talk was led by Dr. Mary Gentile, Director of the Business Curriculum at Babson Collage and author of “Giving Voice to values,” and my good friend Peter Ressler, Partner at RGM Search and author of “Spiritual Capitalism.” During the Q&A session, Peter noted that this day was the two-year anniversary of Lehman’s file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which marks the beginning of the financial collapse and “The Great Recession.” As we discussed the myriad causes that led to this collapse, the word “greed” seemed to recur. I noted, though, that under greed, perhaps the root cause, along with almost everything else that ails us, is narcissism.

Narcissism can be defined as,

A pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition.

Because the only person who is real to the narcissist is himself, he can not feel what others are feeling, and expects others to conform to his needs. As the light bulb joke tells us;

How many narcissists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one -- but he has to wait for the whole world to revolve around him.

The most telling feature of narcissism, therefore, is the lack of empathy, since empathy occurs when you experience events and emotions the way that the other person experiences them -- when you put yourself in another’s shoes -- something a narcissist can not do. Empathy is different than sympathy or compassion, which are self-referential. When I am sympathetic or compassionate I ask myself, “What would I feel like in your situation?” When I am empathic I want to know and feel what the experience is like for you. Empathy is the opposite of narcissism, when I step out of myself, and allow your thoughts and emotions to enter my awareness. The great value of empathy is that it counters our tendency toward narcissism. This is especially needed in a culture that often focuses so heavily on the individual’s desires: beauty, fame, wealth, prestige. I suggested that the root cause of the financial collapse is narcissism because it led people to take actions with oblivion to the consequences to others.

Empathy is not a mental construct, an object of self-investigation, or a moral choice. Instead, it is a living experience of another’s consciousness, which can be quite different than your own. Although this may sound, at first, almost magical, (how can we experience someone else’s inner life?) empathy is an innate human ability. According to many developmental psychologists, empathy is a natural state that first appears early in life, when the child first realizes the reality of other people, and begins to experience the feelings of other people. Why, then, is everyone not empathetic? The development of empathy can be stalled or stopped if the child is discouraged from feeling or showing emotions, is taught that other people are untrustworthy and are to be avoided, or if the parents are distant, severely critical, and dismissive of views that differ from their own. The child then may enter adulthood living in a defensive, self-referential bubble, afraid of getting lost in the emotions of others, or incapable of recognizing that other people feel differently. Then, developing empathy requires the courage to drop these defenses, the conscious intention to listen carefully to another, to look for non-verbal cues, and to patiently practice. “Work on empathy” has been my top New Year’s resolution for the last decade.

The good news is that we crave empathy, because in these moments we feel closer to our true nature, which is unity and connection. Perhaps this is one of the core functions and appeal of much art, literature, and movies. When we are moved by an artist’s vision, cry at the pain of a movie character, or are touched by a love story, we enter the emotions of another. We are not engaged in real empathy, though, because we are removed from the object of our empathy, and no interaction is possible. This experience is cathartic, and is a good training ground, but real empathy can only happen in relationships between real people. When we are in the presence of others and feel their thoughts and feelings we are propelled to take beneficial action for their benefit. Paradoxically, practicing empathy is the best thing that we can do for ourselves, fostering personal growth by allowing us to expand beyond our own personal limitations, and begin to dissolve the barriers that keep us isolated from others. Empathy helps us to be better parents, more loving spouses, more attentive friends, and more effective at our jobs. I even recently discovered a new approach to business marketing called “Empathy Selling” that teaches sales professionals how to develop empathy to increase sales and customer satisfaction (we must be remember, of course, that true empathy is not manipulative; it is not a “business tool.”)

One of my favorite movies has a very moving example of the power of empathy. Titled “13 Conversations About One Thing” this is a little known movie that features five concurrent stories about people searching for happiness. One of the stories follows a young cleaning woman who, in spite of her financial struggles and low status as a maid, is always upbeat and optimistic. She falls in love with a client whose apartment she cleans. While carrying one of his shirts to the dry cleaner, it slips out her hands, and as she runs in to the street to catch it she is hit by a car. The driver leaves her for dead on the sidewalk, where she is later found, barely alive. Facing months of painful recovery, she maintains a positive attitude. “This must have happened for a good reason” she tells herself. When she is well enough to walk, she return’s to her client’s apartment, clean shirt in hand. He greets her brusquely, though, is barely concerned about her accident, and then accuses her of stealing his watch (which she had carefully placed in a drawer). This is now too much for her, and she descends in to a deep depression, now convinced that her earlier attitude was a naïve delusion. Finally, one day she decides that life is not worth living, and considers stepping in to oncoming traffic. Looking across the street, she makes eye contact with one person out of the crowd. “People are so selfish… and predictable” she thinks. Then, unexpectedly, the man smiles at her; a warm, loving smile. “It was as if he was reading my mind,” she later tells a friend. “He looked at me and smiled, and suddenly the spell was broken.” Her sense of optimism returned, and she regained her belief in humanity’s basic goodness. The man moved on, never knowing that his one small empathetic act saved a woman’s life.

This of course is a movie. But perhaps invisible dramas such as this occur every day, and our awareness of the emotions and thoughts of others really does profoundly change lives. With the pull of personal ambition, the inclination to self-involvement, and the pull of narcissism, empathy often takes a back seat. But developing empathy is a lifelong pursuit, and even to those for whom it comes naturally, requires the commitment to care about others, with the knowledge that we are all responsible. As the great child psychologist Haim Ginott wrote;

It takes time and wisdom to realize that the personal parallels the universal and what pains one man pains mankind.